Scientists sentenced to 6 years in prison for false statements about earthquake

Christina here…

Sometimes, scientists (and government officials) can be held liable and face trial for manslaughter charges for failing to correctly inform the public about the potential danger of a potential natural disaster:

Six Italian scientists and one government official are now anxiously waiting to find out if they face a jail term for failing to predict the ravaging effects of the L’Aquila 6.3 magnitude quake that killed 309 people in 2009.

Sometimes, judges can determine that they are guilty, and sentence them to jail for six years:

The six Italian scientists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and have been sentenced to six years in prison. Judge Marco Billi required slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict. It’s not known if they plan to appeal.

The prosecution’s primary complaint is not so much that the government appointed panel of seismologists failed to predict the earthquake, but that they gave a falsely reassuring statement about its potential effects. The L’Aquila region had experienced two tremors prior to the earthquake, and local officials consulted the seismologists about whether or not it was a harbinger of things to come. In his closing statement, prosecuting attorney Fabio Picuti said the defendants had provided “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” analysis which gave the residents of L’Aquila a false sense of security and led many to stay indoors when the first tremors hit. Science, they’re arguing, did not do what was required.

It’s not that the scientists are convicted of failing to predict an earthquake, it’s that they were convicted of malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of the already predicted earthquake. They also might not go to jail.

The seven, all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of an earthquake and their duty to keep the city informed of the risks.

The scientists are unlikely to be sent to jail pending a probable appeal trial.

This makes me sad inside. I’m trying to think of similar analogies within other public health fields: should a scientist be held liable of she predicts a mild flu season and releases reassuring statements about the flu’s effects to the public, but there is a pandemic instead? Should a scientist be held liable if she predicts a category 1 hurricane and releases information about the effects and it ends up being a category 4?

On the one hand, the public uses information from scientists to inform and direct their behavior. On the other hand, it seems like the magnitude of an earthquake might me a little hard to predict.

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  • SparkyB

    I’m not saying that I agree with it, but if you want a better comparison I think the idea is that it is similar to medical malpractice. If a patient in a hospital dies, even if it wasn’t because of something the doctor did but because of something the doctor missed or misdiagnosed and failed to treat, we do hold those doctors responsible.

    • H.H.

      Yes, but in those cases the working supposition is that the doctor was in a position to prevent the outcome had the correct diagnose been made. These scientists were not in a position to prevent anything. Even if their predictions had been less cautiously optimistic, who is to say that anything have been handled differently. Governments routinely ignore the warnings of scientists all the time.

      • MichaelD

        I wonder if Italy is at the forefront of trying to stop climate change ? :P

  • RuQu

    I think it is a positive thing, and I work in a field in the US where scientific errors do make us liable. The result is that we are very good at calculating our uncertainties, and publishing those uncertainties.

    Look at climate change deniers. They tell people “have no fear! It’s all a hoax!” If people act on this advice, and then buy beachfront property in Florida (or the Maldives…), those people will suffer serious financial loss, and possibly even loss of life. Currently, there are no repercussions for giving “expert” testimony that may very well be self-serving, yet is contrary to the consensus of experts in that field.

    It also does not undermine the ability of scientists to dissent. It simply requires that they have data and reason to do so.

    • invivoMark

      That’s an entirely unfair comparison. There is no self-serving interest in making an incorrect prediction about earthquakes. There is no personal gain to be had by the scientists, and, as far as I can see, there was no academic misconduct – no falsified data, no cherrypicked results, no dishonesty in any form. They were simply mistaken.

      And it is always okay to be mistaken in science (or at least, it should be). Scientists shouldn’t have to worry about being wrong, as long as they approach the subject with due skepticism. Hell, on a whole, scientists are wrong way more often than they’re right. The fact that we admit that we’re wrong when we have better evidence is what makes science work.

      • RuQu

        And the article says they are likely to have it overturned on appeal. If the scientists made a reasonable and conservative conclusion from the data in agreement with the best available data and techniques, then they should be cleared.

        Laws are not wrong because people get tried, they are wrong if they punish people for things they should not be punished for or if the law does more harm than good. Negligence when your science affects public safety should be punished, it encourages diligence.

        And not all scientists admit when they are wrong, otherwise there wouldn’t be anyone left for climate change deniers to trot out. If a climate change denier could be held liable for damages from rising sea level because people took his advice before buying a home, would they be so willing?

        It also requires a “reasonable expert” standard. In my field, if a reasonable expert using industry best practices would come to the same conclusion, you are not at fault. There is no negligence. In the case of these seismologists, a reasonable expert would say “You can’t predict earthquakes. Many of these buildings were old and in need of upgrades in the event of any future strong quake, which is exactly what these seismologists suggested.” There was no negligence.

        Laws and specific cases are not equivalent. Good law, bad case, in my opinion.

        In this case, it sounds like the scientists did right, and the official did wrong by telling people not to worry about it.

  • Anonymous

    “Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning. Moreover, we worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.”

    • John Secular Smith

      Crap, that wasn’t done. The above is what 5,000 scientists got together and signed in reference to this case. Tremors are NOT signs of earthquakes.

  • KRH

    It seems to me what is at issue is the, “Falsely reassuring statement about its [ the earthquakes] potential effects.” The scientist’s lack of certainty as to the specific outcome of a future seismological event is not on trial, rather it is the false certainty with which experts casually dismissed a potential threat.

    • invivoMark

      The scientists did not make the incriminating statements. A government flunky did the talking, and he’s the one who made the ridiculous statements (when asked whether people should relax and have some wine, he said, “Absolutely, a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.”). As far as I know, none of the actual scientists said anything to the public that inaccurately described the danger.

  • Tamsin

    “It’s not that the scientists are convicted of failing to predict an earthquake, it’s that they were convicted of malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of the already predicted earthquake.”

    That’s not quite true either. There was no already predicted earthquake – any geologist will tell you that it’s impossible to predict earthquakes – just speculation that the earthquake swarm might lead to one. There was a crank going around with a loudspeaker telling people to evacuate because he thought he had predicted a quake, and the scientists held a meeting to reassure people and try to stave off mass panic. Based on the account in New Scientist, the scientists gave accurate information, but a government official misunderstood them and made a statement saying that there was no chance of a quake. It looks as if the scientists were prosecuted for the official’s false statement, rather than anything they themselves said.

  • Rufus

    I don’t really know that much about seismology beyond the very basics (think first-year undergraduate science) but I do know something about human nature.

    If Italy prosecutes experts for giving an opinion that under-estimates the risk from what is essentially a process that combines the joys of unpredictable location, unpredictable intensity and damage caused and largely unpredictable timing then Italian experts will compensate by consistantly over-estimating the hazard. This over-estimation will be directly related to the treatment of the scientists.
    Meaning that if the scientists are actually convicted of manslaughter and jailed for anything more than a token sentence then every single solitary twitch of any seismometer anywhere in Italy will result in the scientists that remain issuing apocalypse-level disaster warnings. Probably on the same level as the crank on the street with the loudhailer, just to make sure that they’re not going to be held criminally liable.

    This will mean that after the first few hundred of these warnings (Italy, and the Mediterranean in general do get an awful lot of earthquakes) that turn out to be false alarms, people in authority will stop listening to the warnings, and then sooner or later there will be another catastrophe that will probably cause a good deal more than 308 fatalities.

  • DrVanNostrand

    There was certainly an error in communication, but I don’t see how it amounts to criminal manslaughter. The panel correctly concluded that the series of tremors increased the risk of a larger earthquake, but that the risk was still very low. They issued no public statements about that conclusion. Then, the incompetent bureaucrat said that there was no risk of a larger earthquake. Even if the scientists had issued a correction, I don’t see how that would have done much to prevent loss of life (I live in CA. Aside from basic preparedness, which is unrelated to any specific prediction, there’s not much you can do).
    It’s also worth adding that geologists have been saying for decades that the region was at risk of a major quake, but the government did little or nothing to update building codes and encourage retrofitting for seismic safety. This manslaughter conviction is nothing more than attacking the most convenient scapegoats and it’s a dangerous precedent.