Is science on trial in Italy?

credit: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Big news from Italy today, where a regional court has ruled that six Italian scientists (and one ex-government official) are guilty of multiple manslaughter for the deaths of 309 people that were killed in the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009.

The reaction in the English-speaking press seems largely to showcase the angle that the scientists are being persecuted for failing to accurately predict when the earthquake would hit. They are rightly pointing out that there is no currently accepted scientific method for short-term earthquake prediction, and hence there can be no way to fault the scientists for a failure to make an accurate prediction. As the BBC puts it, “The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial.”

And indeed, reading through the technical report of the “grandi rischi” commission, there does not seem to be anything unreasonable that these scientists say, either before or after the earthquake. (Unfortunately the reports are only in Italian… ma non è troppo difficile perché questo aiuta.) There is no evidence here of either misconduct or manipulation of data.

However, this is a rather delicate issue, and the above arguments in defense of the scientists may be red herrings. As BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos reports, the issue which was under deliberation at the trial was rather about whether the scientists (under pressure from the Civil Defense) issued public statements that were overly downplaying the risk. In fact, one official, Guido Bertolaso, was recorded in a tapped telephone conversation explicitly calling for such action, and I’m sure that charges will be brought against him as well, if they haven’t already. (Strangely, the wiretap was part of a separate investigation and went unnoticed until January of this year, hence the delay.)

In fact, after the aforementioned conversation with Mr. Bertolaso, one of the seven defendants, Mr. de Bernardinis (the ex-official, not one of the scientists) told a reporter that there was “no danger” posed by the ongoing tremors, and that “the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation” and that the public should just “relax with a Montepulciano” (a glass of red wine from the region).  Contrast this with the fact that strong earthquakes do tend to correlate time-wise with an increase in smaller tremors. Thus, although the total probability of a large event remains low, it definitely increases when there are more tremors.

Thus, the case is not just another in the long Italian tradition of show-trials persecuting scientists (c.f. Bruno, Galileo). It is at the very least a complex and delicate case, and we should resist the knee-jerk reaction to rush to the defense of our fellow scientists without first getting all of the facts. My personal opinion is that I’m reserving judgement on the guilt or innocence of the scientists until I get more information, though Mr. de Bernardinis is not looking so good.

(Update: as Aram rightly points out in the comments, a manslaughter charge seems very excessive here, and I suppose charges of negligence or maybe wrongful death would seem more appropriate.)

But there is at least one other tragedy here, and that is that these scientists might be essentially the only ones who face a trial. There are many other failure points in the chain of responsibility that led to the tragic deaths. For example, it has come to light that many of the buildings were not built according to earthquake safety regulations; the contractors and government officials were cutting corners in very dangerous ways. If those accusations are true, then that is very serious indeed, and it would be a travesty of justice if the guilty parties were to go unpunished.

Update: Michael Nielsen points to an outstanding article that I missed (from over a month ago!) that discusses exactly these points. Let me quote extensively from the article:

Picuti [one of the prosecutors] made it clear that the scientists are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. “Even six-year old kids know that earthquakes cannot be predicted,” he said. “The goal of the meeting was very different: the scientists were supposed to evaluate whether the seismic sequence could be considered a precursor event, to assess what damages had already happened at that point, to discuss how to mitigate risks.” Picuti said the panel members did not fulfill these commitments, and that their risk analysis was “flawed, inadequate, negligent and deceptive”, resulting in wrong information being given to citizens.

Picuti also rejected the point – made by the scientists’ lawyers – that De Bernardinis alone should be held responsible for what he told the press. He said that the seismologists failed to give De Bernardinis essential information about earthquake risk. For example, he noted that in 1995 one of the indicted scientists… had published a study that suggetsed a magnitude-5.9 earthquake in the L’Aquila area was considered highly probable within 20 years… [and] estimated the probability of a magnitude 5.5 shock in the following decade to be as high as 15%. Such data were not discussed at the meeting, as the minutes show.

“Had Civil Protection officials known this, they would probably have acted differently,” said Picuti. “They were victims of the seismologists”.

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6 Responses to Is science on trial in Italy?

  1. aram says:

    Ok, maybe my knee is still jerking here, but I still find the conviction insane. These scientists were convicted of manslaughter. Let’s explore some of the precedents that this would set:

    • Alice claims on TV that crime is way down and that a street is safe to walk on. Bob hears her on TV, goes on that street, and is murdered by a mugger. Alice is guilty of manslaughter.
    • Charlie is Alice’s subordinate and an expert on crime. He listens to Alice speak on TV and says nothing, even though he knows she’s full of shit. Charlie is also guilty of manslaughter.

    These scientists may be guilty of gross derelictions of duty, or unethical behavior. I can imagine that they might be guilty of some criminal or civil offense related to doing their government jobs badly. But their connection to the deaths seems to me far too tenuous to convict them of criminal manslaughter.

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    • aram says:

      One more thing I just read:
      According to one Italian official after the quake

      In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person.

      The point here is not only that Italian builders and building inspectors are to blame (although probably not guilty of manslaughter), but that the link between the scientists’ pronouncements and the deaths is incredibly tenuous, and mediated by many other people’s actions, some of which were only clear in retrospect.

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    • sflammia says:

      Aram, I agree with you that manslaughter is too harsh, and I also dislike the precedent. I was going to say something about that in the post, but I felt like it was getting too long already.

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  2. aram says:

    Maybe we should consider manslaughter charges here, though.

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  3. Angelo says:

    I like your post on this trial, so I’d like to add some details (disclaimer: I’m from Italy).

    First, I really think that the homicide accuse is excessive/wrong/not proper, but I’d like to clarify that the conviction is for “omicidio colposo”, wich could be described as “unwilling murder” i.e. your actions caused murder but you had no intention of killing. It’s the same thing you’ll be charged if you killed somebody by causing a car accident. I don’t know if this is what “wrongful death” means in the Anglosaxon/US world.

    By the way, I still find unrealistic building a connection between this people actions and the deaths. Considering the fact that there was a strong political pressure on not taking any kind of preventive action: their disagreement and any eventual request would have been ignored (I’m thinking more of preparing an Emergency Reaction Plan rather than evacuating the whole city, but true, they are seismologists, they don’t know about emergency handling). Their acquittance is a bad misconduct for a scientist, but definitely not murder.

    Second, I would ask everybody not to forget about this tomorrow, and go back discussing when the court’s reasons will be published. In a trial in Italy, the sentence is read immediately, but the reasoning behind it are published by the court around one month later (strange, I know). So at the moment, we have no idea on what grounds the court decided that the charge of murder could be applied.

    Indeed, this is a complex case.

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