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Italian Scientists Indicted on Manslaughter Charges for Not Predicting Earthquake

After a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit L’Aquila, Italy in April of 2009, ravaging the city and killing 308 people, local authorities took the questionable step of prosecuting researchers on a scientific committee for failing to predict the earthquake. In March of 2009, after smaller quakes had hit the region, the committee president had concluded that “just because a small series of quakes has been observed” did not mean that a large quake would necessarily occur, and that the near occurrence of one was “improbable, although not impossible.” Infamously, the one government official on the committee appeared on television and said that “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable,” and some residents “quoted those statements as the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as fleeing their homes.”

After the earthquake struck, prosecutors took these statements to mean that the committee had been downplaying the risk of a seismic occurrence, and charged the six seismologists and one government official on the committee with manslaughter, their reasoning being that the seismologists had indirectly caused the deaths of L’Aquila residents by not properly informing them about the risks of an earthquake. The seismologists have argued, with the strong support of the scientific community, that it is impossible for current science to predict future earthquakes. Today, an Italian judge with the choice between dismissing the case or proceeding with it has allowed the case to go to trial.

Hacker News reader gacba sums up why this course of events is so scary to a person with a scientific background:

As a former science major, this kind of stuff is scary…

1) Scientists, with a crapton of data, interpret results to the best of their ability.

2) Scientists report results, with caveats, to Country.

3) Country reported results to Public, (possibly without caveats) in an effort to “look good”.

4) Public ignored caveats (if given), took Scientists words as absolute proof.

5) Public ignored Common Sense during what must have been a major seismic event, and instead of blaming themselves, blame the Scientists.

Oh, what a demon Science hath wrought.

The trial is scheduled to begin on September 20th of this year.

(via Boston Globe, Nature)

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