Why Italy Convicting Seismologists Is Bad For Science

Senior Contributor
10.23.12 14 Comments

As you may have heard, seven Italian officials, six of them seismologists, have been convicted of manslaughter. Did they kill a man by chucking him down a crevasse or possibly by boring him to death by explaining why California will not fall into the ocean but more likely gently drift into it?

Nope! They were convicted because right before a tragic Italian earthquake, they issued a report stating that such an earthquake was unlikely.

According to our friends at the BBC:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The good news is that they’re not going to jail yet: Italy’s legal system doesn’t let a conviction stand unless you’ve lost at least one appeal.

The bad news, really, is that they were convicted at all. They shouldn’t have been, and this just highlights an increasing problem: The courts don’t understand how science works.

The defense attorney is right: There’s literally no way to predict when an earthquake will strike. We can announce with confidence where they’re more likely to strike because of increased tectonic activity, but the reality is, the Big One could hit out of nowhere tomorrow in a place that almost never sees earthquakes. It happens all the time; in fact, a 4.0 earthquake just hit Maine, not the most volcanic or trembly of states.

The problem is that people see scientific instruments and hear science is about precision, and they take the wrong conclusions from that. Part of this is so they don’t melt into a puddle of stress: If you want to fear everything, just chat with a medical researcher sometime and ask him what’s theory and fact in the field. And that’s fine.

But when the courts start demanding more than the cutting edge of the field can offer, and start throwing men in jail for failing to live up to it, that’s dangerous. I can’t imagine many seismologists will be eager to work in Italy until this case is settled, and it can extend to other sciences dangerously quickly. Just ask the state of North Carolina, and its decision to outlaw climate change since it’s inconvenient to developers.

Science has enough problems: It doesn’t need the law breathing down its neck to fit an impossible standard, to boot.

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