Scientists jailed for earthquake deaths

In March 2009, scientists said an earthquake in an Italian town was unlikely. Days later, 309 were killed in a devastating tremor – and now the experts have been blamed for the tragedy.

Built on a faultline, the sleepy Italian city of L’Aquila was used to earthquakes. But at the beginning of 2009, the ‘seismic swarms’ that shook its streets were reaching an unbearable peak.

When 100 tremors shook the city in March alone, anxiety rose to a panicked peak. A group of experts was summoned, to work out if L’Aquila was on the brink of disaster.

The team were of the highest calibre: six seismologists and scientists, and a respected government official. From years of research and experience, they knew that major earthquakes rarely followed small tremors. Though it was impossible to predict with certainty, a major quake did not look likely.

An official announced their verdict: the experts, he said, had assured him that the situation was ‘favourable’: rather than worrying, locals should enjoy a glass of Montepulciano wine.

But the experts were wrong. Six days after the announcement, L’Aquila began shaking violently. Homes trembled, fractured and crashed to the ground. The historic town was destroyed; some 309 people died, and 1,500 were injured.

Yesterday, the team of scientists were made to answer for those lost lives. They have been sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter: they failed, the judge said, in their duty to warn the town of the earthquake risk.

The verdict has been greeted with outrage. The team, defenders say, made a decision to the best of their knowledge – but earthquakes are impossible to accurately predict. Science is a matter of probability, not a magic crystal ball, yet these men have been imprisoned for failing to predict the future.

The scientific community has been especially vocal. Nearly 5,000 experts have petitioned against the conviction, arguing the verdict will have a ‘chilling’ effect.

Without access to crucial scientific knowledge and opinion society will suffer, because experts will now be too fearful to share their ideas. ‘When journalists asked my opinion about things, I used to tell them, but no more,’ one of the sentenced experts said. ‘Scientists have to shut up.’

Science on trial?

Many fear this will have a destructive effect on how research is applied. Scientists should work in freedom: to speculate and investigate, then share their insights with the world. It is up to the rest of us to weigh up what that means, and not to take it as gospel.

But others say the experts at L’Aquila had a duty to inform, and failed; simply reassuring when people needed a robust analysis of the risks. Scientists cannot just present research and leave it at that: they must be aware of how the rest of us understand their work, and have a responsibility to explain its implications clearly.

You Decide

  1. Are we too reliant on experts when weighing up everyday risks?
  2. Do scientists have a duty to consider the public interest in whatever they do?

Activities

  1. It is 2009, and you are one of the scientists announcing the risk assessment at L’Aquila. Write a statement that can properly equip locals to weigh up what your conclusions mean.
  2. Pick a news article on a scientific development. Write a short paper assessing the limitations of the research, and proposing how a government might use it in a new policy.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as an exact science.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in an earthquake zone, how does this affect me?
Everyone relies on expert judgements – or at least the reporting of them – when they make decisions about their own lives. Take health advice, for example: most of us don’t know why certain things are bad for us, but we trust doctors to give us good advice, and base our health choices on what they say.
So it’s my choice who I listen to?
Absolutely. But other powerful bodies make decision based on these judgements too. When they consider what medicines to provide, for example, governments consult experts about risks and benefits. In education, they might consult neuroscientists about how young people learn, and incorporate their ideas into policies about the structure of the school day, or even what is taught.

Word Watch

Seismic swarms
A Seismic swarm refers to several small earthquakes – called tremors – occurring in the same place over a short period of time.
Seismologists
People who study seismology are concerned with earthquakes, as well as related natural disasters like tsunamis and volcanoes.
Montepulciano
This grape variety is local to the Abruzzo region of Italy, where L’Aquila is built, and is made into a popular wine. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is usually very flavoursome, with rich berry tastes, and can be enjoyed with pork dishes and pasta.
The historic town
L’Aquila is a city in central Italy, with a rich history. Built on Medieval walls, many of its buildings are hundreds of years old, and are thus not well-built to withstand earthquakes. Some important ancient monuments and buildings were destroyed in the quake: the town centre remains closed off.
Impossible to accurately predict
Experts and amateurs alike have attempted to come up with ways of predicting earthquakes. Some think animals behave strangely before a big tremor; others say heightened levels of radon, a radioactive chemical, indicate a quake, or that seismic activity can be monitored to indicate when one will happen. Unfortunately no definitive method has been discovered yet.

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