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Posted at 02:57 PM ET, 10/22/2012

Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter for failure to perform magic

I wish I were making this up.

Anyone who has been feeling that life these days is not sufficiently medieval need look no further than the Italian seismologists just sentenced for manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake they had no scientific basis to believe was coming.

Admittedly, these scientists were on something called the “National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks,” which is not the kind of title that reassures you that the people who formed it correctly understand the limits of science. And now the scientists on the commission are being punished for their failure.

Six Italian scientists, reports BBC News, have been found guilty of manslaughter for providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information before the earthquake at l’Aquila in April 2009. If higher courts uphold the sentence, they will have to spend six years in prison.

Some earthquakes, as a BBC science reporter notes, are preceded by jittery animals or other warning signs. Some aren’t. Earthquakes are touchy beasts, and while some large ones are preceded by small tremors, most small tremors are not followed by large earthquakes. Once, in China, they managed to predict an earthquake a day before it happened, but this was a fluke that has never since been repeated.

An open letter to the Italian president from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, signed by more than 5,000 scientists, notes: “Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished scientists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster.”

But other than the fact that these scientists are being punished for failing to spin straw into gold, it is 2012.

The story is a little more complicated than that, but only a little. As Stephen Hall wrote in Nature at the beginning of the trial, the Italian seismologists were placed in a difficult position because of unofficial earthquake predictions made by a local laboratory technician based on radon levels. Continued tremors, and the technician’s predictions, led the public to become increasingly uneasy about the possibility of a big earthquake. The commission held an unusual meeting, accompanied by a press conference in which an official (not a seismologist) suggested “it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy” and told everyone to have a glass of wine. It sounded reassuring, and many locals let down their guard.

Then, on April 6, the quake struck.

This isn’t manslaughter.

The real lesson from this whole kerfuffle is that, when it comes to earthquakes, having something called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks is just irresponsible. In the short-term, you can neither predict nor prevent major earthquakes. In the long run, it is possible to assess high-risk areas, and by that metric the scientists had been warning l’Aquila for some time. But the distinction is critical. To punish the scientists is ridiculous. This is why we don’t have Philosopher’s Stone Finding Commissions and Commissions To Tell You for Certain When You Will Die and Commissions to Find the Fountain of Youth and commissions of weather forecasters called the Oh Definitely, We’ll Know If There’s Going to Be a Tornado in Your Neighborhood Group.

The fact that the scientists’ statements of overall probability were taken as reassurances of what would actually happen tomorrow reveal the importance of learning about science. This isn’t a failure of prediction. It’s a failure of people to understand how to assess risk — or even, if you press, a failure of the commission to communicate the difference between long-term and short-term risk. In the future, in the face of future seismic events and dangerous conditions, explaining that distinction is going to be critical. If people actually understood how earthquakes work, or, heck, how probability worked, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.


To cheer you up after this story, here is a nuthatch in the hand. (TATYANA ZENKOVICH - EPA)

What’s next? Are we going to sue the weather forecasters for crop failures? “The doctor said there was a 100 percent probability that I would die on a day that ended in ‘day,’ so I’m never leaving the house again!” Where does this lead?

This is a horrible, medieval precedent to set. This is like when they used to behead the doctor when the king died. Except that it is really happening, and these scientists might actually have to spend years in jail for failing to do something that is NOT SCIENTIFICALLY POSSIBLE, all because people don’t understand how probability and risk work.

But other than that, things are great.

By  |  02:57 PM ET, 10/22/2012

 
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