Scientists slam manslaughter convictions for geophysicists

Scientists around the world have reacted with dismay to conviction of six italian scientists and a former government official on manslaughter charges. The seven were convicted after prosecutors successfully argued that public statements they had contributed to a false sense of security in the Italian city of L’Aquila ahead of the 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people.

L’Aquila following the earthquake

New Zealand scientists had earlier contributed to a letter signed by 5000 members of the international scientific community in support of the accused scientists  who worked for the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The lawyers of the scientists say the convictions will be appealed.

The Science Media Centre in London gathered comment from UK-based scientists on the manslaughter convictions…

Professor Bruce Malamud, King’s College London said:

“The scientists involved in the trial conveyed to the public the uncertainty and small probability of an earthquake occurring in L’Aquila based on accepted knowledge we as a community have accumulated over many years. The words ‘improbable’ and ‘unlikely to occur’ are often unfortunate translations from scientists of these small probabilities, as they convey to some in the public that a large magnitude event will never occur, when the scientists are trying to convey that there IS a possibility, just small and finite. But, that any year, there is a given chance of an earthquake of a given society or larger occurring. It would certainly benefit society if instead of prosecuting individual scientists for a perceived failure to communicate, it rather works on educating the average citizen, through the schools and examples, as to what is meant by uncertainty and low probability.”

Professor David Spiegelhalter, University of Cambridge, said:

“This bizarre verdict will chill anyone who gives scientific advice, and I hope they are freed on appeal. The lesson for me is that scientific advisors must try and retain control over how their work is communicated, and are properly trained to engage with the public.”

Sandy Steacy, Professor of Earthquake Physics, University of Ulster, said:

“If it stands, this verdict will have a chilling effect on earthquake science in Italy and throughout Europe. For instance, who would now be willing to serve on an earthquake hazard evaluation panel when getting it wrong could mean a conviction for manslaughter?

“And what will be the effect on the “impact” agenda? Here in the UK scientists are being challenged to ensure that their research has influence outside academia; this case suggests that such engagement can be very dangerous.”

Dr Roger Musson, British Geological Survey, said:

“This is a very sad business indeed, these are people I know, who were doing their best to give an accurate account of large earthquakes. It seems to be wrong that they should be prosecuted for offering scientific advice to the best of their ability”

“It will certainly make scientists less free in speaking out where perhaps their expertise are really needed”

“It’s not about them failing to predict earthquakes, it’s not about anything those 6 scientists said at the forum which they were asked to give their opinion, what those 6 scientists said was correct and any seismologists would support it”

Richard Walters of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences said:

“I am very saddened to hear about the verdict. The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.

“I have read the translated minutes of the meeting of the Grand Commission of High Risks on the 31st March, and the scientific information that was conveyed within that meeting was not inexact, incomplete or contradictory. It was clear, measured and scientifically accurate.

‘The prosecution have not distinguished between the different defendant’s actions or words. To be prosecuted for other people’s miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty.’

 Dr John Elliott of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences said:

‘This verdict is a sad end to a tragic series of events in L’Aquila. Earthquakes cannot be predicted, and these scientists should not even have been on trial accused of providing incomplete information, because it is unfair to have expected them to have provided an exact and complete warning of an earthquake in the first place – this is something which is not yet credibly possible for earthquake science.

‘This potentially sets back scientists’ desire and ability to engage openly with the public and authorities on the risks faced by society from natural hazards, particularly those involving seismic activity.’

Dr David Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Open University, said:

“I hope they will appeal. Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable. The best estimate at the time was that the low level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game.”

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, said:

“Assuming that negligence and malpractice are not factors here then the prosecution, and now sentences, of the Italian seismologists comes as a considerable surprise. In seismology, as with many other branches of the pure and applied sciences, opinions are derived from observables and the application of experience and training. It is never the case that predictions are completely without uncertainty and any scientist will make this clear as well as an estimation of how accurate such predictions are.

“If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled. It is worth pointing out that many of the valuable contributions made by scientists such as penicillin, radiobiology etc have stemmed from the enquiring mind rather than absolute certainty of success.”

One Comment

  1. Michael Edmonds

    This is outrageous.

    Following this logic when can we see prosecution for all the politicians and financiers who failed to antipicate (and assisted in creating) the recession?

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