On April 6, 2009, L’Aquila, Italy experienced a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that lasted 28-seconds. The temblor killed 300 people and seriously injured thousands of others.
Months before the earthquake, there had been several low magnitude tremors so the town’s residents were worried enough to hire a team of quake experts to analyze the geological evidence and data. The team was instructed to advise the government about how the authorities might respond.
A member of the Italian Serious Risks Commission, Enzo Boschi, stated that there was little chance of a major earthquake similar to a devastating quake that took place in 1703. He did give a disclaimer that the possibility of a serious event could not be definitively excluded. At the end of the study and conference, the Italian government statement said a major earthquake in the L’Aquila vicinity was improbable.
In an unofficial television interview, an hydrologist, Bernardo De Bernardinis, made this claim: “…the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” that accompanies seismic disturbances. The problem with that statement is that the actual science does not agree with De Bernardienis claim. There is no evidence that seismic activity releases energy that translates into future earthquake events.
Due to the impression of De Bernardinis’ expertise, the lack of any fact-checking and the proximity of the broadcast interview, L’Aquila residents believed that the statement represented the findings of the special meeting of experts.
Shortly thereafter, the disastrous earthquake struck L’Aquila and the Italian public was stunned and outraged. The popular opinion was that the team of scientists were inaccurate and had failed to give an appropriate earthquake forecast to the area’s residents. In the aftermath, De Bernadinis and the six geologists of the team were arrested and charged with manslaughter. Their trials found all of them guilty and sentenced each of them to six-year prison terms. The basis for the convictions was that the superficial analysis was a major factor in the death and injury toll.
The world’s scientific community became very concerned about the Italian scientists being sent to prison. It is well-known that there are no accepted scientific techniques nor methods to accurately predict earthquakes. In a letter to then Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, the American Association for the Advancement of Science warned the Italian government about the dangers of the verdict and conviction. The association was worried that subjecting scientists to prison terms “for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers….” The danger of such punishments would discourage future researchers in areas of important public safety and needs.
In fact, one seismologist, Aubreya Adams from Washington University at Saint Louis, Missouri said the precedents of the convictions could “discourage people from actually trying to address that problem in the future.” The idea that scientists might be convicted for failing to predict earthquakes is unwise and dangerous because there is still no foolproof way to scientifically predict temblors. How can sending anyone to prison for not doing something that is impossible to do even just?
In November of 2014, the geologists were cleared of the manslaughter charges. Although the scientists were released from prison, the seismology community will likely be much more careful about their public statements. The legal situation puts in doubt whether scientists will feel free to comment about hazards or their belief about lack of risk regarding unpredictable natural events.
Part of the problem is the general public’s lack of knowledge regarding the scientific method. Better, more accurate education about how science works and increases knowledge is sorely lacking in schools these days. Students need to be encouraged, not discouraged to study science and how to use the scientific method. Their studies and research will likely benefit civilization in the future.