A while back I noticed, but didn't post about, the fact that several Italian scientists had been charged with manslaughter for failing to predict a 6.3 earthquake that devastated the town of L'Aquila in 2009 and killed dozens of people. The reports were a little short on details and I guess I thought that not even the Italian justice system was so defective that it would actually prosecute seismologists for not predicting an earthquake. Turns out I was wrong.
The journal Nature reports that six top scientists and one government official will actually be put on trial starting this week for manslaughter in connection with the quake. The thinking, apparently, is that had they provided accurate risk information to the public in the days before the quake, citizens might have done things differently. The main problem with that thinking is that providing sufficiently accurate risk information would have been impossible because no one in Italy or anywhere else knows how to predict earthquakes.
The prosecutor assigned to the case insisted he was not crazy, and said that "[t]he basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake." Rather, "they had certain duties imposed by law, [namely] to evaluate and characterize the risks ...." You mean like the risk that there is about to be an earthquake?
There are quakes in that area all the time; L'Aquila was previously leveled by one in 1703. As the scientists said in a meeting in the days before this quake, at any particular time it's unlikely a major quake will hit, but it can't be ruled out. That's the best science can do right now, and no one hearing it, especially in a town that has previously been trashed by an earthquake (like the town I'm currently in) should feel especially reassured.
"This isn't a trial against science," said a resident who is a party to a similar civil action, though he then immediately said he feels "betrayed by science." He seemed a little unclear on what this "science" thing is all about, to be honest. "Either they didn't know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn't know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem." Yes, those are both problems, but not the kind that make somebody liable, let alone criminally liable. At least in the U.S. (theoretically). I'm not sure what the procedure is in Italy - maybe they just put them on a scale and see if they weigh more than a duck. How much does Amanda Knox weigh?
The indictments have been condemned by national and international scientific bodies as well as thousands of individual scientists, 5,000 of whom signed an open letter to the president of Italy explaining how crazy this prosecution is. (Well, that's just what you'd expect scientists to say, isn't it, the president of Italy probably thought.) If convicted, the defendants face up to 15 years in jail, and the civil plaintiffs are seeking over $30 million in damages.
The defendants might take some comfort in the fact that another Italian scientist, namely Galileo, has been officially forgiven for claiming that the Earth goes around the Sun. Since that took 359 years, though, not too much comfort.
Lowering the Bar