An Italian judge has declared six seismologists and a government official guilty of manslaughter in connection with the April 2009 earthquake at L'Aquila, which killed 309 people. This is disheartening news for science, for public safety and for Italy itself.
The facts of the case are these. There were abundant small earthquakes in the L'Aquila region that spring, and the government's National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks met to consider the situation. The six seismologists gave their best advice, which is basically that earthquakes cannot be predicted. The official, who was vice chair of the commission, went in front of the media and lied about what he had been told, saying that the little quakes were clearly releasing energy and that people should have themselves a glass of wine. No seismologist in the worldnot onewould ever say such a thing. In fact a recording showed that this was the intended message even before the meeting was hold. The scientists, in a word, were played for chumps.
People in L'Aquila claimed that this message reassured them into staying put instead of fleeing town despite the city's long history of destructive quakes. So prosecutors put the messengers on trial for providing "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" that resulted in deaths.
The story has interesting complications beyond that outline; I've written previously that a hobbyist had earlier inflamed the situation by issuing unfounded forecasts. I also argued that no one should go to jail (although one commenter bizarrely thought it would produce better research!). The best summary of the case was published last year in Nature, and the first stories on the verdict have come from the BBC and Al Jazeera. There's also the Wall Street Journal, but please don't read the comments or you'll break a blood vessel. This time it seems that only the bloggers have grasped the true state of idiocy and malfunction embodied in this fiasco, ably described by Tom Chivers of the Telegraph as "a spectacularly stupid idea."
LiveScience has posted a collection of scientists' reactions to the ruling.