Courts define what’s gone wrong in Italy

by Craig Masters

The headline of the Christian Science Monitor caught my attention. “An Italian court sentenced scientists to jail time for not having a functioning crystal ball ahead of the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila.”
I thought there had to be a mistake. But when researching the background of the story, it turns out the CSM was really not exaggerating. In the town of L’Aquila, Italy, six scientists, along with an official from the Department of Civil Protection, were tried and convicted on the charge of manslaughter resulting from deaths which occurred in damages in an earthquake in 2009.

The manslaughter charges were based on the fact that residences of L’Aquila died when they didn’t evacuate ahead of the earthquake because Civil Protection official Bernardo De Bernardinis urged the public to remain calm in spite of the recent occurrences of several small quakes in the area.

De Bernardinis made a statement following a meeting with the scientists on March 30, 2009. The 309 deaths happened during a magnitude-6.3 quake just days later on April 6. At the time he made the announcement to reassure the citizens he said, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.” But during the trial the prosecution presented seismologists who considered the statement about the earth undergoing an “ongoing discharge of energy” to be scientifically incorrect.

The scientists’ attorney argued that their job as scientists was to brief the government officials and not to tell the officials what to say. The prosecution claimed the seven were not on trial for their science, but rather for the degree of which they downplayed the information at their disposal. Writing for the website Nature.com, Nicola Nosengo writes, “Picuti (the prosecuter) made it clear that the scientists are not accused of failing to predict the earthquake. “Even six-year old kids know that earthquakes can not 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 worked every angle possible as he presented his closing argument. According to court documents Picuti reported that one of the accused, Franco Boschi a former president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology, had published a paper that suggested a magnitude-5.9 earthquake in the area around L’Aquila was possible within the next 20 years. Maps published by the institute indicating seismic risk in the area had shown a 15% probability of a magnitude-5.5 quake in the area within 10 years.

According to the prosecution, the minutes of the meeting between the scientists and De Bernardinis indicate that these predictions and the data behind them were not discussed. Picuti insisted that “Had Civil Protection officials known this, they would probably have acted differently,” His contention is that the officials were victims of the seismologists. Yet De Bernardinis was not absolved of the charges.

Italian courts have a long history of prosecuting scientists perhaps beginning before Galileo was convicted as a heretic in 1633 for his contention that the Earth revolved around the sun.

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