Galileo Redux: Italy Retreats to Medievalism, Locks up Scientists

The Beeb:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

There’s a letter from AAAS stating that the charges are “unfair and naive”. Hmmm. Where have I heard something like that before?

We’re getting to the point where science isn’t just an underpaid career path for the talented, but actually a dangerous one. Can we recommend it as a career path in good faith anymore? Certainly it’s not a low risk career anymore.

Comments:

  1. Mmmm..... Michael, the situation is more complex than what it looks from the AAAS letter. From what I could gather from the available data (mostly in Italian), one of the defendants, Mr. Boschi has been rather careless in minimizing the risks of earthquake in the zones where not long afterwards a major quake struck. There is this video available (in Italian)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUwEdlAh1Fw&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    where you can hear him saying something that I can translate as "We made a complex and precise model that show that the area is not subjected to a large seismic risk. So, you may feel some tremors, but your house will not fall on your head".

    Now, I think that someone who has the title of "professor of seismology" at a major university should be more careful in what he says in public. It is true that quakes cannot be predicted, but just because of this the risk should not be minimized, especially by those who should know better.

    From this to say that he should have been found "guilty of multiple manslaughter", well it is another matter. Yet, in general, science is not a toy and we often deal with very dangerous matters; climate change is one. I think we do have a heavy responsibility in what we say in public. That's the reason I am speaking up on climate change. People say I am an alarmist - sure. But, you know, sometimes I think that the IPCC is making the same mistake of Mr. Boschi!

  2. Thanks for the clarification. Clearly the guy made an error in not expressing uncertainty, and apparently he had the terrible luck that it had grave consequences. But it seems like an honest error. (What of the other five defendants?)

    I understand what you say about IPCC.

    It is important to realize that the opponents of sustainability will try to discredit IPCC either on excessive or inadequate expressions of uncertainty.

    Many better-educated people are led by their undergraduate exposure to think of science as a jewel of perfection and rigor. More effort to describe the frontiers of science is needed so that such people can actually make nuanced judgments based on suitably contingent scientific conclusions.

    But IPCC is increasingly falling into these traps, yes, and its opponents are getting better at exploiting them.

  3. Well, the statements by Mr. Boschi were said in the context of a debate on whether an oil company should be permitted to drill in the area that was later struck by the Earthquake. Mr. Boschi was all in favor of allowing drilling - too much in my opinion. He let himself carried away in the heat of the debate and he said things that he later regretted. But, again, if you are a professional, you should be much, much more careful.

    About the other four, it is a complicated story.... generally speaking, I think it is a case of overcaution. They didn't want to be accused of being alarmists and so they produced warnings for the population which were unclear and perhaps misleading. But I should look more in depth in the documents.

  4. Ultimately people won't leave such regions (I should know since I live in one), the periodic return of such quakes is a dead certainty, and it will be a long time if ever before earthquake prediction can be done with any accuracy, so the major question here ought to be why an adequate retrofitting program wasn't undertaken years ago as was done with older buildings in other First World countries.

  5. There is a partial precedent for this in Italy with the Vajont Dam disaster where a landslide caused a reservoir to overflow, killing two thousand, and the geo-technical engineers were prosecuted and sentenced. Sadly, one engineer committed suicide (I remember being cautioned about this disaster in rock mechanics lectures many years ago: screw up like this and you'll go to jail!)

    By a strange coincidence, even though this disaster occurred in the Italian Alps, the trial took place in L'Aquila, where the recent earthquake happened.

    I realize that there is a big difference between not foreseeing hazards caused by specific man-made structures and for wrongly downplaying an earthquake risk. But I doubt that in many countries, criminal charges would be brought in either case, since it seems there was, at worst, incompetence rather than reckless disregard for established practices. But I am not a lawyer and I don't know the details of either case very well.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajont_Dam

    In any case, the sentences given to the L'Aquila seismologists are vengeful, disproportionate and unjust.


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