Yesterday, October 22nd, six scientists and one government official were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. A consequence of the events surrounding the earthquake (magnitude: 6.3) that hit the Italian city of L’Aquila on April 6th 2009, and caused the death of 309 people.
In short, during the months leading up to the quake, smaller tremors could be felt across the region. This led one man to predict a large quake bound to take place. A group of scientists (names and affiliations in the Nature article, which also has a very useful timeline near the end) came together to assess the situation. They said that a large earthquake could not be ruled out, but that there was no real reason to think one was on its way.
A week after the statement, an earthquake shook L’Aquila and took 309 lives. The scientists were charged with manslaughter. And now, they have been found guilty.
The thing is, earthquakes can (as of yet) NOT be predicted. Sometimes, they announce their arrival, sometimes they crash the party (so to speak) unannounced, and sometimes the portents and omens lead to, well, nothing of note. So, small quakes or other signs (such as increasing radon levels) are not necessarily linked to a large quake.
The problem then becomes: when to sound the alarm? This little illustration from the Wikipedia article (recommended by the way) nicely illustrates (duh!) the problem:
But wait, is it just about the (un)predictability of major earthquakes? Despite the majority of the news articles, perhaps not. As this guest blog on Scientific American details, it’s more about (the lack of) proper communication. After the scientists met, so the author writes, they didn’t report their findings to the public, leaving that to the local civil defense official resulting in a casual and inaccurate statement.
However, does this merit the conviction of the scientists and the government official? In my very humble opinion, no. Not in the least.
Firstly, you can’t blame anyone for an earthquake. That would be ridiculous.
And secondly, can you blame the scientists for not communicating? Perhaps, but it’s not part of their job description, though.
That’s where science communicators can come in . Any government agency involved in scientific risk management could (and should?) use someone who can understand the science and can communicate it understandably to a wider audience. Further it might prove useful to educate/train scientists in this, but their main occupation should still be the science.
So, rather than using this sad and deplorable event to condemn scientific experts who perhaps slipped on the communication front, it might prove far more useful to use it to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Don’t put the scientists in prison, but involve them in a(n) (inter)national effort to develop a better warning system, learn more about (predicting) earthquakes, and team them up with science communicators to better convey their progress and findings, as well as the difficulties and uncertainties they face, to a wider audience.
Of course, this costs money, and in these times funding for science isn’t all that easy to come by. But that might be for another post…
Nosengo, N. (2012). Italian court finds seismologists guilty of manslaughter Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2012.11640