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.

Learn more about Christina and follow her @ziztur.

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