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.
Photo taken in August of 2009 by wolfango
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