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News and Comment

Italian seismologists found guilty of manslaughter

22 October 2012

Six Italian seismologists have been found guilty of multiple manslaughter, after the advice they gave prior to the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy was deemed inadequate by an Italian court. They face six years in prison.

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science: 

"This verdict is outrageous. Courts are not the place to make decisions about scientific evidence. Instead of criminalising scientists, governments should work on understanding and communicating uncertainty when taking scientific advice.

The damage of this verdict will not only affect the seismologists; it will also have a chilling effect on scientists advising policymakers in Italy. It could affect whether seismologists are willing to contribute their expertise elsewhere too. The next time the Italian Government tries to convene a disaster management review, it may well get the advice it deserves, i.e. none." 

Tracey writes in the Guardian: A chilling verdict in L'Aquila

Background

In the months leading up to April 2009, a region of central Italy had seen an increase in seismic activity. In the face of several false alarms, seismologists advising the Italian government through its Major Hazards Committee met to review the evidence. They concluded that there was no reliable predictor of earthquakes and despite the small-magnitude events in the region, the probability of a major quake remained low. Then, on 6 April, the city of L’Aquila, and several towns nearby, were struck by a devastating quake that killed more than 300 people and destroyed 20,000 buildings. No one has disputed the seismologists’ conclusion that it was impossible to predict such an event, but the Italian government’s response was to put them on trial for manslaughter. Today the six have been sentenced to six years in prison. 

The head of Italy's disaster body and other advisors have resigned saying they could not work "in such difficult conditions".

UK media response

Media coverage of the verdict has been unanimous in its condemnation. Here's how some of the major news outlets reported the story:

New Scientist story with background and a look at the science of earthquake prediction: "Seismologists found guilty of manslaughter"

Nature editorial: Shock and law: The Italian system’s contempt for its scientists is made plain by the guilty verdict in L’Aquila.

BBC story here: "L'Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter"

Times: "Outcry as scientists jailed over earthquake"

Independent: "Itailan scientists jailed for six years after failing to issue warnings ahead of deadly L'Aquila earthquake"

Daily Telegraph: "L'Aquila earthquake scientists sentenced to six years in jail"

Tom Chivers, writing for the Daily Telegraph: "Jailing scientists for giving sufficient warning of the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake is a spectacularly stupid idea" 

Huffington Post: "L'Aquila earthquake trial: UK seismologists react with dismay at jailing of Italian scientists"

New Scientist editorial: Italian earthquake case is no anti-science witch-hunt

 

See scientists' response to the announcement of the trial in 2011. 

Sense About Science is currently working on a Making Sense of Uncertainty guide involving groups across society as well as scientific experts. If you want to be involved please contact Tabitha Innocent at tinnocent@senseaboutscience.org.


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