Judge in Italian earthquake trial justifies decision against scientists

It sent shockwaves across the scientific community: scientists convicted of failing to adequately warn of a deadly earthquake in Italy. The judge goes on record to explain why he felt they were guilty of negligence.

Judge in L’Aquila Earthquake Trial Explains His Verdict – ScienceInsider.

The L’Aquila judge who last October sentenced seven scientists and engineers to six years in prison each for advice they gave ahead of a deadly 2009 earthquake explained his reasons for the manslaughter convictions on Friday. He said that the seven, at the time members of an official government body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, had analysed the risk of a major quake in a “superficial, approximate and generic” way and that they were willing participants in a “media operation” to reassure the public.

The 950-page document Billi released, known as the “motivazione”, shows him to have largely accepted the prosecutors’ argument. He explains that the trial was not against science but against seven individuals who failed to carry out their duty as laid down by the law. The scientists were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake, something Billi says was impossible to do, but for their complete failure to properly analyse, and to explain, the threat posed by the swarm. Billi ruled that this failure led to the deaths of 29 of the 309 people killed in the quake and to the injuries of four others. “The deficient risk analysis was not limited to the omission of a single factor,” he writes, “but to the underestimation of many risk indicators and the correlations between those indicators.”

The story of the trial verdict last October is here. In that post, I pointed out how difficult this case was. It was NOT a conviction due to failing to predict an earthquake, as was it was often characterized in the media. In most news stories, the truth is far more complicated and nuanced than what details we are given.

As a geologist with an interest in natural hazards prediction, I wrote a more in-depth piece here where I outline some of the important points that were missed by most casual readers.

It does not appear that the system in place was adequate to inform the public. The government official gave a statement that was pretty clearly SOOTHING. It suggested that there was nothing to worry about. Bernardo De Bernardinis, said: “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.” That was scientifically wrong and misleading. Did that reflect what the committee said? Was something messed up in translation from scientific discussion to the public forum? To me, that is the key mess up in this whole case.

And that turned out to be the point that judge keyed in on as well. They did not characterize the science and inform the public correctly. I still do not agree that it was entirely their fault. Many mistakes were made but it seems the judge chose to make an example of this group. Any way you look at it, it’s a disaster.

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  6 comments for “Judge in Italian earthquake trial justifies decision against scientists

  1. RDW
    January 21, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    This explanation makes the judges decision slightly more understandable, but I agree that these scientists are the exact people who might actually do some small amount of good, and that jailing them will only discourage ANY science professionals from wanting to risk going through a similar ordeal. Hopefully, the decision will be overturned in a higher court.

  2. spookyparadigm
    January 21, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    I don’t see this changes anything. Any scientist wanting to work as an advisor for the Italian government after this would be a fool.

  3. One Eyed Jack
    January 22, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    So, in the future, should we expect incarceration of Meteorologists when they incorrectly predict the path of a hurricane?

    • oldebabe
      January 22, 2013 at 2:18 PM

      Think of the amount of new work for lawyers!

  4. oldebabe
    January 22, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    I thought that blaming anyone, everyone and everything else, other than oneself, was the American way… ;-)
    Guess not.

  5. rusty
    January 22, 2013 at 3:22 PM

    I’m extremely skeptical of the claim that they weren’t prosecuted for failing to predict the earthquake.
    Is there any actual evidence that the scientists and engineers were negligent, I mean, apart from the fact that they failed to predict the earthquake? Did the data actually indicate that an earthquake was immanent?
    I doubt it. Seems like hindsight rationalization to me.

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