The L'Aquila verdict: Is it wrong to jail scientists for flubbing earthquake warnings?
Several seismologists get six years in jail for telling the public there was nothing to worry about days before a deadly quake
A policeman stands in front of collapsed buildings after an earthquake in Aquila, Italy, on April 7, 2009.
A policeman stands in front of collapsed buildings after an earthquake in Aquila, Italy, on April 7, 2009.
REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

n Italian court has sentenced a group of six scientists and a government official to six years in jail after finding them guilty of manslaughter because they failed to warn residents of L'Aquila, Italy, ahead of a devastating earthquake that killed 308 people in 2009. The defendants were members of a Major Risks Committee assembled to assess the potential danger of a major quake after several small tremors shook the region. The group concluded that it was impossible for them to predict whether a stronger temblor would follow, and one of the scientists famously advised locals to relax with a glass of wine — six days before the deadly quake struck. Many relatives of the dead are pleased with Monday's verdict, but members of the scientific community are aghast, arguing that nobody can predict when earthquakes will hit. Is there any justification for punishing the experts when they get it so wrong?

This is a travesty: "The L'Aquila disaster is an extraordinary tragedy," says Tom Chivers at Britain's Telegraph. Many survivors, understandably, want someone to blame. "The L'Aquila seven will have to live with what happened for the rest of their lives. But jailing scientists for making a (presumably honest) prediction to the best of their knowledge is a startlingly stupid idea."
"Jailing scientists for not giving sufficient warning of the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake is a spectacularly stupid idea"

Their crime was saying there was zero danger: These seismologists aren't going to jail for failing to spot the big one, says George Dvorsky at i09. They were prosecuted for "falsely reassuring" the public that there was no danger at all. The L'Aquila region is an earthquake hot zone. Prosecutor Fabio Picuti argued — successfully, it turns out — that telling people they could relax amounted to "an incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken" analysis of the risks.
"Six scientists convicted of manslaughter for failing to warn citizens about an earthquake"

This could have a chilling effect: "Sadly, the issue is not 'if' but 'when' the next tremor will occur in L'Aquila," says Jonathan Amos at BBC News. Of course, scientists won't be any more able to predict the next one than they were the last one, although they can let people know the probabilities. But following this verdict, it won't be easy to get any researchers to size up the risks next time, because they'll know they could wind up behind bars if they get it wrong.
"L'Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter"



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