The Italian Judge Marco Billi has sentenced six scientists and an ex- government official to six years in prison each over their incorrect predictions abou the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, that devastated the city and killed 309 people.
The seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, and are now considered guilty of multiple manslaughter.
As a series of smaller tremors, called “seismic swarm”, occurred around the area in the months before the 6.3 magnitude quake which destroyed the city, prosecutors said the scientists gave a falsely reassuring statement regarding the risk of an earthquake before the quake. While the scientists maintained it is possible to predict where an earthquake might happen, they claimed it is impossible to accurately predict exactly when that earthquake will happen.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an influential American NGO, considered this decision “absurd and dangerous” and more than 5,000 signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group; also the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said that “there is not a scientific method accepted for earthquake prediction that can be used reliably to warn citizens of the impending disaster” and this way there is the danger that convictions like these would “slow down research and block the free exchange of ideas necessary for scientific progress.”
However, it must be said that this case is not about the scientists ability to predict earthquakes but their falsely reassuring statements: one of the convicted, the government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department, is reported to have advised worried residents to go home drinking a glass of Montepulciano wine and in a press conference he claimed that there was nothing to worry about at all. In short, they had not communicated the risks of an earthquake adequately.
In any case, the scientists’ lawyers said that they will appeal against the sentence. We will have to wait and see what will happen because by no means a conviction is definitive now.
The danger now is that no scientist, having no protection against accusations like these, will want to work in the field of seismology and seismic risk assessment even though there are a lot of places that have and have had continuous earthquake problems. Thats not a reassuring thought, especially in the wake of the earthquake in Pollino, Italy, only a few days ago.