The ridiculous conviction of seven scientists for failing to warn the public about an earthquake in Aquila in Italy is being appealed now, but it looks as if the appeal will go just as stupidly as the trial did.
The chief prosecutor has already deployed the same tactic used by the prosecutor who won the convictions: Keep repeating that this is not science on trial. Rather, assert that this is a story about arrogant scientists shirking their duty to sufficiently warn about earthquake risk.
But saying so doesn’t make it so. Scrutiny of the prosecution’s argument and the judge’s roughly 900-page verdict reveals that the case absolutely constitutes science on trial, right down to the use of a 1995 scientific paper co-authored by one of the defendants.
“The judge also determined that other results published in scientific papers were ‘risk indicators’ that should have been weighed more heavily by the experts,” said Alessandro Amato, a seismologist with the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, who has been attending the proceedings. “He even plugged these so-called indicators into a conceptual model for risk analysis in a way that any scientist would recognize as invalid.”
And besides you can’t make that a criminal matter – it’s just absurd.
In other aspects, the case turned out to be less science on trial, more cringe-worthy illustration of what happens when public officials flat-out do not understand probability.
We can not predict earthquakes. Period. Scientists can only make probabilistic forecasts over time scales of decades. If someone did have a reliable tool for predicting earthquakes down to the day, or even week, geoscientists would know it because no one wants to see that puzzle solved more than geoscientists.
Not knowing when an earthquake is going to happen isn’t a crime, even if your job involves trying to do that.
Maybe I have an advantage here, having been through a lot of earthquakes and thus heard a lot about how impossible it is to predict them. They’re not like volcanoes: they don’t send signals for weeks ahead of time. (And neither do all volcanoes, so there.)
Perhaps most disquieting of all about the case is the lack of interest outside of Italy. When charges were first leveled against the seven men in 2010, the response from the scientific community was unequivocal condemnation. Yet few people today seem to know that there is an appeal, let alone that it is underway.
One geoscientist I spoke with yesterday speculated that people have just lost interest because the situation appears hopeless. Powers that be in Italy are hellbent on assigning blame for the deaths caused by that earthquake, and no additional evidence or commentary will sway their thinking.
Well, now we know.