On 22 October, six Italian scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for playing down risks of an earthquake in L'Aquila a few days before a devastating 'quake struck the city.
The verdict has shocked many scientists, with the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences last week issuing a joint statement saying that the decision "could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal".
Back in August 2011, regular Focus columnist Robert Matthews gave his opinion about the controversial trial. Read it in full below:
That was the question facing the people of L’Aquila, a city in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, in April 2009. They listened to an official from the Great Risks commission, set up to assess the risk of natural disasters striking Italy, and were told that, despite a series of tremors, there was “no danger”.
If the aim was to allay panic, it worked. But as a way of summing up the reality of the risk faced by the people of L’Aquila, it proved less than perfect. A few days later, a devastating earthquake struck the city, killing over 300 people. Now the entire committee is about to go on trial, its members facing up to 12 years in jail for manslaughter.
Many scientists are understandably up in arms about the impending court case, seeing it as an attempt to find scapegoats for an event that couldn’t have been foreseen. But that’s exactly the point. At the press conference, people were given a very precise statement about the risk they faced: they were told there was no danger. And for those living in an area that has suffered major quakes since at least the 14th century, giving so precise a statement was a very risky thing to do.
Seismologists, including one of the accused, have since said that the statement that there was “no danger” was scientifically unfounded. But the official in question maintains he was summarising what the scientists had told him. The prosecutor in the case insists that because none of the committee members corrected the official straight away, they are equally culpable.
So what could the committee members have said? While precise prediction of quakes is impossible, it is possible to identify at-risk areas, and to give advice that can reduce the threat to the people living there. The most obvious advice would have been to flee the area, as that’s what you do when facing other natural disasters, caused by things like floods, eruptions or tsunamis. And, with the tremors, it’s not as if there weren’t warning signs. Yet while it’s true that such tremors are sometimes precursors of bigger events, just as often they’re not. Indeed, they can release pent-up seismic energy, preventing an otherwise huge quake. It’s that predictability problem again: unlike other causes of natural disaster, there’s no proven telltale sign of an impending quake.
The best the scientists could have done is to have made all this absolutely clear, and refused point-blank to be portrayed as omniscient experts. Instead, they should have given advice that would have worked whether the tremors turned out to be false alarms or not. Advice like preparing a survival kit and identifying safe areas in the home, such as under tables and away from windows, in which to shelter should a quake hit. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been dreamt up in the 14th century, but the plain fact is that it’s the best that can be done.
The upcoming trial can’t bring the victims of the L’Aquila earthquake back to life. But if it makes more people aware of the limitations of 21st century science, it will have done some good.