This is unbelievable. According to yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a bureaucrat to six years in jail for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, a small city in the center of the country. That quake toppled ancient buildings and killed 309 people.
They were sentenced not for scientific inaccuracy, but for manslaughter.
Today, a court in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.
. . . The seven convicted men stood accused of “inexact, incomplete, and contradictory” information about the risks posed by tremors in the weeks ahead of the April 6, 2009, earthquake that caused so much destruction.
The seven, all members of the “National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks,” were convicted after an apparently emotional trial in which the testimony of people who had lost loved ones was allowed, as if it was relevant to the question of whether current science can predict earthquakes. No grief, no matter how great, can answer that question (which is a resounding “no,” by the way).
As we all know, especially Americans who live in California, there is no way to predict when an earthquake will take place, even with advanced technology involving sensors placed along fault lines. Residents of San Francisco, for instance, all know that The Big One is Coming, but you don’t see people scrambling from of the city. It could happen today, or in a century. (Wikipedia has a decent article on the methods and success of earthquake prediction.)
The CSM continues:
The scientific consensus has been clear on this for some time. As much as the world would like the ability to predict earthquakes, it’s eluded the best efforts of scientists for decades. The plate-tectonic revolution in geology held out some hope for greater predictive abilities as it gathered steam in the 1950s and 1960s. But while scientists have a much better understanding of why earthquakes happen and where they’re likely to occur than at any point in human history, their predictive powers are so vague as to be practically useless – beyond recommending people shouldn’t live in quake zones like L’Aquila. People are generally resistant to such advice though. The city was rebuilt after major earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, just as it has been rebuilt now.
Exactly what did they do to deserve six years in stir? Joel Cohen, a professor at Rockefeller University (and one of my old professors at Harvard) explains what the miscreants did:
Italy’s National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded (emphasis added).”
In fact, other seismologists agree that that statement was the most informed one possible at the time.
That’s science, folks. We can make statements about likelihood of tectonic events, but can never have complete certainty. In fact, we can’t totally exclude the possibility that evolution didn’t occur either, though, given the mountain of evidence supporting it, that possibility is extremely unlikely.
PuffHo has more information, including a BBC video of the quake, the trial, and statements by residents. (The video continues after the first pass-through).
The convicted are appealing (I hope the scientists haven’t been jailed yet), and I trust the Italian courts will come to their senses. If they don’t, the upshot is this: Italian scientists will no longer make informed predictions about anything of social import lest they languish in jail for making a mistake. The court needs to learn a lesson that scientists have long absorbed: we don’t know anything with absolute certainty (though we know some things with near-certainty).