On April 6, 2009, an earthquake occurred near L’Aquila, the capital of Italy’s Abruzzo region. Around 300 people died, with many more injured or left homeless. The earthquake destroyed the town, and its effects are still starkly visible today. On October 22nd, six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter, more than the four year sentence requested by the prosecution, for their failures in handling the earthquake. The scientific community responded with outrage.
There are a couple of pieces that I have omitted from the story. First, earthquakes are notoriously difficult to predict. Our current predictive methods are inaccurate and often produce errors. General predictions about broad-scale seismic activity are possible, but pinpointing even down to the month in which an earthquake might occur is impossible. Even armed with the knowledge that L’Aquila was experiencing swarms and swarms increase the likelihood of an earthquake doesn’t help much – the probability of an earthquake at L’Aquila given the factors was still only at one percent, a lot higher than on a normal day, but still very, very low.
Secondly, the scientists and government official were prosecuted not so much because they did not accurately predict the earthquake, but because of how they communicated to the public. Just days before the earthquake, the group met to discuss the earthquake threat. After the meeting, they reassured the public that there was little to worry about. This action was what led the court to say that the officials were “providing an assessment of the risks that was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken.” By not alerting the public to the potential of an earthquake, the court saw the officials as derelict in their duties.
Thirdly, the officials met not just because of the swarms affecting L’Aquila, but because a lab technician, Giampaolo Guiliani, was warning of a magnitude 4 earthquake being imminent. Guiliani used radon techniques from the 1970s for the basis of his prediction. These techniques are no better at accurately predicting earthquakes than any other known methodology. Still, he took his message to the TV, announcing that on March 29th, the area would feel a major earthquake. When that did not occur, he kept up the warnings and as a consequence, he was reported to the police as a fearmonger. It was in this context that the group of scientists and officials met to discuss the earthquake risk. Since his methods were no better than their own at accurate short-time-scale earthquake predictions, and since he was inciting panic in the people living in the area, and since the increased risk of a major earthquake even with the swarms was still low, the scientists and officials acted to quell the panic.
The L’Aquila earthquake was a horrible tragedy that destroyed a town and took many, many lives. I can understand how the courts, looking for some sort of closure, made the call they did. I can understand not wanting those individuals whose lives were lost in the disaster to have died in vain. I can understand wanting something more – a better predictive model for earthquakes or greater accountability among scientists and officials – to come out of the tragedy.
I am not sure this verdict is the best way to go about that. The scientists should have more carefully and accurately presented the risk of an earthquake to the people in the L’Aquila area. They should have been careful to frame that the chance for an earthquake was elevated, but still low. They should have allowed for more communication between themselves and the public. They should have specifically addressed the short-comings in the current methodology and been transparent about the model’s lack of accuracy. They should have been acutely aware that their recommendations have real, inalterable consequences for the people taking those recommendations. There were many ways to handle the situation better, but the sentence of manslaughter goes too far.
The main reason for me that the manslaughter verdict goes too far is because, as far as I can tell, these scientists were following the correct and accepted methodology. They were utilizing the best tools at their disposal and following the guidelines of their field. The best science was still being applied, and while this disaster showed the gaps in that best science, these specific gaps should not be criminally prosecuted. I am all for scientists being held accountable for their actions, but behaving in a good faith manner using the best tools at their disposal shouldn’t be seen as a crime.
Two things could come out of this case. First, scientists may be more reluctant to sit on these committees and boards if they fear being prosecuted for using the best methods available and still making the wrong call. Second, the threshold for giving a warning of a serious earthquake may drop. In this case, scientists and officials may start giving more and more warnings, resulting in a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Enough false alarms and the real one will become indistinguishable from the rest. In either event, earthquake disaster preparedness becomes less effectual, benefitting no one.