Revisiting the tragic Italian earthquake manslaughter verdict
Trying to be a little fairer to the Italian prosecution that sentenced seven men to prison for failing to 'adequately warn' about the L'Aquila earthquake.
A few days ago I wrote about the L'Aquila earthquake verdict in Italy, that saw seven Italians, some of them the country's most eminent seismologists, sentenced to prison for failing to "adequately warn" about an earthquake that claimed 300 lives in the central Italian city in April 2009.Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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I wrote on Monday "today, a court in the central Italian city of L'Aquila... sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead."
Longtime Monitor science reporter Pete Spotts pointed out that my story may have overstated the case, and directed me to a good article in Science, "Aftershocks in the courtroom," that was written ahead of the verdict but is one of the better pieces on English about the background to the court case that has drawn condemnation from around the globe and seen a number of top Italian government scientists resigns their posts in protest. (The Science article is paywalled).
The nuance I missed? The prosecution did not seek manslaughter convictions for the seven men strictly on the basis that they "failed to predict" the earthquake. Instead, the complaint was that they downplayed the probability of a major earthquake around the time that L'Aquila was hit, and were therefore liable for the deaths because they had unduly reassured the public. If the scientists had been more alarmist, the reasoning seems to go, residents of the L'Aquila area would have been more inclined to sleep in cars or outdoors, and therefore fewer would have died in building collapses.
This distinction feels a little like hair-splitting to me, since the demand is still that they should have known that an earthquake was more likely than their own predictions indicated. But since predicting an earthquake at a particular time and place is impossible, so is assigning precise probabilities. If you ever hear someone say that there's a 72 percent chance of an earthquake in your town next Tuesday, know that you are talking to a charlatan.
Nevertheless, some of the people involved in communicating to the public ahead of the L'Aquila quake, in which a "swarm" of tremors had heightened local concerns that a big one might be on the way, certainly got their science wrong.
In late March of 2009, Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then the deputy head of Italy's Civil Protection Department, appeared on a L'Aquila area local television station to address fears that a major earthquake was on the way. According to Science, Mr. De Bernardinis said recent tremors did not increase the risk, and that “the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation.”
Science writes: "The ongoing tremors helped discharge energy from the fault, De Bernardinis explained. Trial witnesses later said this was particularly reassuring because it suggested the danger decreased with each tremor."
Well, no. Though there is some science that indicates that the energy released in earthquakes, particularly major ones, lessens the chance of another major earthquake until tension builds up along a fault again, that isn't always the case. And while a swarm of tremors sometimes passes without a major quake, they sometimes presage one. To say that a series of tremors has lessened the chance of a major earthquake is as incorrect as saying they mean one is definitely coming.