Ridiculous policy: jailing scientists for failing to predict earthquake

Added by on October 22, 2012

On Monday October 22 La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, and Italian newspaper, reported a judge found seven Italian internationally respected seismologists and geological experts guilty of a “superficial and ineffective” assessment of risk and for disclosing what prosecutors referred to as “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the possibility of an earthquake.

The ruling is based on a 2009 earthquake in the city of L’Aquila Italy that killed 300 people and left thousands homeless. There were a number of smaller earthquakes during the week before the larger 6.9 magnitude earthquake occurred.

At the time, Bernardo De Bernardis of the national civil protection department responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine.

De Bernardis responded, “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc,” referring to a brand of red wine.

The assessment, said prosecutors, led the Italian ‘risks commission’ and the public to believe the risk of a major earthquake was remote.

“I’m dejected, despairing. I still don’t understand what I’m accused of,” said Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute.

The decision is appalling – especially in light of over 500 international scientists wrote to the judge and prosecutors in support of the seven scientists charged in the case. Moreover, prosecutors sought four years of imprisonment yet the judge in the case increased it to six.

The judgment essentially says the seismologists should have predicted the earthquake and told people to evacuate, and have them return after a major earthquake occurred – a completely ridiculous expectation.

What was the Italian government going to do? Were they going to house thousands of people on the possibility an earthquake could occur sometime between now and some unknown point in the future? Wouldn’t that amount to simply abandoning a city on the chance of an earthquake? Along the same line of reasoning, the entire US state of California with an estimated population of 37 million, should be evacuated because a major earthquake could occur at some point before the end of the universe.

Earthquake prediction is probabilistic at best because observational data is often contradictory, and due the lack of reliable historical data and studies. Prediction methods use today include observation of significant changes in animal behavior, changes in seismic activity, changes in Radon emissions – a radioactive, naturally occurring gas, and changes in geoelectrical currents.

All of the methods have led scientists to conclude that earthquake prediction is inherently impossible.

On the side of the courts and public opinion, the scientists could have been accused on poor judgment for having provided a very reassuring statement about the low possibility of an earthquake, they did temper their prediction by adding that accurately predicting earthquakes was impossible even in light of six months of low magnitude earthquakes.

So the Italian government got its pound of flesh. The ruling will have significant consequences for not only geological scientists in Italy, but also just about every other branch of science that could affect the pubic: scientists are unlikely to provide any predictions of any value beyond the lines of “it might happen, or it might not – there are no certainties”.

Public opinion is often based on broadly held opinions, many of which are incomplete or inaccurate. Commissions put undue pressure on scientists to provide conclusive predications, opinions, and guidance – yet scientists can only work with the information available to them combined with analytical techniques, plus the fact that, like everyone else, they are imperfect human beings working in an unpredictable universe.

Oversimplification of science, the laws of nature, our understanding of ourselves, and a range of just about every issue can be useful in some cases – like when trying to understand or relate complex problems or interactions. The simplifications are approximate models of reality that, by definition, ignore almost all other facets – to extend those simplifications into ‘products’ of information that are irrefutably accurate is simply naive.

The scientists in the case are scapegoats of a flawed system. Good luck, Great Risks Commission, in predicting your own demise.