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Andrew Alden

L'Aquila Scientists Convicted: The Fiasco Goes On

By October 22, 2012

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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 world—not one—would 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.


October 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm
(1) Ian McM says:

Excellent overview of the issue. I just wish I had taken your advice not to read the comments on the Wall Street Journal site. I am still apoplectic.

October 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm
(2) Stevej says:

Appreciated this article.

If you are interested, I came across the following article and would appreciate your input with regard to paragraph 6. The author talks about statistical earthquake models.

I am extremely skeptical that it is accurate.

I left a comment below it. Not because I think the actual author will answer it. But maybe somebody might. Or possibly you can.


October 27, 2012 at 4:14 pm
(3) Geology Guide says:

Steve, that’s correct. The odds of a larger event were higher, 1 percent was about right.

October 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm
(4) SteveJ says:

Very much appreciated.

I wonder if you would indulge me one more time. I need a bit more context for this 1% number.

I understand that the chances of an earthquake in this instance increased to roughly 1%. Roughly 1 in 100.

But what is the time frame for this increased risk. Is the science showing there was a 1% chance of an earthquake happening soon (over the next month or two) or is the science showing there was a 1% chance of an earthquake happening over the next century.

After all, if the odds had increased to a 1% chance over the next century, then there was a 1 in 10,000 chance of a quake for any given year between 2009 and a 100 years from then.

October 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm
(5) Geology Guide says:

Sorry, that would be a 1 percent chance over the next day or so. Most earthquake swarms just dissipate; few go on to release energy as large earthquakes.

October 29, 2012 at 5:10 am
(6) Allan says:

Andrew, thanks for informative and engaging articles about this!
But are you so sure that the official “lied” about what he had been told? And that “No seismologist in the worldŚnot oneŚwould ever say such a thing.” Officials and seismologists are just people. They say things that they believe, and they are influenced by the situation. They can say some pretty dishonest and foolish things, which at the moment they actually believe.

I suspect that these people made some incorrect statements, pretending that they had more control over the situation than earthquake science actually justifies. People often try to claim more certainty and authority than they really have. And for this maybe they should be criticized, but certainly not jailed.

October 29, 2012 at 2:49 pm
(7) Geology Guide says:

Allan, making an incorrect statement, pretending that you have more control than science justifies, is lying. And the evidence shows, to me, that the official who lied to the press intended to ignore what the scientists would tell him. I have argued that no one should be jailed; however, one of the L’Aquila Seven is far more blameworthy than the other six.

November 5, 2012 at 10:43 am
(8) Judy Luger says:

Would you please address the fact that, based on elevated Radon readings a month before the L’Aquila earthquake, Giampaolo Giuliani attempted to alert Italian officials of the strong probability of an immanent earthquake in the region and was rebuffed and muzzled?

November 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm
(9) Geology Guide says:

Judy, what you say is a fact. Mr Giuliani, an uncredentialed technician, drove a sound truck around town telling people to flee. Not only was his prediction wrong, but the earthquake struck exactly where he wanted people to go. I had more to say about that in this post.

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