In a move that calls to mind the Inquisition, the Scopes Monkey Trial and other cases where science was put on trial by fearful minds, an Italian court made international news in 2012 for charging six seismologists with manslaughter. The verdict was handed down back in October in relation to the deadly earthquake that struck the Abruzzo region in 2009. This decision has sent ripples through the scientific community, and inspired a fair deal of rancor the world over.
The 6.3-magnitude quake that struck on April 6, 2009 caused the deaths of 309 people and injured about 1,500 others as well as laying waste to most of the buildings in the medieval town of L’Aquila. In the aftermath, six seismologist were put on trial for not giving the public “sufficient warning” about the quake, even though members of their profession the world over insisted that given the current state of technology, their was no way to accurately predict it.
That didn’t fly with the Italian court, which handed a sentence of six years apiece for the scientists after a 13 month-long trial. On the same day, four top Italian disaster experts quit their jobs, saying the ruling will make it impossible for them to perform their duties. And of course, that feeling was echoed far and wide, especially here in Canada where numerous officials lined up to denounce the verdict and express grief over its likely implications.
In an interview with Nature magazine at the outset of the trial last September, Italian prosecutor Fabio Picuti acknowledged that prediction was not (no pun intended) an exact science, replying “I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes.” Meanwhile judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella, who oversaw the case, said that the defendants “gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether a series of small tremors in the six months prior to the 2009 disaster were significant enough to issue a quake warning.
So in reality, the case was not about a failure to predict the quake, but was instead a matter of “risk communication”. As David Ropeik, a journalist for Scientific American‘s online blog, pointed out, that task fell to Bernardo De Bernardinis, a government official who was not a seismologist, and who tried to assuage public concern by glibly suggesting they “relax with a glass of wine”. He and other members of the Great Risks Commission and the national Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology were also tried in the same case. All of these men, according to Ropeik, did a very poor job of communicating the risk to the public.
But even with this distinction being made, between failure to predict and failure to communicate, this verdict still has many people worried. One such person was Gail Atkinson, the Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Hazards and Ground Motions, remarked “It’s a travesty… what it will result in is seismologists and other scientists being afraid to say anything at all.” Another was John Clague, a professor in the department of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Royal Society of Canada. “I just think scientists are going to be reluctant to deal with the problem,” he said, “particularly government scientists. Academics like myself, we’re going to be very guarded about the words we use”, referring to seismology and earthquakes.
In short, if there’s a question of liability, one can expect scientists to be far more careful about what they say, which is going to wreak havoc since science depends upon the accurate transmission of information. This state of mind, for many, calls to mind instances in Italy’s past where scientists were forced to hold their tongues and conceal their research and findings for fear of a public backlash.
Three prominent examples include Leonardo da Vinci, who’s extensive work in biology, anatomy, flight, and physics was documented with backwards writing to conceal it from prying eyes. Another is Galileo Galilee, a man who’s seminal work proving the Heliocentric model of the universe was hindered by the Vatican’s fear that it contradicted church doctrine. And third and last is the Luminati, an organization of Renaissance scientists who were purged for their interests in the natural sciences and mysticism.
So the question remains, are scientists and government panels to be held accountable for failing to predict, or accurately convey potential disasters? Moreover, is this is a case of scientists being persecuted, or just liability gone mad?