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Six scientists' sentence-shocker.
October 22, 2012 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Six natural disaster experts and one government official were sentenced today to six years in jail for not having warned the populace of the major earthquake that hit L'Aquila, Italy in April of 2009 (previously).

The National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, of which they were members, held a meeting six days prior to the quake, after several small tremors had been recorded in the region, and had ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the tremors would be followed by a large quake, in a judgment which reassured residents. One of the experts told a press conference that the situation was "normal" and even "favourable" because potentially destructive energy was being released through the tremors. The prosecution, which brought charges of multiple manslaughter, maintained that lives could have been saved had people not been persuaded by the assurances to remain in the area.

At the time, the Italian news had featured claims by an independent earthquake researcher, who had been predicting a major eathquake, based on radon emissions.

The 6.3 magnitude quake struck a week later, devastating L’Aquila, and causing over 300 victims. The scientists' defence argued that there is no current technological means that would have permitted the experts to predict the earthquake. They were charged for having provided “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” assessment of the seismological risk at the time. The judge has also imposed lifetime bans from holding public office on the defendants, and ordered them to pay compensation of €7.8m, with two million euros to be paid immediately. (Under the Italian system, the seven will remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal.)
posted by progosk (46 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Perhaps the scientists should announce a 50% likelihood of temblors, daily.
posted by bz at 2:05 PM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


That is an asinine sentence.
posted by rtha at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2012


The article touches on the response from the larger scientific community, but I'm curious what earthquake scientists working in Italy think of this ruling, and whether they will be thinking of leaving. This seems only a few steps removed from a pitchforked mob coming after the town doctor for a flu pandemic.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


You expect to see such craziness in a Douglas Adams book. So when do they start throwing the weather guy or gal into jail for getting the rain forecast wrong? Abject insanity.
posted by dbiedny at 2:09 PM on October 22, 2012


Indeed, it is impossible to predict whether an earthquake will or will not occur. Which is why these people who held very public office are being charged for predicting that no earthquake will occur and reassuring people.

From the Telegraph:
The court heard that Enzo Boschi, a member of the panel and a former director of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, allegedly told concerned locals: "I would reject (the possibility) of an earthquake."
posted by Authorized User at 2:11 PM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Coming on the heels of the spectacularly botched investigation of Meredith Kercher's murder (concluded last year), Italian justice has taken some major blows on the world stage. Local officials must be tearing their hair out about the damage to their country's reputation.
posted by Dreadnought at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, that is incredible. Do we know if the prosecution had other relevant scientists testifying that the accused's report was bad?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2012


Part of the problem has to be that the public can hear a scientist say "there's no way to accurately gauge the probability" and decide that it means the probability is low. I wonder how much of that is going on here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:14 PM on October 22, 2012


on the one hand, I agree that this would be bad news if scientists in general were being attacked for not predicting future events.

On the other hand, maybe there is a lesson in here about how scientists need to be careful when they join governmental committees and tell people what's going on. I mean, if I am on a board that predicts earthquakes, it would make sense for people to think I could do so. If people think I can do so, but really I can't, then maybe I should be worried about what happens when I am found out.

On the third hand, I bet that that's not what anyone really expected these people to do, and Italy is just using them as a scapegoat.
posted by rebent at 2:15 PM on October 22, 2012


I agree that this would be bad news if scientists in general were being attacked for not predicting future events.

What about the Pope, for not praying hard enough?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:23 PM on October 22, 2012 [16 favorites]


From the Telegraph:
The court heard that Enzo Boschi, a member of the panel and a former director of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, allegedly told concerned locals: "I would reject (the possibility) of an earthquake."


The Telegraph article linked in the fpp? I'm not seeing what you're quoting from that.
posted by rtha at 2:24 PM on October 22, 2012


rebent: " if I am on a board that predicts earthquakes"

There is no such thing. You can't predict earthquakes.
posted by notsnot at 2:24 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


A more nuanced article on what was at stake in the trial is here.

There are some subtle points being made by the prosecution, and full context would need to include an account of the political pressure put on the commission at the time by the head of the government Civil Protection force, Guido Bertolaso, accused by some for having wanted above all to avoid a general panic.

The true tragedy is the state of L'Aquila still today, and what should really be on trial is the criminal recklessness of town planners and construction companies, who all skirted the best practices so crucial in an area known for its seismic risk, along with the political roadshow that followed the quake, and whose promises have proved as empty as ever.
posted by progosk at 2:24 PM on October 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


weapons-grade pandemonium: "What about the Pope, for not praying hard enough?"
He's outside Italian jurisdiction.
posted by brokkr at 2:26 PM on October 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


The Telegraph article linked in the fpp? I'm not seeing what you're quoting from that.

Oh sorry, it's from an earlier article linked in the fpp article.
posted by Authorized User at 2:28 PM on October 22, 2012


"That is an asinine sentence."

Mea culpa. I wrote it to the best of my abilities.
posted by bz at 2:31 PM on October 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


A more nuanced article on what was at stake in the trial is here.

Thank you that is much more informative than the news reports.

Picuti (The main prosecutor) made it clear that the scientists are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. “Even six-year old kids know that earthquakes can not be predicted,” he said. “The goal of the meeting was very different: the scientists were supposed to evaluate whether the seismic sequence could be considered a precursor event, to assess what damages had already happened at that point, to discuss how to mitigate risks.” Picuti said the panel members did not fulfill these commitments, and that their risk analysis was “flawed, inadequate, negligent and deceptive”, resulting in wrong information being given to citizens.

And earlier
In particular Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy head of the department and among those indicted, said in a TV interview: “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy”

In short, they sat on a committee. And the prediction of the committee as far as was communicated to the people was that there was not going to be an earthquake. Not that they couldn't assess the risk, but that there was very little risk.
posted by Authorized User at 2:33 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well that's bullshit.

On the other, sort-of-less bullshit hand, first Italian justice tend to work on the basis of convicting first and sorting it out in appeals?
posted by Artw at 2:37 PM on October 22, 2012


I somewhat wonder if there's not a cultural angle I'm missing out on here that could clarify this situation but in general this is horrible. As a graduate student in geology it's. Not something I really liked to think was possible.
"At the time, they ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the tremors would be followed by a large quake, in a judgment which reassured residents. One of the group famously advised them to relax with a glass of wine."
Emphasis mine. That second part shouldn't follow from the first, and I was having trouble determining where the most blame ought to be (scientists or public) just from that sentence. And while telling people to relax could also be seen as saying a quake won't happen, I can't find anywhere where any of these scientists made a definite statement saying 'no, there will not be a quake'. "I would reject (the possibility) of an earthquake" could easily be a scientist stating his own (non-official) opinion to people he knows. There is too little context with that (alleged) quote.

Yes, I personally think they should have chosen their words more carefully, but again here I'm wondering if there isn't some cultural difference going on. And they're being charged for manslaughter and put away for six years, if this is successful.

The articles (which I assume are based on the investigations and court proceedings?) seem to be just as unhelpful at clarifying what was said in official capacity to elected officials meant to handle this information, and what was said in private statements, so I have no idea what to do with this. Maybe there needs to be a better separation in who the scientists are allowed to make these statements to. Are they supposed to speak to the public or are they only supposed to advise officials?

As a kind-of-side-note I'm also unclear as to what would have been done differently if the scientists had said 'there might be a quake' instead of what seems to be the equivalent of 'there probably won't be a quake'. Would they have evacuated the city? For how long? I understand that that isn't the scientists' decision to make, but currently we have no accurate way of predicting quakes. That's all there is to it.

This whole thing sets a very bad precedent, in my opinion.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 2:37 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Nature article that elaborates much more on the case.
posted by Authorized User at 2:48 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


For completists, there is a lengthy analysis, in Italian, here.

The more I read about this, the more it looks like the worst aspect about the whole thing is the disconnect between intentions and effect - both as concerns this Commission's work, and how their neutral, scientific demeanor was then broadcast, and as regards the drastically chilling effect this sentence (and its news-propagation) will have, with respect to the prosecutor's quite possibly sensical original aims.

I wonder: can there ever be sense/wisdom/justice where there is constant hubbub?
posted by progosk at 2:48 PM on October 22, 2012


I'm only hoping they'll go for the economists next.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 2:56 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


A Nature article that elaborates much more on the case.

This article is an absolute must-read if you want a better sense of what happened here. There was soooo much going on besides the simplistic "scientists convicted for failing to predict earthquakes" headline.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:57 PM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Thanks for that article, progosk. Lots more info there, much more complex than some of the other articles suggested.
Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy head of the department and among those indicted, said in a TV interview: “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy”, a statement that most seismologists consider to be scientifically incorrect.
If those were the exact words from their mouths that is indeed bad, but it's not immediately believable one way or another. There's too much room for bad paraphrasing here. Either way communication needs to be better. This is a problem across the board with science and the public, for what it's worth... it's something that I personally think needs to be paid more attention.
“... the scientists were supposed to evaluate whether the seismic sequence could be considered a precursor event, to assess what damages had already happened at that point, to discuss how to mitigate risks.” Picuti said the panel members did not fulfill these commitments, and that their risk analysis was “flawed, inadequate, negligent and deceptive”, resulting in wrong information being given to citizens.
God but I want more information about what was actually said/done in this meeting.
[Picuti] noted that in 1995 one of the indicted scientists – Franco Boschi, former president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) – had published a study that suggetsed a magnitude-5.9 earthquake in the L’Aquila area was considered highly probable within 20 years. Similarly, said that in 2009 INGV’s maps of seismic risk estimated the probability of a magnitude 5.5 shock in the following decade to be as high as 15%. Such data were not discussed at the meeting, as the minutes show.

“Had Civil Protection officials known this, they would probably have acted differently,” said Picuti. “They were victims of the seismologists”.
I still feel like I can't make many personal judgments without knowing everything that was actually said in these committees, but honestly the prosecution seems to have a workable case.

I do have to say, as the experts in this field, the onus should be on the scientists to make the risks as clear as possible. So the whole not mentioning their academic predictions (high risk within the next 20 years, etc.) is most definitely not good.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 3:01 PM on October 22, 2012


what about the banks ?
posted by Substrata at 3:01 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd be very careful if I was producing Italian fortune cookies.

New Italian Get Rich Quick Scheme:
1. Get lucky lotto numbers from a psychic.
2. Take a loan out at an Italian bank against future lottery winnings.
3. Sue the psychic if the numbers are wrong.
posted by paperzach at 3:02 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't find anywhere where any of these scientists made a definite statement saying 'no, there will not be a quake'. "I would reject (the possibility) of an earthquake" could easily be a scientist stating his own (non-official) opinion to people he knows. There is too little context with that (alleged) quote.

Based on that Nature article linked above, it seems that the most incriminating of the statements came from a non-scientist on the commission, Bernardo De Bernardinis. Here's a paragraph describing those statements:

What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo's civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting. In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

For Italian-speakers out there, here's the key interview with De Bernardinis.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:04 PM on October 22, 2012


It is indeed strange that they are going to prison for this, and stranger that no one is going to prison for failing to warn about or prevent the collapse of the Italian economy. I would be very surprised if the depression hasn't caused 300 deaths in Italy in person/years of lost life expectancy.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:39 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I heard on The World (an NPR show) that many of the victims were sleeping outside of their homes in relative safety (actually waiting for the quake) until the scientists essentially proclaimed that an earthquake was unlikely. Shortly after people moved back into harms way and were killed when the quake hit.

It sounds like this conviction, much the Knox conviction, is about getting a good slap for being stupid.
posted by snsranch at 4:07 PM on October 22, 2012


In California, it is a misdemeanor to predict an earthquake unless you are a state-licensed geophysicist or geologist. Unsurprisingly, no licensed geophysicist or geologist will make specific earthquake predictions. The California Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists has the authority to fine anyone $2500, revoke their business license, even order their phones disconnected, for violations of the Geologists and Geophysicists Act, and can prosecute in the courts with a potential sentence of 3 months in jail for Practicing Geology Or Geophysics Without A License.

I know of two quake crackpots that were shut down under these regulations. Hooray for science.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:13 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


This sounds like an episode of the Simpsons. Or maybe an Onion article. Or a third grader's science report quoting the Onion describing a Simpsons episode.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:25 PM on October 22, 2012


SO EYE-TALIANS DON'T UNDERSTAND SCIENCE ANY BETTER THAN AMERKINS. (I'LL BE SO GLAD WHEN THIS DAY IS OVER.)
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:53 PM on October 22, 2012


So who's going to jail on this global warming deal?
posted by BlueHorse at 5:00 PM on October 22, 2012


Let's say they had said the probability was high. What would they do about it? Evacuate the entire region? For how long?
posted by Brocktoon at 5:27 PM on October 22, 2012


I just want to remind you all that I've previously issued a warning about your potential death by monkey, and in the event that you are eaten by monkeys, the primatological community is not at fault.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:43 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Let's say they had said the probability was high. What would they do about it?

Begin performing seismic inspections of residential structures? Actively encourage the population to take reasonable safety measures (e.g. earthquake drills, stocking food and water, securing furniture and appliances, installing seismic shut-off gas valves)? There are plenty of actions that governments and individuals take in zones with high earthquake risk to minimize the danger to people.

There were big infrastructure problems that needed to be addressed, granted, but the solution to that isn't telling everyone that everything's A-OK and that the tremors are "releasing energy" that would otherwise cause a big quake. People were tense, and starting to panic, and the response of the government was not to address the real safety issues, but to convene a panel that essentially just told everyone that everything was going to be alright.

Obviously, it's not at all clear that this panel's actions amounted to manslaughter. But it is irresponsible of governments and scientists to respond to a real risk of natural disaster by assuring the public that that risk is not in fact real.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:51 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The only real protection from earthquakes comes from civil and structural engineering, not seismology. There's been some progress in early warning systems (triggered right after the earthquake initiates), but the real seismic work has been on understanding seismic hazard -- those maps that apparently the local civil protection authorities weren't familiar with:
Similarly, said that in 2009 INGV’s maps of seismic risk estimated the probability of a magnitude 5.5 shock in the following decade to be as high as 15%. Such data were not discussed at the meeting, as the minutes show.

“Had Civil Protection officials known this, they would probably have acted differently,” said Picuti. “They were victims of the seismologists”.
If the Civil Protection officials had never looked at a seismic hazard map prior to the meeting, they were being spectacularly negligent. If I'd been on that panel, I would have assumed that local officials would have been well familiar with that information.

It does sound to me like the official statement of the panel was seriously unwise. But in dissecting the wording of a government panel, I'm more inclined to blame the politicians, rather than the scientists who were brought in to participate in a government PR exercise. And making this a criminal rather than a civil matter is just nuts.
posted by irrelephant at 5:59 PM on October 22, 2012


mr_roboto, they should have done those things anyway, and therefore any government officials involved are equally accountable.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:08 PM on October 22, 2012


INGV’s maps of seismic risk estimated the probability of a magnitude 5.5 shock in the following decade to be as high as 15%. Such data were not discussed at the meeting, as the minutes show.

A 15% chance in a decade is equivalent to approximately 0.1% in the next month. This is nearly useless for predicting what to do in the short term.
posted by vasi at 7:49 PM on October 22, 2012


So who's going to jail on this global warming deal?

Why, the perpetrators of the myth, of course.
posted by homunculus at 10:16 PM on October 22, 2012


A 15% chance in a decade is equivalent to approximately 0.1% in the next month. This is nearly useless for predicting what to do in the short term.

Secure your furniture to a wall; prepare a disaster survival plan with your family; stock water and first aid supplies; if you regularly wear shoes that are difficult to walk long distances in, keep a pair of tennis shoes in your trunk; learn how to behave in the event of an earthquake; get your house bolted to its foundation; begin retrofitting seismically unsound structures; initiate a firm regulatory regime requiring new structures to be seismically sound; etc.

It's not like we don't know how to prepare for earthquakes. Several of the most populous places in the world sit in high-risk seismic zones, and scientists and policymakers have worked long and hard to figure out how to mitigate the risk.

The authorities responsible for doing so in L'Aquila were delinquent. I don't know to what extent the scientists on the commission contributed to this delinquency.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:56 AM on October 23, 2012


For further fine-toothed analysis, here's a direct commentary (in Italian) on the sentence by Nicola Nosengo, who's been reporting on the story for Nature.

It's very difficult to attempt any sort of simple summary of his points. Essentially he finds the trial to have lacked sufficient evidence to prove (beyond reasonable doubt) the posited causal chain from the scientists' actions and statements to the specific behaviour of the 27 victims on whose behalf the case was brought; he also points out a conflicting/contradictory accusatory thesis, which moved from an early implication of a politically orchestrated anti-panic propaganda display, to a conclusion of the scientists' negligence in advising/informing their political employers; and he criticizes the arbitrariness of the judgement in its equal/indistinct attribution of the sentences to the seven accused, despite their roles having been altogether different from one another.

So he finds the sentence to be wrong, but for a lot of different reasons than are being summarily bandied about in the typical news media.
posted by progosk at 3:06 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nature editorial: Shock and law - The Italian system’s contempt for its scientists is made plain by the guilty verdict in L’Aquila.
posted by homunculus at 9:24 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The head of Italy's disaster body, Luciano Maiani, has resigned in protest at prison sentences passed on seven colleagues over the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila.
posted by homunculus at 9:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:49 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


In California, it is a misdemeanor to predict an earthquake unless you are a state-licensed geophysicist or geologist.

I predict there will eventually be an earthquake in California. COME AT ME EARTHQUAKE POLICE!
posted by Zed at 4:22 PM on October 25, 2012


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