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May 27, 2011 AT 12:15 pm

Seismologists on Trial for Failing to Predict Earthquake

From livescience.com:

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.

But most scientists would agree it’s not their fault they couldn’t predict the wrath of Mother Nature.

The decision to try the six members of a committee tasked with determining the risk of an earthquake in the area (along with a government official) was announced on Wednesday (May 25) by Judge Giuseppe Romano, according to a news article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Some people said the committee should’ve seen it coming, because of the earthquake swarms that occurred days before the big one struck, Vidale said.

“We get swarms of earthquakes all the time without a big earthquake. There was nothing strange about this swarm to suggest a big earthquake,” Vidale said in a telephone interview. [Album: This Millennium’s Destructive Earthquakes]

Regarding the charges against the Italian seismologists, Vidale said “we’re offended” that they are being charged with a crime “for telling the truth.” That truth is, he added, there was nothing to say that the level of danger was enough to warrant any public action.

Wow. My first reaction when I read this was “why not accuse them of witchcraft while you’re at it?” Personally, I think this is a little ridiculous. Seismology is a unique science in that the dataset is, in many ways, completely beyond human metrics — it is simply impossible to measure a lot of things with certainty, or to establish repeatable causality. And unlike materials science, it’s impossible to do sample tests on the scale at which problems actually occur. So what do you think? Is it fair to hold scientists accountable for things like this? Post your thoughts in the comments.


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12 Comments

  1. I completely agree, the idea that these scientists are being criminally charged for failing to predict future earthquakes is completely ridicules. Maybe if the general public took science and engineering more seriously we would have knowledge and understanding to better understand earthquakes and when they may happen.

  2. If the government keeps this up, soon there won’t be anyone willing to work in the field of earthquake prediction. Then they’ll be totally in the dark.

  3. My understanding is that they aren’t on trial for not predicting earthquakes but rather for saying that everything’s fine, ‘nothing to worry about’. The difference between that and ‘we don’t know’ is pretty big.

  4. Crazy, they should also criminally charge every member of there government for not adequately funding the research well enough too.

    In fact the victims should sue themselves for voting in the government officials that didn’t fund the research team well enough.

    Bunch of greedy layers looking for money!

    I feel bad for the victims families, but honestly no amount of money is going to bring them back… and if they really need the money that is what life insurance is for. Plan ahead and go to you local insurance agent and get some 🙂

  5. If anyone should be tried here, it should be whomever planned, approved, built, and maintained any structures which collapsed. You cannot try innocent scientists studying complicated tectonic processes. However, we do have a good handle on how to build and retrofit structures which can withstand earthquakes, and if someone needs to take the blame, let it be those who failed to make the buildings safe in an earthquake-prone area.

  6. @Steven — To me there’s not much difference. There’s really no certainty whatsoever in earthquake prediction, so “everything is fine” means pretty much the same as “we don’t know”. If you really don’t know, then it makes sense to me to say “everything’s fine”, rather than cause a public panic (which also has the potential to endanger lives and property) over possibly nothing.

  7. @johngineer No, ‘Everything is fine, don’t worry about it’ is markedly different from, ‘We can’t predict if there’s going to be an earthquake; however you folks should be prepared for one anyway because this is a geologically active area.’ “We don’t know” is different from – per a Nature article (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110526/full/news.2011.325.html) “[assuring] the public that they were in no danger.”

    Maybe it’s because I’m a Californian and am used to the idea of falling into the Pacific at any moment, but telling folks not to worry instead of telling them they should prepare themselves because sooner or later there will be one is pretty damn irresponsible.

  8. @Steven — reading the Nature article it doesn’t seem that the scientists on trial ever made that claim. Rather, it was the politician, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who seems to have actually said “there is no danger.” And at least one of the scientists on trial openly criticized him for it.

    I think what this comes down to is a politician trying to “spin” the facts when he should have left them alone.

    For my part, I cannot believe that people living there didn’t put together for themselves that they should (always) be prepared. L’Aquila has a history of seismic activity going back to at least the middle ages. But that’s besides the point.

  9. If they made a prediction and the earthquake didn’t happen, they would also be prosecuted.

  10. @johngineer The previous Nature seems to bear out your beliefs:
    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100622/full/465992a.html

  11. I think that, in the future, they should issue an earthquake warning after /every/ swarm of tremors. After the 20th warning in three months the government will probably get tired of spending money to respond to the warnings, but at least the scientists will have their butts covered.
    In fact, I think this might be a good strategy for all scientists. Constantly spout doomsday scenarios (with appropriate caveats) until the ignorant majority takes to ignoring science altogether. Then natural selection can do its thing.
    ~Joe

  12. Ok, ok, I get it.

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