Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 22 October 2012

The L'Aquila Seven - science in the dock

Another landmark today - the 600th post at the Tavern - but no celebrations this time; instead, a news report that will strike fear into the hearts of geologists and forecasters everywhere.
Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.
Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the science of earthquake prediction, the prosecution successfully argued that the scientists provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information, failing to warn people that the initial minor tremors could be followed by a major seismic event.

At the heart of the case is a question frequently discussed by bloggers; the conflict between scientific assessment of risk and the popular perception. The scientist is concerned with the relative likelihood of given outcomes; the public wants a simple yes or no answer.

And in this case, the public wants someone to blame. One of those bringing the prosecution, a journalist, lost his father and two teenage children in the earthquake.
On the night of 5 April, several large shocks kept his children awake. They were anxious, but he told them to go back to bed, that there was no need to worry, the scientists had said so.
Other witnesses tell the same story; because the scientists had said that a major event was unlikely to follow the initial tremors - there was, according to the head of the Serious Risks Commission, "no reason to believe that a series of low-level tremors was a precursor to a larger event" - residents did not initially realise the danger they were in when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit.

The devastating impact of the 309 deaths that resulted has effectively prevented anyone asking whether the scientists should be blamed because those people who remained in their homes chose to rely on what experts had said before the event rather than exercising their own judgement.

We've seen much the same thing at work with the Met Office, where some inept press releases combined with media simplification contrived to translate long-range forecasts expressed in terms of relative probability into definite predictions which turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

The implications of this verdict are chilling. Seismologists, vulcanologists and meteorologists do not deal in hard facts when it comes to future events and to expect them to do so, with the threat of imprisonment if they are wrong, has been compared to the Church's treatment of Galileo.

The case that set six high-ranking scientists and a government official in opposition to an army of bereaved and grieving relatives (organised into the tellingly-named 309 Martyrs Association), with an estimated 50 million euros of damages at stake*, is likely to cast a very long shadow indeed.

*The start of this trial was the subject of a post here in September 2011. Demetrius made a good point in the comments about local buildings not meeting the required safety standard because of widespread corruption in high places - which might argue that some powerful people were looking for someone else to blame for the casualties caused when those buildings collapsed.


  1. The Fish syndrome is one which will be with us forever. Now Italy has its own.

  2. " ....some powerful people were looking for someone else to blame for the casualties caused when those buildings collapsed."

    Yeah, couldn't possibly be anything like that, could it?

  3. JH, Michael Fish must be feeling very relived not to be an Italian.

    Greg, welcome to the Tavern! With so much potential compensation at stake, there may well be some very big players in this game.

    I wonder whether we'll see seismologists etc taking out insurance to protect against this sort of thing in the future.