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Science, Earthquakes and Jail

Six Italian scientists and one government official were found recently guilty of manslaughter over the deaths of 309 people in an earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009. The case attracted a lot of attention as many thought the scientists were on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. So what was going on? And is this a good or bad thing for science?

You won't find it hard to get accounts of the case on the web so have a look around. In essence though, it seems clear that the scientists were not put on trial for failing to predict the earthquake. The prosecution assured everyone that they know earthquake prediction is an inexact science. What was on trial was the scientists failure to communicate the possible danger. Families of some of the victims says that if the advice had been different they would have made different decisions and some would have followed their usual practice of leaving their homes which would have saved their lives.

Where it gets tricky is it seems the scientists did say the danger was elevated but local government officials did not communicate this. Indeed they sent out the opposite message, that everything was okay. So who's to blame? It's very hard to say. Some reports say the scientists gave their views to a commission that in turn passed on the wrong message. You could argue that absolves the scientists. However they must have heard the wrong message go out and it seems they did nothing about this. Most scientists would also be aware that science is often poorly communicated to the general public. Perhaps there is a valid expectation that they should have made greater efforts.

On the other side of the coin, why does the commission seem to escape judgement? They've been criticised, but not held to account like the scientists. Surely they had the greater responsibility to communicate the risk to the general public as this was part of their explicit role. Where was their experienced communicator? Or was it really a pantomime to put people's minds at ease as some allege? The commission should also have been put on trial.

The scientists remain free while an appeals process is conducted. However the damage to their careers must be substantial and even if they are eventually cleared, great harm has been done to them that will never be undone. In the end, I think the punishment outweighs the apparent crime.

What does this mean for science in general? Many are saying that scientists will now avoid making risk assessments entirely to avoid a similar outcome for themselves and that we'll be worse off for this. I think this may be overstating it. However I imagine most will go to greater lengths to ensure their message gets across. They most likely will become more cautious and err on the side of emphasising the risk (itself a risk of crying wolf). But overall this is probably a good thing.

Science will take a hit though. The subtleties of the case will probably be lost on most and science will be tainted with failing to save lives when it could have (an unfair conclusion on the whole). On the other hand, the case does indicate that a high value is placed on science in modern society. The role of science in understanding our world and conveying risks to the public to drive its behaviour has been validated by this case. We expect a lot and rightly so. Even if the public often tunes out or fails to act; witness our slow response to the threat of climate change.