Only in hindsight does earthquake prediction work with real accuracy. Seismologists can assess long-term risks and likely scenarios, but they'd be the last ones to say they can foretell the time, date and epicenter of the next Big One. Yet in Italy, a trial is underway for a group of seismologists and a government official accused of manslaughter for being overly reassuring about underground rumblings that preceded a killer quake in 2009.
The charges they face for doing their job aren't just ludicrous but potentially damaging to scientists worldwide. Society increasingly relies on expert scientific advice; it won't receive that advice if scientists are afraid to speak.
The Italian official and seismologists, who make up a panel called the Commission of Grand Risks, had been asked to assess the risk in quake-prone L'Aquila, in central Italy, after a series of tremors. In a March 2009 memo, the commission concluded that a major earthquake was unlikely, though the possibility couldn't be ruled out. In addition, one member of the commission said, imprudently, that residents of the area should relax, preferably with a glass of wine. A week after the memo was released, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people.