A story about arrogant scientists

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.


  1. Al Dente says

    One result of the trial will probably be a series of earthquake warnings every time a seismograph twitches. People will accuse the geologists of crying “wolf” but what do they expect? The seismologists doing the present day predicting don’t want to go to jail.

  2. says

    Bloody hell. This clusterfuck is still going on? I’d been wondering occasionally how it came out. IIRC, one of the scientists had said (more or less) “There’s nothing to worry about”, which if true seems a bit irresponsible — but a slender reed to hang a criminal charge on.

    Remind me never to get arrested in Italy, for anything. Between this and the Amanda Knox case, the “justice” system sounds like a joke.

  3. RJW says

    Arrogant and ignorant lawyers and judges seem to be the real problem, not scientists, does His Honor have a Ph D in statistics? Probability theory is a minefield, even for mathematicians.
    I’ve also experienced 5 or 6 minor earthquakes in the past 20 years, so far members of the public haven’t criticised scientists for failing to predict the quakes. I’d bet however, that if ever the area in which I live experienced a severe quake, the scapegoating would start, and lawyers would be salivating.

  4. Athywren says

    This is what leads scientists to abandon society and set up shop in hollowed-out volcanoes.
    “You want me to predict an earthquake for you? Fine! I predict one 30 seconds after I press this red button!!”
    We still do the same thing with Michael Fish over here in England – he said there was nothing to worry about when people were worried about a hurricane, then there was a hurricane. Yeah, he was wrong, but it’s not like we’re exactly known for our excessive weather. Excessively dull, sure, but that’s not really the same thing.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    Wasn’t Amanda Knox seen near the fault lines?

    Italy’s chaotic legal system, and rich tradition of corruption and incompetence, should be a warning of what awaits the US as new confederate and theocratic influences assail the legal system.

  6. says

    I for one think this is terrific. As soon as those scientists get convicted I’m headed to a casino tour of Italy, where I’ll be suing everyone in sight for not pointing me to the winnings slot machines.

  7. says

    That case was a ludicrous as blaming a weatherman for someone struck and killed by lightning.

    It makes you question the entire Italian justice system when someone that stupid could become a judge or a prosecutor. Even at the height of mafia corruption, I doubt there was ever such an egregious ruling.

  8. says

    I don’t know if you’ll see this update, but I’m not sending updates by email anymore.

    A little common sense may have prevailed in court, but the ignorant still want someone to blame. Only the non-scientist of the seven remains in jail, but he may eventually be freed.

    How uneducated and uninformed do people have to be to believe scientists can predict earthquakes? I guess as uneducated and uninformed as people who turn a blind eye to the catholic church’s actions.


    Updated: Appeals court overturns manslaughter convictions of six earthquake scientists
    ByEdwin Cartlidge
    10 November 2014 3:45 pm

    L’AQUILA, ITALY—Shouts of “Shame, shame!” greeted the appeals court here today after the acquittal of six scientists convicted of manslaughter 2 years ago for advice they gave ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck this central Italian town in 2009. The scientists were convicted in October 2012, and handed 6-year jail sentences, for their role in a meeting of an official government advisory panel.

    Only one of the seven experts originally found guilty was convicted today: Bernardo De Bernardinis, who in 2009 was deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department and who will now serve 2 years in jail, pending any further appeals.



  9. says

    If you meant that I should write a follow up, please excuse me for being a lazy so-and-so and not doing it. I doubt you’ve noticed, but I’ve hardly posted any comments anywhere on FTB since September. It’s been a busy fall since schools got back in session, and I’m swamped with work.

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