Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Geologists sentenced for bad advice

Science bloggers are complaining:
Seven scientists have been found guilty of the manslaughter of some 308 people following the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck the city of L’Aquila in Italy on 6 April 2009. All seven have been sentenced to six years in prison.
It is true that the scientists failed to predict the devastating L’Aquila earthquake, which killed 308 people in 2009.

But it is equally true that the decision to convict these scientists was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific uncertainty. It is equally true that jailing them for being “falsely reassuring” is a preposterous decision.
No, this is not Galileo Inquisition II.

I would take the side of the geologists if they gave competent scientific advice. But the charge is that they gave false reassurance about tremors in order to silence an earthquake predictor, and 300 people died.

Nature magazine reported last year:
From when he was a young boy growing up in a house on Via Antinori in the medieval heart of this earthquake-prone Italian city, Vincenzo Vittorini remembers the ritual whenever the family felt a seismic tremor overnight. "My father was afraid of earthquakes, so whenever the ground shook, even a little, he would gather us and take us out of the house," he says. "We would walk to a little piazza nearby, and the children — we were four brothers — and my mother would sleep in the car. My father would stand outside, smoking cigarettes with the other fathers, until morning." That, he says, represented the age-old, cautionary "culture" of living in an earthquake zone.

Vittorini, a 48-year-old surgeon who has lived in L'Aquila all his life, will never forgive himself for breaking with that tradition on the night of 5 April 2009. After hundreds of low-level tremors over several months, L'Aquila shook with a strong, magnitude-3.9 tremor shortly before 11 p.m. on that Palm Sunday evening. Vittorini debated with his wife Claudia and his terrified nine-year-old daughter Fabrizia whether to spend the rest of the night outside. Swayed by what he describes as "anaesthetizing" public assurances by government officials that there was no imminent danger, and recalling scientific statements claiming that each shock diminished the potential for a major earthquake, he persuaded his family to remain in their apartment on Via Luigi Sturzo. All three of them were huddled together in the master bed when, at 3:32 a.m. on 6 April, a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the city. ...

Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L'Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

"I'm not crazy," Picuti says. "I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila."
I have not reviewed the evidence, so I don't know whether the geologists are guilty. But this is not the attack on science that various organizations are pretending.

Update: In other news about the legal free speech of scientists, FoxNews reports:
Controversial climate scientist Michael Mann, who helped raise global warming’s profile by representing temperatures as a rapidly escalating “hockey stick,” has filed a defamation lawsuit against skeptics at the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Mann said statements by the two organizations that compared him to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky were offensive and defamatory, and called them the latest in a series of attacks he and other climate scientists have faced.
Even if Mann's hockey stick science is rock solid, American law makes it nearly impossible for him to win a libel suit like this. He will surely lose.

Update: A SciAm blogger writes:
It is ludicrous and na├»ve for the American Association for the Advancement of Science to condemn the verdict, as they did the charges when they were filed, as a misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities. That this was never about the ability of seismologists to predict earthquakes is clear from the very indictment itself; the defendants were accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether small tremors prior to the April 6 quake should have constituted grounds for a warning.

It was never about whether the scientists could or could not predict earthquakes.

1 comment:

  1. Roger, I'm quite glad you've posted this one -- whatever's the world now coming to? Science proper is all about "best efforts" and criminal law proper is all about "mens rea" ... unless those geologists were intentionally trying to cause havoc, no culpability (were this a matter of American law). I'd heard that this type of sitch can occur in systems of European-style codified law but was nonetheless very surprised to hear of this instance. Negligence, maybe, recklessness perhaps, but criminal? Just weighing in to publicly thank my lucky stars (again) that we live in America. Jonathan