Seismologists Charged With Manslaughter in Italy

 

Six Italian seismologists and one government official are on trial for manslaughter charges for what authorities claim was a failure to warn the public about the 2009 earthquake in the central city of L’Aquila. In early April of that year, L’Aquila experienced a strong earthquake that left 309 people dead, more than 1,500 injured and destroyed some 20,000 buildings.

Six days before the quake, a panel of prominent geophysicists had met with local and national officials to address the “seismic swarms,” low-level tremors that had been occurring for the past six months. The vice director of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection had concluded that there was “no danger” and the seismic activist was “certainly normal.” A few days earlier, that department had censured an amateur scientist who had said that he could predict earthquakes by measuring levels of radon gas.

The six scientists and the public official are on trial for negligence, for their “generic and ineffective” assessment of the danger and for providing “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information about the nature, causes, and future developments of the seismic hazards.” They could face up to 15 years in prison.

5,000 scientists have signed a letter supporting the defendants. In a letter to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said that the charges are “unreasonable… unfair and naïve” in light of the impossibility of accurately predicting earthquakes and could have a “chilling effect on researchers.”

Crisis Communication and Disaster Management

The charges against the Italian scientists highlight the challenges of translating the specialized language of science to the public. Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, says that the L’Aquila case perfectly demonstrates “elite panic,” a term that he and others have coined to refer to “a tendency by experts and government authorities to downplay genuine dangers out of exaggerated fear that the public will overreact to them.” The geophysicists seem to have oversimplified their assessment and not sufficiently translated their findings into the kind of vernacular, practical language that would have informed and more fully warned the public to take the necessary precautions.

In the 1980s, risk communication emerged as a subfield of public health in the US. In the wake of the attacks on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the need for effective emergency and disaster management rose, as did the imperative of explaining what is going on to the public and what people should do. California has a system for communicating risks to the public regularly, says Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center — but it’s not perfect:

Just a few weeks before the L’Aquila quake, an analysis of an earthquake swarm in Southern California showed an increased likelihood of a major earthquake near the southern end of the San Andreas fault. While the probability was small, it was high enough that a scientific group decided to advise the state’s emergency management agency. (In the end, no quake occurred.)

In an internet age, people demand “much more information, in particular quantitative information,” says Jordan. The public, able to access information at a moment’s notice on phones and computers, has “a rising public expectation that scientists will deliver, in a transparent way, basically everything they know.”

Vaccines and Solyndra

The scare over vaccines, and the MMR vaccine in particular, as possibly causing autism occurred in part because of communication challenges between scientists and the public, as Dr. Paul Offit writes in Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For a Cure. Those who contend that vaccines contributed to their child becoming autistic have repeatedly demanded that scientists offer “100 percent proof” that vaccines, beyond the shred of a doubt, cannot cause harmful side-effects. Scientists have felt obliged to defend science and speak honestly about the fact that, yes, such side-effects are not impossible — and then they are horrified to see their precise explanations metamorphose into fodder for claims that “vaccines harm” in the mass media, blogs and other social media.

Some have criticized US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu on similar grounds over the Solyndra affair: Have his “laboratory smarts and Silicon Valley background” impeded his ability to function in the political climate of Washington politics? Today, scientists are called to address an anxious public about everything from global warming to food safety: The need for effective and sufficient communication is greater than ever. Surely scientists need to hone their public communication skills — though we also need to do our part and make sure that students and the public are more than adequately educated about science.

 

Related Care2 Coverage

Nuclear Experts Say U.S. Learned Nothing From Fukushima

Cantor: No Earthquake Aid Without Spending Cuts

What Really Happened At Solyndra? A Former Employee Speaks Out

 

Photo taken in August of 2009 by wolfango

89 comments

Manuela B.
Manuela B.4 years ago

Italians are not known for their practical thinking, but no one can predict an earthquake 100%
although with new equipment these days with could go to 80%. I thinks a warning should have gone out, but really what could have been done? people leaving their homes for how long? probably leave for 2/3 months and on the day they come back - bang an earthquake...
Can't blame man for that.....

Emma S.
Emma S.4 years ago

I'm not religious, but do you think the increasing secularisation (is that a word?) of our society means that we can't accept anything as an 'act of god'? Is this what makes people so insistent that everything must be somebody (else)'s fault?

Rolland Nadjiwon
Rolland Nadjiwon4 years ago

...you are correct in my opinion, 'More asinine stupidity.' And more so in that science is never exact science...we learn in school that it is...suckers. If these people are successfully charger (or not) it will bring into the realm of all so called science a bit of caution with regard to their much too often incorrect 'run off at the mouth'.

kenny s.
Kenny Stidham4 years ago

This is ridiculous! Who can predict an earthquake? But what do you expect? They are Italian after all.

Arthur W.
art W.4 years ago

Having, after 4 years in prison, had Amanda Knox elude their grasp, the Italian justice system has now gone after scientists for not being as omniscient and all powerful as their Pope.
And this is the land of DaVinci and so many others!

William Y.
William Y.4 years ago

@ Masha S. When have scientists ever said they knew everything about everything? If they knew everything about everything, there would be no need for science.

Masha Samoilova
Past Member 4 years ago

finally scientists when pushed into a corner admit they don't know everything about everything

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec4 years ago

Earthquakes cannot be accurately predicted. Seismologists should not be blamed.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Scapegoating.

Lyn V.
Lyn V.4 years ago

For goodness sake, how ridicuous, an earthquake is an act of Nature or God which ever you choose. NO man is capable of controlling nature, how arrogant can one be!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!