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Scientists Being Tried for Failure to Accurately Predict Quake

May 31st, 2011

At first I thought this was satirical news, but I was wrong. In Italy, six seismologists and a public official are being tried for manslaughter over a public statement by the official that an earthquake was unlikely–a week before an earthquake hit the town and killed 308 people. If convicted, they could spend up to 12 years in prison.

In the days before the destructive earthquake, there were precursor quakes, and the defendants were called upon to analyze the potential threat. After the meeting, the public official, working for the Civil Protection agency, made the statement, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” As a result, people in the town did not prepare for the quake, leading to many of the deaths.

The problem here is, the public statement is almost certainly not representative of what the seismologists said. That’s their claim, and it is most likely true: no self-respecting seismologist would say in such a situation that minor quakes release tension. That’s something a non-seismologist might think. The meeting minutes revealed no such assurances, instead revealing that they said something more reasonable: there’s no reliable way to predict earthquakes.

What’s most likely is the classic case of the public official wanting to calm fears and protect business interests, and so releasing the most favorable statement he could think of. But even that is not a criminal offense. On the other hand, government officials apparently do not require building codes to be strict enough to prevent people from being killed when quakes hit; no one is being prosecuted for that, however.

Instead, the seismologists are being blamed. Scapegoat, anyone?

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  1. Stuart
    June 1st, 2011 at 06:07 | #1

    Reminds me of the Simpsons episode where a comet threatened Springfield, and in the end the townspeople declare “Let’s burn down the observatory so this doesn’t happen again!”

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