Of Italy, earthquakes and public policy – latimes.com

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I Iused to say, during doctoral examinations in theoretical physics, that the stakes were a bit more relaxed than passing or failing a medical student. After all, granting a doctorate was unlikely to result in life or death for anyone.


Well, an Italian court decided this week that I was wrong. Six scientists were convicted of manslaughter because their data did not allow them to predict a 6.3-magnitude temblor in the city of L’Aquila in 2009 with enough certainty to issue a safety warning. More than 300 people died.

The scientists were members of a national Major Risk Commission. They assessed the situation after a series of small tremors and determined that the likelihood was low, although it was not impossible, that the tremors signaled an imminent earthquake. No one can currently predict the time, location and severity of an earthquake in advance. Seismologists can only issue warnings, with varying degrees of certainty, about the possibility of an impending earthquake. In the case of L’Aquila, the data did not clearly point to the increased likelihood of such an event.

For saying that, these scientists (and a government official) have been sentenced to six years in prison by the court. It is hard to imagine a worse precedent for exacerbating the sorry relationship between science and public policy.

If officials, who are charged with taking action to protect the public (unlike scientists, who merely provide advice), are to make responsible public policy, they need the most reliable information they can get from scientists. If scientists fear that providing accurate data and assessments will make them liable for whatever comes to pass, then they invariably will either refuse to participate in government advisory panels (and since the court decision, several senior scientists in Italy have resigned their government posts), refuse to provide data, or they will alter their advice to minimize their own later exposure.

One can imagine a host of outrageous scenarios based on this precedent. Take climate science, for example. If sea levels rise at a higher rate than the conservative estimates made by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, will the IPCC scientists be held responsible as millions are displaced and hardships ensue? Will they bear the liability for governments that have not acted to abate human greenhouse-gas generation?

No one should be found guilty in a court of law merely for telling the truth as they understand it. Science involves uncertainty. Indeed, that is perhaps its greatest strength — uncertainty can be quantified and thus risks can be assessed. But no one can predict the future with absolute precision. Unlikely events happen rarely, but they happen. In the rare circumstances in which the odds don’t pay off, how can anyone be deemed guilty of a crime?

It is impossible to insulate ourselves completely from risks, even if we stay locked in our homes. It is the job of scientists to help the public and governments assess risks as accurately as possible so that they can take appropriate actions. Those carrying out the actions have to determine how large a risk is acceptable to them.

Written By: Lawrence M. Krauss
continue to source article at latimes.com

21 COMMENTS

  1. The judge should be given a test of mental competency!
    And then removed to a sanatorium for the chronically challenged of reality.
    The lawyers that prosecuted should be disbarred for life for a ridiculous precept.

    Why are their no priests on trial for not passing on a warning that their sky boss is pissed off with that area?

    Makes about as much sense…has the IQ in society really plummeted that low?
    So much for religion not rotting the brain, absolutely disgraceful.

    Italy is going to be a laughing stock and will lose any and all scientists that work there because this nonsense has set a precedent.
    Any scientist is now in danger of jail time if they don’t know an answer to a question without parameters.

    Italy should really be barred from any collaborations in science globally until their judiciary go back to school.

  2. “Science involves uncertainty. Indeed, that is perhaps its greatest
    strength — uncertainty can be quantified and thus risks can be assessed.
    But no one can predict the future with absolute precision.”

    Exactly! :D

  3. In medieval times, if Tom Brown’s favourite cow died it was a terrible thing.  Someone must be to blame.  Someone had to be punished, anyone … Pick a random person to be designated a witch. This reminds me of this overly emotional reaction to the earthquake.

    In the scientists’ favour, some twit had panicked the populace by predicting the exact second of a number of earthquakes. The scientists pointed out this was bogus. There was no way to predict with such certainty. There was no reason to think an earthquake would occur at that time.

    One radio report said the crime was not failing to predict, but failing to warn of risk, of the probability.  I laugh. The public ignores anything to do with probability.  The tiniest sliver of a possibility there will not be catastrophic effects from global climate change is treated as an excuse to do nothing until further study settles the matter one way or the other 100%, by which time it will be far too late, because for that degree of certainty,  the damage must have already occurred.

    Here in BC, earthquakes are fairly regular. They can be predicted to within 100 years or so. The later a quake is, the more probable it becomes, the exact opposite of what laymen imagine is true. Yet almost nothing is done to prepare. The provincial goverment just announced an austerity plan fueled by canceling training of rescue workers and canceling of government/school building earthquake standards upgrades, and anti Tsunami. Needless to say the private sector does almost nothing, even after watching spectacles in Japan.

    About the only sensible people are a tiny aboriginal village that decided to relocate to higher ground out of the way of a tsunami.

  4. did anyone check if the vatican had arranged prayers to ensure god didn’t kill anyone?

    either they did, in which case they should be arrested for manslaughter on the grounds of failure to get god to do as he’s told or they didn’t, in which case they should be arrested for manslaughter

  5. agreed! i feel since the comentor was so sure that the freedloading-money-grabbing-snake-oil-salesmen should have known an earthquake was iminent, he must clearly be complicit in the deaths

  6. I think that people would have died in this earthquake even if the scientists had used air raid sirens and bullhorns to scream warnings from the rooftops.  Old, unreinforced masonry buildings with heavy tile or concrete roofs, packed densely together, already weakened by previous tremors – it was a deathtrap.  To save lives in an earthquake, you’ve not only got to have scientists studying the faults and assessing the hazards – you’ve got to have national and local officials doing their jobs.  You’ve got to have earthquake building codes and building inspectors and contractors that actually abide by those codes.  You’ve got to retrofit and reinforce old buildings.  You’ve got to have city and emergency planners who really understand risk assessment and plan for the worst case scenario constantly.  Most of all, you’ve got to have an educated populace who know they live in an earthquake zone and know what they can do to make their homes and businesses safer.  

    Prosecuting scientists is not going to address the real cause of all those deaths – those obviously dangerous buildings.  It’s not going to result in stricter codes or safer construction or more enforcement of either.  The contractors and builders and local officials will go on cutting corners, ignoring problems, and making money – and people will go on dying in earthquakes in Italy.

  7. “No one should be found guilty in a court of law merely for telling the truth as they understand it.”

    There is the problem with the courts. They ask for the impossible, they ask for the truth. Define it please, then tell me how the hell I’m meant to know it. Will I tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? No, I would refuse to say yes to that question. 

    All I know is what I think I witnessed or what I think I know, truth is the duty of the judge and jury to try and get right, although I doubt they can… perhaps a close proximity to it. Hell, I couldn’t even look my attacker in the face and tell you the truth it is them… what if it’s their twin brother or sister? Have I told the truth? Will I tell the truth? Maybe; that’s the only truth I can tell.

  8. I have asked several ordinary Italians about this (not a scientific sample) but not one supports the decision. They all think the judge is mad. It is unlikely that this decision will survive scrutiny in a higher court but the decision will enforce the opinion of foreigners that Italians are a bit strange.
    Personally I suspect that the decision reflects the tendency here to blame people when bad things happen because god (of course) can’t be held responsible. And nobody thinks of all the prophets that make false predictions. What about psychics? Or people that predict the end of the world.  
    Hmmm …. some good might come from this decision after all. :-)
    Anyway … it gave the world a good laugh.

  9. Oh … and continuing from the comment of SaganTheCat … the people that were supposed to have died because they stayed in their houses as a result of the ‘low probability’ earthquake assessment instead of running into the street … were they atheists? Or did they pray to their god to save them when the earth shook? Hard to believe it was not the latter case and perhaps it was their belief in god that kept them in their houses. Why isn’t god in court?

  10. As I pointed out here on the earlier discussion, .. .

      http://richarddawkins.net/news

    .. … .  people have built in vulnerable locations before, and then dithered over evacuating when the inevitable threats arose.  – Often with much worse consequences than these.  

    Generally, the less scientific the community, the less seriously they take warnings, the more likely they are to pray for deliverance, and the less they invest in preventative measures.

  11. This ground-shaking news stinks, for all the reasons discussed in the post & comments above.
    Mirror-imaging that Italian Court’s logic, they should jail God’s spokesmen for their claims of infallible knowledge & prediction that have been clearly proven wrong over the centuries.

    The Vatican could be converted into a max security, hard-time prison, so the top criminals wouldn’t even have to be relocated. Their crimes deserve a life sentence, so they’d get a feel for the endless pain & punishment they predicted for their innocent victims.

  12. This is outrageous!
    Predicting seismic activity into a narrow time frame is impossible !
    The judge needs also to go to prison for his moronic attitude !
    If he could see into the future then he could become the world’s most powerful man and be revered as a prophet!

  13. About 28 years ago I was offered the gift of eternal life by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door.
    Should they have been imprisoned for making such absurd statements?

  14. The way I heard it, the non-scientist in the group made public announcements that went beyond the science that might have caused people to act in ways that increased their risk. If that’s the case, that person could well be guilty of an offence. My understanding is that the whole group was tried, presumably on some sort of “common cause” grounds with the offending individual. 

    Anyone know all the facts as heard by the court? It’s common practice to denounce courts’ decisions based on sketchy reports that don’t reveal the facts of the case.

  15. I concur. You should visit Turkey ones and be baffled. It’s one of the most earthquake prone areas of Europe but their building ethics are odd to say the least. Taxes are based on the built on area. That means, the ground floor. So as a result, the lowest storey is very small in area, while the floors built on top of that can be as wide as anyone likes. Of course these buildings are very unstable. A 5.5 scale earthquake in Turkey tends to produce many wounded while a similar quake here in Holland toppled over a few chimneys. Well the damage was estimated at around 125 million Euros, but the contrast with Turkey is striking. 

  16. Hellosnackbar:

    About 28 years ago I was offered the gift of eternal life by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who knocked on my door.
    Should they have been imprisoned for making such absurd statements?

    My dear fellow human, woud you have some 6 billion people arrested, charged and convicted of fraud? We wouldn’t have enough police, lawyers, courts or prisons  to keep them in confinement! Reason works in mysterious ways!

  17. We had a very large earthquake (M7.7) last night, just to the north of us in Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Columbia.  We felt the shaking here in Washington state.  Tsunami warnings were put out, and though scientists have been warning for years that the whole region is due for a big quake,  religious prophets were mum.  Apparently, if God and his minions couldn’t be bothered with saving 300 lives in Italy, an earthquake in the remote islands of Canada wasn’t even on His radar.   Fortunately, thanks to scientists, you’d have to be in a coma not to have heard about the earthquake risks here.  No one was hurt, and there was no major damage.

    Still….Canadian officials should arrest some evangelists or Catholic priests?  Shouldn’t the mouthpieces of the omnipotent creator have had something to say about God giving our tectonic plates a rattle?  The scientists have been putting out the word for years.

  18. This verdict is chilling, and only funny the way 1984 or Animal Farm was funny.  Unless overturned Really Soon, imagine…..

    A prominent scientist, asked about the risk of a huge meteor strike on Rome, said:  ” Run for your f***ing life!  Now!!!!”.  He also added:  “We’re all going to die!!!!”, though he refused to be specific about when.

    Of course, he can be prosecuted for causing unnecessary panic, and blamed for any panic-related injuries sustained by the populace.

    So, in Italy, scientists can’t win.  Italian kids better go for a career in Law instead, where – it seems – any fool can become a judge.  

  19. This was disgusting. Why didn’t they charge the local Catholic priest or even the pope with manslaughter? After all, those people are supposed to have a direct line to god, and presumably he knew the earthquake was going to happen.

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