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Six Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter in earthquake case

October 22, 2012|By Jon Bardin
  • Six Italian seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to inform the citizens of L'Aquila of the potential risks of a major earthquake. Above, damage from the earthquake that hit the region.
Six Italian seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for failing… (Oli Scarff/Getty Images )

Six Italian seismologists have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison for failing to adequately warn the city of L'Aquila in advance of an April 2009 earthquake that killed more than 300 people.

When the charges were brought against the Italian scientists back in 2010, they shocked the scientific world. Prosecutors claimed that the scientists, while serving on a government panel, minimized the potential risks of a potential quake in the region, and gave "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" to the area's citizens, according to an in-depth report on the case last year in the scientific journal Nature.

Scientists have countered that there is no way to accurately predict earthquakes, and that the state is essentially putting science on trial. A letter signed by more than 5,000 scientists objecting to the charges was sent to the Italian government, but the trial went on nonetheless.

The earthquake came after months of small quakes shook the region, which is well known for a history of major earthquakes, including two that practically leveled the city in the 15th and 18th centuries. In response to the smaller temblors, a meeting was held in L'Aquila, made up of the six scientists and government officials. That meeting took place just days before the earthquake struck L'Aquila.

The scientists served on a government advisory board whose goal was to assess and communicate potential seismological risks to the country. According to the prosecutor in the case, the panel did not go far enough in explaining what would happen to the city if an earthquake did strike.

In particular, the scientists failed to detail how many buildings would be likely to collapse in the event of a major earthquake.

There may have been no charges leveled at the scientists at all if it were not for a press conference held after the meeting. According to Nature, during the press conference, the panel's non-scientist member, a government official who was also convicted of manslaughter, told the press and the public that the earthquakes the area had been feeling posed no threat, and went so far as to joke that everyone should relax and drink a nice glass of local red wine.

But even if the prosecution insists that the case is about a failure to communicate risk rather than a failure to predict earthquakes, it remains hard to see how the convictions will result in anything other than a stifling of future scientific communications in the country. Science -- and in particular seismology -- is all about probabilities, and almost nothing is ever certain. It's difficult to imagine how Italy will manage to recruit scientists to such panels in the future when being wrong once could mean heading to the slammer.

The scientists plan to appeal the decision.

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