Friday, May 27, 2011

Seismologists on trial

Normally I get POed that people believe folklore or superstition rather than scientific theories. This story, though, ticks me off because people have totally unrealistic expectations of what scientists, in this case seismologists, can do.
Earthquake prediction can be a grave, and faulty science, and in the case of Italian seismologists who are being tried for the manslaughter of the people who died in the 2009 L'Aquila quake, it can have legal consequences.

The group of seven, including six seismologists and a government official, reportedly didn't alert the public ahead of time of the risk of the L'Aquila earthquake, which occurred on April 6 of that year, killing around 300 people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
An article in Nature from last year shows that this trial has been in the works since a few months after the 2009 quake. It seems that the Italian government had assembled an expert group to advise it on the risk of an earthquake in the Abruzzo region, which had experienced a number of small earthquakes in the run-up to a 31 March 2009 meeting. At a press conference after the meeting, a public official, Bernardo De Bernardinis (who was not a scientist), summarized the findings of the expert group thusly:
"the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable".
That was, to be charitable, an inaccurate characterization of what the expert group actually had said. The Nature article quotes from the minutes of the 31 March 2009 meeting to demonstrate that most of the experts were careful to emphasize the impossibility of predicting a quake. Nevertheless, De Bernardinis made his dumb statement, and the major problem for the expert group is that none of them contested it at the time. (De Bernardinis is also on trial.)

At least some of the quake victims who pressed for the trial apparently aren't as ignorant of reality as they appeared in, e.g., the LiveScience article to which I first linked. From another Nature article:
Vincenzo Vittorini, a physician in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were killed in the earthquake and who is now president of the local victims' association '309 Martiri' (309 Martyrs), hopes the trial will lead to a thorough investigation into what went wrong in those days. "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".

He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level.
While it's likely that some public officials knew what buildings were most at risk, the members of the expert group most likely didn't. Putting them on trial is abusive, even if the victims' aim is understandable.

What we seem to have is an irresponsible statement from a public official, lax or unenforced building codes, and the reality that in any community there will be structures that won't survive an earthquake. There's probably a lot that can and should be fixed, but faulting scientists for doing their best (except in handling public relations) isn't going to get anyone anywhere.

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