Science in the dock

 

IN OLDEN days, as they say, in some societies soothsayers or practitioners of the arts of reading chicken entrails might find their royal patron so displeased with an incorrect forecast that he would clap them in jail, or worse. Science could also be a precarious business – Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for embracing Copernican views about the universe, Galileo, forced to recant and jailed for life a few years later.

Generally speaking the Enlightenment put a stop to such practices. But now a court in Italy has sentenced six prominent seismologists and a former government official to jail for six years each, stripped them of civic rights, and made them personally liable for extensive damages claims by the victims of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake they had failed to predict. They were found guilty on Monday after a year-long trial of multiple manslaughter, after having been accused of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information and giving “falsely reassuring messages” to the population prior to the quake. The case has gone to appeal.

The L'Aquila earthquake – magnitude 6.3 on the Richter scale – killed 309 people, devastated the small medieval town, and forced survivors to live in tent camps for months.

The response of the scientific community is one of shock and outrage. Five thousand international scientists had signed an open letter to Italy’s president ahead of the trial, complaining that earthquake prediction was an imprecise science that never made claims to predictive certainty, and warning of the dire effect such a trial would have on research. Met Éireann (the Irish national meteorological service) take note! Italy’s Civil Protection Agency said that the convictions would create “paralysis” in disaster assessment and prevention. The head of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, to which all six belonged, said it had made it impossible to continue their work. “Who is going to be willing to go on that panel if they face six years jail if they get it wrong?” asked David Rothery, earth sciences lecturer at the Open University.

Prosecutors insist they recognise the limitations of seismological prediction, but argue that the scientists’ failure to communicate the risks they did know about, and the reassurance by one expert that the situation was “normal” and that people should stay in the area, contributed to the scale of the death toll. But whether science or communication was in the dock, this insane trial’s chilling effect will be felt by science.

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