The deeper issues behind Italy’s conviction of earthquake scientists

October 24, 2012

A photo taken two days after L'Aquila's 2009 quake shows a partially destroyed church. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

An Italian court this week sentenced six scientists and former government official to six years in prison and $10.2 million in court costs and damages, convicting them of manslaughter for giving what the court described as a falsely reassuring statement in advance of an earthquake that killed 309 people.

The quake, which hit the town of L'Aquila in 2009, came after the geophysicists told city officials on a risk-assessment commission that they were unable to make a detailed prediction about whether ongoing tremors might indicate a coming disaster. The court seems to consider this akin to criminal negligence, which as many observers have pointed out fundamentally misunderstands how seismology works. One of the convicted scientists, 74-year-old physicist Claudio Evo, called the decision "medieval."

The prestigious scientific journal Nature has been following the story closely. Today, it took a step beyond just commenting on the story. The journal, which has been publishing original scientific research since 1869, called for protest, and in the process made a remarkable statement about Italian society:

There will be time enough to ponder the wider implications of the verdict, but for now all efforts should be channeled into protest, both at the severity of the sentence and at scientists being criminalized for the way their opinions were communicated.  Science has little political clout in Italy and the trial proceeded in an absence of informed public debate that would have been unthinkable in most European countries or in the United States. Billi should promptly explain his decision, and the scientific community should promptly challenge it.

I'm not sure whether or not Italy as a nation is really as anti-science and uninformed as Nature seems to suggest. But this is one of several theories put forth in an effort to explain this truly bizarre case and any deeper issues that may inform it. In this vein, it's worth noting that L'Aquila residents have long sought an outlet for their anger over the 2009 quake's damage. 

"In L'Aquila the trauma is still present and visible," Italian GlobalVoices blogger Paola D'Orazio wrote in April. "But stronger yet is the resentment of those families who will never see their homes again, of those who feel abandoned and who believe that not enough has been done, that in three years nothing (or almost nothing) has changed: debris and rubble piled on the streets downtown, houses propped-up in makeshift fashion, windowless buildings make up the cityscape awaiting tourists in the medieval jewel of Abruzzo."

Italian media have reacted with sustained outrage to the quake, in part, D'Orazio says,  because a number of the victims were college students from other parts of the country, at some points comparing it to the far deadlier Fukushima crisis in Japan. That media pressure for action, as well as residents' apparent sense of profound wounded resentment, led to what he calls "many judicial inquiries."

The L'Aquila tragedy, as it persisted after the earthquake, did not concern solely the loss of human life during the catastrophic event: there were many judicial inquiries (some still under way) regarding the handling of the emergency, the responsibility of those companies that chose building materials and designs that were unfit for an earthquake zone (in particular, the construction of public buildings, like student housing, has come under questioning), and regarding lobbyists and other groups interested in receiving a portion of the funds allocated to reconstruction of the city and the entire seismic crater.

It's easy to see how the public demands for blood might have built momentum for a case that, on its own, would appear absurd.

There are other theories. The Economist quotes a California-based scientist who thinks the Italian physicists got "trapped" into giving a "yes/no answer" because they were trying to downplay a local amateur's claims of being able to predict earthquakes. A long Nature essay discusses the common misunderstanding that scientific risk assessment is the same thing as a prediction. New Scientists hints that L'Aquila officials, overwhelmed with the burden of protecting against earthquakes in an ancient fault-line city that is poorly equipped to handle them, may have shrugged their decision-making responsibilities onto the scientific advisers. 

Whatever the case, it seems plausible that there's more to the L'Aquila's story than just hare-brained prosecutors misunderstanding seismology. Although that, to be sure, might be part of it as well.

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Max Fisher | October 24, 2012