Italian scientists guilty of manslaughter after failing to predict L'Aquila quake; face 6 years in prison (updated)

A verdict has been reached in the "medieval" trial of six Italian scientists and a former government official: all 7 are convicted of manslaughter for providing "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the dangers signaled by pre-shocks preceding a devastating 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy. The 6.3 quake killed 309 people. Effectively, the defendants are being punished for having failed to predict the earthquake, which scientists argue is impossible to do.

Prosecutors allege the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake after studying hundreds of tremors that had shaken the city. The defence has argued that there is no way to predict major earthquakes even in a seismically active area.

Many in the scientific community believe the controversy places science itself on trial.

More than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano supporting the defendants. More: BBC News. More at CBS News.

Nature News has an excellent backgrounder, and reports just now via Twitter that the seismologists have been found guilty, and are sentenced to six years in prison.

Above, a piece I produced with Miles O'Brien for PBS NewsHour about the science of earthquake prediction, and the L'Aquila case.

Update: La Repubblica, the popular Italian newspaper, reports that the verdict affects seven members of the "National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks" who were in office in 2009, and confirms the charges that they "provided false information" about the improbability of a strong seismic event on the night of April 6, 2009, which led to the deaths of 309 citizens. Prosecutors had asked for four years in prison, but a higher sentence of 6 was given. There's a video report here, but in Italian. The Telegraph notes that the scientists will also have to pay for the prosecution's legal costs.

Reuters notes that it's unlikely anyone will actually go to jail before an appeals trial is held.

Hey, don't jail me for this, bro—but I predict this decision will create a profound chilling effect for scientists in Italy.


    1. Good luck getting any scientist in Italy to open their mouth now. 

      “Should be tell them it looks like an approaching eruption at Vesuvius?”
      “Hell no, there is a small chance we could be wrong.”

      1. It’ll be more likely to create false positives than false negatives, at least until scientists get charged with disturbing the peace for predicting an earthquake that then doesn’t happen.

  1. So we really aren’t all that far from Galileo’s time, huh?  That’s one dumb prosecutor.

    And what of the engineer who said the buildings were safe? Or the architect who designed it?  Or the manufacturer of the nails?  Or the parents of the people who died for not moving to a safer location when they were infants?  Or the ancient Romans for settling in an earthquake zone?

  2. Look I get it, people lost people they cared about in the quake.

    However, imprison scientists for not being able to magic up the answers they want when they want them….. Good luck ever finding scientists willing to work with you again……

    I mean seriously my local weatherman is regularly hit an miss and they have multiple Doppler stations to track weather in real time as well access to some of the most advanced predictive algorithms available.

    1. That’s exactly the implication of this trial. Why would anyone risk providing a warning service, when you will be held criminally liable if you are wrong at PREDICTING an outcome.

      If they really want to uphold this trial’s outcome, good luck having no predictive service. Then when a quake happens again everyone will be up in arms about no one telling them it was coming.

  3. Will I be put in jail for failing to predict the evil death gas I will produce after some beers and Mexican food?

  4. While we are at it, could we round up all the psychics who didn’t predict this and all the religious functionaries who failed to intercede with their respective deities hard enough? We should probably check for witches, as well…

  5. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here: if they had at least _tried_ the time-honored sheep bladder method for preventing earthquakes, they would have a much stronger case.

    1. Enough, devil’s advocates. We’re not giving him any more sheep, and that’s that. Next time he can try ordering tacos or something, and maybe we’ll consider it.

    2.  Bah.  If they _had_ successfully predicted the earthquake, they’d be on trial for witchcraft instead.

  6. The probability that any reputable Italian scientist will want to work in a field that deals with public safety is now rapidly approaching zero. Of course, I can’t say for certainty that it is zero. I just hope that an Italian prosecutor doesn’t charge me for that.

  7. The Update seems to indicate that they provided false information, while in office.  Does that mean ‘wrong’ information, or ‘deliberately false’ information.  Because one of those things does actually deserve consequences.

    1. This matters a great deal. The quality of a decision has to be based on the knowledge available at the time and whether the scientists and policy behaved as they would reasonably be expected to behave. This problem up a lot in discussions of natural disasters and engineering failures. If  a hypothetical someone predicts an event, or designs a structure, based on a “once out of 200 years” failure rate, and “bad thing” happens tomorrow, it doesn’t mean they were inaccurate in their predictions or made inappropriate design decisions — regardless the scale of consequences. But if the hypothetical someone determines the results point a certain way, and then lies about it, that’s different. Which happened here?


      I do think with certain things that are inherently ‘fuzzy’ — natural disaster prediction, weather modelling, long-term drug safety — scientists should be given the benefit of the doubt. As long as they don’t lie, drawing the wrong conclusion, or even being biased toward optimism, shouldn’t incur liability. Specifically don’t want to censor people for thinking of new things or for having the wrong level of enthusiasm (in either direction) for their work. Also, people by now should not be expecting perfection from fields that have high uncertainty. If people expect certainty from these fields, it is as much a failure of the news media as it is of the scientists.

  8. The sad thing is that a probability is not a guarantee. There is no way that anyone can say with certainty that there won’t be an earthquake at any given time in the future. The earthquake was not more likely to hit that day than three days later. That’s how probability works. The odds of an earthquake hitting at any time are vanishingly small.

  9. QUIMBY (pointing skywards) Run!
    *The comet enters the atmosphere, breaking up.*
    MARGE Look!
    LISA It’s breaking up!
    *The comet breaks up more, until it becomes just a small rock. The rock makes a hole in Skinner’s weather balloon, deflating it, then rebounds off Ned’s bomb shelter, knocking it to the ground. Ned and Moe look on and gasp, while the comet bounces up the hillside. Bart picks it up.*
    BART Cool!
    LISA We’re saved!
    *Everyone cheers.*
    SELMA Sure makes you appreciate the preciousness of life. (lights a cigarette)
    MOE Let’s go burn down the observatory so this’ll never happen again.

  10. There was a PR event to reassure the public, and some of the people involved said some dumb things afterwards, but they are going after all the scientists involved, regardless of what they personally said.

    “I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.”
    Now why they had a bunch of buildings that in some cases were built as recently as 1962 that would collapse and kill people in a puny 6.3 quake is another matter.

  11. Will someone please explain to the prosecution, that even though this is 2012, we still can’t explain everything.  We’ve been studying meteorology longer than we’ve been studying seismology and we still can’t say with 100% certainty what the weather will be like 24 hours from now.   Plus, you can’t fault the seismologists if the buildings the deaths occurred in were sub-standard/not up to current code.

  12. If you can be sued for not being able to accurately predict an Earthquake, how about wrongfully (I dare saying falsely) predicting other things like, you know, the end of the world, the rapture, eternal damnation in Hell, etc…

  13. Reading the article in La Repubblica, it sounds as if the commission that the scientists belonged to “had reassured the people of Aquila about the improbability of a strong seismic shock”. In other words, they said – allegedly – “there’s not going to be an earthquake”, the people stayed home, and died in their homes when the quake hit.

    That’s all it says in the article: without knowing exactly what was said by the ‘commission on major risks’ prior to the quake, it’s hard to tell if there’s any sense to this verdict at all. But it does sound as if in future the logical thing for a scientist to do when asked to predict the likelihood of a catastrophe is just to shrug and not commit themselves.

    “Will an asteroid strike your house tonight, killing you in your sleep? Can’t say. In fact, I can’t even give you an estimate of the likelihood. But I will say that you should assume that it could happen, and take appropriate precautions.”

    1. But it does sound as if in future the logical thing for a scientist to do when asked to predict the likelihood of a catastrophe is just to shrug and not commit themselves.

      Then the funding dries up and seismology ceases to exist as a discipline. That’ll keep people safe from future quakes.

  14. I am surprised that they weren’t tried for witchcraft and sent to the Vatican for a subsequent tribunal.
    So, do the inmates have the keys to the assylum in Italy?

  15. I agree with the general consensus that this verdict is nuts… however I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little.

    People keep jumping up and down saying that we can’t blame people for failing to predict something that can’t be predicted.

    So why did these scientists predict that an earthquake was unlikely? If predicting earthquakes is so difficult surely the answer to the question “what’s the likelihood of an earthquake?” is “we don’t have a clue” and not “unlikely”.

    Were they being pressured into giving an answer that they knew might be wrong, or did hubris and self-confidence get the better of them, leading them to make a prediction that was not based on good science and which lead to people staying in an area that they might otherwise have left?

    Or am I missing something? The coverage has been very confused and incomplete so I’m guessing there’s more to it somewhere.

    1. Yeah, you’re missing something. While I don’t know anything about the faults in question, I suspect that they have been studied by geologists. While you can’t predict earthquakes with any precision, you can determine the relative frequency and intensity of past quakes and then extrapolate to a rough probability of when and how large future quakes may be. It’s like the difference between climate and weather that so many people have a hard time understanding. 

      Hubris is unlikely to play a role here since scientists appreciate much more than any other group the limits of their knowledge and ability to forecast specific events.

      1. You missed my point.

        Everyone’s defence of these scientists is that we *can’t* predict earthquakes.

        If we can’t predict earthquakes then the scientists knowingly gave incorrect reassurance that one wasn’t going to happen, leading to people not leaving the area, potentially resulting in more deaths.

        This isn’t about weather vs climate. The scientists gave specific reassurance about the low likelihood of an earthquake happening in the aftermath of what turned out to be pre-shocks.  The scientists were wrong, and people died who otherwise might not have.

        So they appear to have knowingly given reassurance with no good science to support it.

        Or some politician took what they said and twisted their advice it so it came out a reassurance, when it was actually much more negative.

        1. This isn’t about weather vs climate. The scientists gave specific reassurance about the low likelihood of an earthquake happening in the aftermath of what turned out to be pre-shocks.  The scientists were wrong, and people died who otherwise might not have.

          See, this is exactly what Williams was explaining. If scientists say an earthquake is unlikely, and one happens, that doesn’t show they were wrong about the chances.

    2. They were trying to calm some panic induced by a local amateur scientist who had been predicting a major earthquake based on radon gas emissions.

      The problem isn’t that people stayed in the area, but that they stayed in their houses even when the shaking got severe, because (they say) of what the commission had said.

  16. The Italian ‘Justice’ system continues it’s parade of Greatest Hits, I see.  Maybe they can accuse them of being Il Mostro di Firenze while they’re at it.

    1. It is wacky, from coverage of the trial of that American student accused of murder, prosecution wins the first trial, defense the second. Kinda makes our system in the USA look a bit more reasonable (ours is currently strongly biased against the defense).

  17. It would seem that even if they were negligent (and the incompetence would have to be gross), the place for this is in a civil court not a criminal one.

  18. This is a farcical bit of justice but if the scientists in question presented that there was no chance of a strong earthquake after the tremors, then they are at fault for not qualifying that statement. Perhaps they are victims of their own hubris (and of not considering the ignorance of those they are advising?)

  19. My (potentially legally risky) prediction:

    Italians will continue to attend university, and continue to study meteorology, geology, physics, and the like.  And then they’ll graduate and the government will approach the new junior scientists and say “Hey, congratulations on the diploma.  The Italian government needs young go-getting scientists such as yourself.  Great pay and benefits!”, to which the scientists will respond “Fuck, no!  I’m moving to France, or Spain, or the UK, or America, or working in the private sector, anywhere but the Italian government.”

    Hell, with the court deciding that cellphones cause cancer (they don’t), the private sector in Italy isn’t looking so safe either.

  20. If they had predicted a disaster, the government would have ignored them anyway. That’s what governments DO with their scientific advisory committees. This ridiculous show trial is just the “Something Must Be Done, Someone Must Be Blamed” reflex common to all politicians.

  21. San Francisco 2010 retrofit bond issue failed (tax levies in California require a 2/3rds supermajority to pass):

    From: ballotpedia wiki: “A San Francisco Earthquake Retrofit Bond, Measure A was on the November 2, 2010 ballot for voters in San Francisco. It was defeated.”

    San Francisco voluntary earthquake retrofit program produces disappointing results:

    Fewer Participating In San Francisco’s Soft-Story Retrofit Program“Nearly a year after San Francisco started a voluntary program for property owners to retrofit their soft-story buildings — structures city building officials have identified as among the most likely to collapse during an earthquake — only 26 people have participated in it. ”
    — From a San Francisco Examiner article, reposted on San Francisco Department of Building Inspections web site.

  22. There are a couple things going on here. One is our ability to predict the probability of a range of peak ground accelerations that a given piece of ground can experience (which is all predicated on our knowledge of the seismic history, seismic potential, stratigraphy, etc. a whole bunch of factors that all go into the model) and the other is how well the scientific community can communicate that risk, which is really really tricky. When a given fault produces an earthquake that is surprising it means that the model is wrong or that people misunderstood the risk, either because of irrationality or because the risk was poorly communicated.

  23. The real issue for the people of Abruzzo was not whether scientists can or can not predict earthquakes. But that on the basis of inadequate scientific knowledge they were advised against their better judgements to stay in doors. People have lived with earthquakes in this region for Millennia and there is incredible folk wisdom (unscientific) about tremors and how best to survive them.

    When you visit the region and talk to people the sense of betrayal is palpable. Traditionally the Abruzzesee are self reliant, cut of from the rest of Italy by enormous, until recently insurmountable mountains. They are used to dealing with their own earthquakes which come at regular intervals. 

    The point is that while the locals especially the older generation thought it was time to leave the government recommendation (supposedly based on scientific advice) was to stay. The scientists forgot to write the disclaimer and allowed their scientific guesses to be used for political purposes! Natural disasters in Italy is big business and big politics.

    A truly interesting article would be on our over reliance on scientific certainty in areas of our lives where uncertainty is supreme. 

  24. This is an unfortunate outcome of this tragedy and that it really does seem like science is under attack in many countries.

    I hope they win on appeal.

  25. so, what if these scientists warned of an upcoming earthquake that failed to materialise? would then then be arrested for wasting ppl’s time or providing ‘false’ information?  Seems like a bit of a catch22.

    Besides Rome has the vatican & if the pope’s so in-touch with god than why doesn’t he tell them?

    1.  after the tremors started one of the scientist suggested the best thing to do would be go home and relax with a glass of wine.
      sorry, folks, but that seems pretty Fing negligent to me! You all seem to think this trial was about what they didn’t say. wrong, it was about what they DID say.

  26. in US, any professional having experiences presenting in judicial/political settings will understand the HUGE difference between ‘not going to happen’ and ‘extremely unlikely to happen’

    but then, a major earthquake being ‘extremely unlikely to happen’ is a little bit far stretching considering, according to info found on wikipedia, the region has experienced multiple major earthquakes in the past 900 years, killing tens of thousands. the most recent one in the 1950s…

    so, i urge people to look for more facts (which are absent in these new reports) before throwing their support ‘for science’, or for ‘justice’.

  27. I found this article on the subject enlightening.

    I agree with Alex Yuen, when they say that we should all find more facts, but they do seem to favour the scientists.

    Still, there are lessons to be learned about communicating with the public. Somewhere in the chain of communication between the seismologists, the government, the media up to and including the victims, there was a fault and that led to a greater loss of life than might otherwise have been. What seems to be happening, rather than acknowledging the shared responsibility and developing better systems to deal with future occurrences, the Italian state are pillorying the first available suspects in an effort to erase the public’s grief and their own guilt.

  28. this a wiretapping of Bertolaso (government) speaking on the phone about how to instruct the “scientists” that we’re speaking of

    Bertolaso:… You decide, I don’t give a shit .. let it be more of a media operation, do you get it? So that it’s them, the top seismologists who will say:’s normal… its a normal phenomenon .. one hundred quakes on 4 Richter scale are better than silence .. we need quakes to release energy and there will never be the big earthquake.. the one that will hurt… Do you get it? (..) You speak with De Bernardinis and decide where you will have this meeting tomorrow, then let the press know about the meeting. And that its not, that we are scared and worried, is that we want to reassure people .. and instead of us doing the talking .. we make the top scientist in the field of seismology speak. La Stati: “Perfect..” ]
    (in italian here)

    it is wrong to write that they have been found guilty of not predicting the earthquake

    1. I’m only going by the translation that you provided, but is there anything really damning there? They’re discussing the organisation of a press conference, these things are a group effort. I see no reason to assume that Bertolaso is forcing his opinion on them.

      Edited to say that I’m not assuming his innocence either. It’s quite interesting to hear opposing arguments, the majority of English language articles I’ve found seem to be a little copy and pasty.

  29. Just to clarify:
    The problem isn’t that they “failed to predict” the earthquake. The problem, and the crime, is that they were manipulated by politicians into LYING, by reassuring tha population that no, there wouldn’t be another earthquake. They acted unprofessionally and lent themselves to a political PR move that backfired horribly. People who didn’t know better, and who later became witnesses for the trial in question, thought “ah, okay, Mr. Seismologist said that things are safe, I’ll sleep at home tonight”, only to get injured and see their loved ones die.

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