Six Italian scientists were found guilty of manslaughter by an Italian court for failing to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
They were each sentenced to six years in prison, plus damages. They were also ordered to pay the massive court costs, including that of the prosecution, as well as damages. Finally, the guilty scientists were barred from ever holding public office again.
Among those convicted was Enzo Boschi, one of the world’s most respected seismologists, and former head of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.
The Oct. 22 guilty verdict is the culmination of a trial that began in September 2011. The judge deliberated for only four hours before issuing his verdict. Consistent with Napoleonic law used throughout most of continental Europe, a jury was not involved.
More than 300 people perished in the central Italy 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The region resides on an active volcano and earthquake zone.
The 6 convicted scientists were members of the Great Risks Commission, an Italian committee of scientists which evaluates potential for natural disasters. The week before the earthquake, they met to discuss the small earth tremors that had rattled the area for several months.
After the meeting, they issued a statement concluding that a major quake in the near future was improbable, although one could not be excluded. The meeting and statement led to manslaughter charges on grounds that the scientists failed to alert the Aquila population of “an impending major earthquake.”
During the trial, the judge and Italian government were deluged with expert opinions from around the world in support of the scientists. This included an open letter (pdf) to Italy’s President from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), signed by 5,000 scientists from around the world.
“To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes and to advise the local population to flee” would constitute “both bad science and bad public policy,” noted David Oglesby, an associate professor of Earth Sciences at University of California.
“If the scientific community is to be penalized for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavor will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled,” noted Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire Hospital.
On the flip side, maybe this creates a precedent to convict and jail Al Gore and the Penn State and East Anglia scientists who famously manipulated global warming research a few years ago and then started blaming every bad storm, cold wave, and heat wave on global warming. I wrote about that here and here.
Certainly, it will finally give Americans traveling in Europe a clever comeback when they are forced to listen yet again about various absurd American lawsuits such as the one against McDonalds for damages caused by spilled hot coffee.
This ignorant attack by government on science may be the worst since the 1615 Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy for suggesting that Earth revolved around the sun. That Italian court commuted Galileo’s death sentence to house arrest for life after he recanted his scientific findings.
Let’s hope sanity prevails in the current Italian legal system and the L’Aquila earthquake seismologists will be found innocent in their inevitable appeals.