Italian seismologists responsible for earthquake deaths

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The big story in the last few days that has gripped me is the recent trial and subsequent imprisonment of a small group of scientists and seismologists in Italy for manslaughter:

The court ruled on Monday that six scientists and one ex-government official were guilty of manslaughter for failing to adequately warn Italians about a deadly 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region. Each defendant was sentenced to six years in prison.

It seems that the court system in Italy has decided that the scientists are responsible for the 309 deaths and 1,500 injuries caused by the disaster because they did not adequately warn the public that an earthquake was coming. What I find fascinating is that earth science experts around the world have since stated clearly that it is not possible to accurately predict that an earthquake will happen, and while there may have been a risk of such an event occurring, there was no way to state that it would occur, which makes convincing the public much more difficult.

If anything, the scientists may be criticized for a lack of communication with the public about the nature of the event, but even then, is this the responsibility of the scientists themselves or government representatives? And is six years in prison a suitable punishment for any responsibility assumed for what happened? One thing’s for certain, scientists around the world are going to be a lot more careful in their dealings (or lack thereof) with the public in the future.

“I think that the difficulty is that when scientists speak, they like to equivocate,” says Atkinson.

“They say things like, ‘There’s a two per cent chance that there could be a large earthquake, but a 98 per cent chance that there won’t be,’ ” said Atkinson. “And that’s not really what the public wants to hear.

“The public wants the scientists to say there will be one or there won’t be one. And I think it’s hard for the public to understand that a scientist can’t say that.”

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