Seven Italian scientists have been convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict and warn residents of a deadly 2009 earthquake in the city of L’Aquila. The scientific panel of the Grand Commission on High Risks faces 6 years of imprisonment for “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” related to whether tremors weeks before the earthquake should have been grounds for evacuation. “Earthquakes cannot be predicted, and these scientists should not even have been on trial,” said Oxford University Earth Scientist, John Elliott.
Critics worry that the conviction, which still requires another level of appeals under Italian law, will chill other scientists from all forms of public policy. “If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled,” said Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire Hospital.
Witnesses say the scientific judgment was negligent, ultimately causing people to stay when their intuition told them to flee. Guido Fioravanti recalls why her mother made the tragic decision to stay, “I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.”
The pending conviction has potentially dangerous consequences for the scientific community. What do you think of the decision?