Seismologists guilty in Italy: More on the L'Aquila verdict, and what it means for the future of science

In a guest piece at Scientific American, David Ropeik argues that an Italian court's decision to charge scientists and a government official with manslaughter isn't about quake prediction per se, but a failure to communicate science effectively. Snip:

But, contrary to the majority of the news coverage this decision is getting and the gnashing of teeth in the scientific community, the trial was not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes. These convictions were about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have as citizens to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices.

An editorial from Nature, a publication that covered the case extensively in 2011, echoes this sentiment. "It is important to note that the seven were not on trial for failing to predict the earthquake," but...

The verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous. Already some scientists have responded with warnings about the chilling effect on their ability to serve in public risk assessments.


  1. The International Union of Concerned scientists, reading from a prepared statement, announced “It is overwhelmingly probable that all of you will die. Further details are unavailable due to ongoing litigation.”

  2. The important point being missed in this debate is the abysmal quality of modern science journalism. 

    One major reason that scientists communicate with the public so poorly is that there is almost no possible platform for doing so except those in which a half-competent idiot will exaggerate everything you said until it’s an outright lie, then be rewritten into a sexier lie by an ignorant editor.  And the public buy this, in preference to any story that accidentally lets actual facts creep in.

    (Quick: Write a coherent explanation of earthquake risks for your home town.  Now rewrite in such a form that the Daily Mail would actually publish it.  Free hint: your article must discuss the topic entirely in terms of how it will either cause, or prevent, cancer.  No other science stories will be considered.)

    Basically, the problem is this.

    1. Einstien dealt with much the same problem, as did others of his era.

      Journalism has only ever been about selling newspapers and getting people to watch television advertisements. Any ancillary good it has ever done has been accidental, a byproduct created by the efforts of the rare journalist with a conscience and personal integrity who manages to build up enough of a reputation to get away with rocking the boat for important causes. Journalism as a system and as an establishment has only ever fought AGAINST such endeavors.

  3. I eagerly await the 2030 trials for the climatologists who failed to warn us about the risks of global warming. 

  4. If I was an Italian vulcanologist (and if I didn’t flee the country immediately), I would release press releases every day saying that there was a chance that Mt. Etna and/or Mt. Vesuvius and/or any other known or unknown volcanoes might erupt within the next 24 hours.

      1. To be honest, attempting to flee the country might get you the same sentence. After all, how would it look if vulcanologists started to flee the region? Surely a sign of impending volcanic disaster!

        It’s Italy. These poor bastards are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The Italian government is a sham, and has been for literally a lifetime.

  5. Ah, so they were not convicted because they made any mistakes doing their job as seismologists. They were convicted because none of them assumed charge of public relations, which I’m sure they were in a good position to do. Sure, now it makes perfect sense.

    1. Exactly my thoughts. It is still the most unfair verdict i read about in a long time. And if I was a seismologist i would keep my mouth shut fir the rest of my life.

  6. –But we’re just scientists, not high priests   We don’t have control over natural disasters!

    –Mob hurls stones.

    –OK, new tactic.  If you do not release us this instant we will make it earthquake.  I’m not kidding!

  7. This article is interesting and it presents a very different view than most of the reporting we have seen so far — and it’s also clear that most of those commenting above did not bother to read it.

    The article is saying that this was not about the scientists failing to predict the earthquake — or weather or global warming or volcanoes — but about the fact that the National Risk Council convened in the area after some potential earthquake warnings about a week before the quake, left without telling anyone anything, and left it up to the deputy chief of the Civil Protection Department to tell everyone that there was “absolutely no risk” and that everyone should just “go drink a glass of wine.” Several days later, of course, 300 people were dead.

    So we can certainly argue about what it means when someone representing scientists say that there is absolutely “no danger” and it turns out that they were dead-wrong — and whether anyone should be held liable for that — but it seems, according to this, that it isn’t about people “failing to predict” an earthquake.

    1. The author implies that the scientists did nothing because they did not issue a statement.  That’s not true.  They met, assessed the risk, and decided not to issue a warning.  This is still a decision.  Realistically there is always a risk of an earthquake.  Those scientists could simply issue a warning every day to cover their asses and Ropenik would think that that was a great policy!  The obvious reality is that if you issued warnings every day, nobody would heed them.  For this reason the scientists must chose carefully when to issue a warning.  Sometimes not issuing a warning is the correct choice.  These scientists did their job in reaching a decision and now are being crucified because they made the wrong choice.

  8. Can we please use this precedent to imprison great swaths of the U.S. Congress now? We can save trouble by putting a fence around Kansas to start.

  9. Hi I’m writing from Italy, please read the article, as SamSam says, the conviction is about a very bad mismanagement of communication: scientists didn’t fail to predict the earthquake, but were incredibly ready to reassure people “that nothing would happen”, inviting (with some arrogance on prime time national tv) to “go drink a glass of wine and sleep tight”, people died because of their careless and inadequate way to communicate the objective situation, mostly because (see the “civil protection” leaders telephone calls registrations which came up during the trial) people had to be told that everything was ok, nothing wrong could happen under Mr. Berlusconi’s rule. It’s been proved that the scientists belonging to the commitee (who were very well paid by the government for their consulting work) didn’t care to tell the truth and it has been proven that at least 30 people died because they trusted the “scientific” confidence with which they publicly excluded any danger was imminent,  that’s why they were condemned.

  10. You can’t really understand what’s happening here unless you know the context. Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano does a very good job of summing it up in this piece but if you don’t want to struggle with Google Translate, it is all really about political issues.

    The point is that emergency superintendent Guido Bertolaso issued a specific order (and there is a phone tap of it) saying “go there and tell the people there won’t be any earthquake”). By the way, this is the very same Bertolaso guy placed in that seat by Berlusconi, and the same one who was phone tapped right after the quake, literally laughing because “now it’s gonna be big business for our building companies”. “Our” referred to companies owned by the then-PM, his family, and various members of his party who are/were under trial for having relationships with the mafia.
    In other word, that was literally an order you couldn’t refuse.

  11. Should anybody wish to actually know what happened, and why, you can also read another extremely interesting (and very fact-based) editorial explaining the situation: . It’s in Italian, from the one single newspaper not published with the state’s financial backing (and this should say something about media freedom in Italy), and it’s aptly titled “Why Galileo has nothing to do with this”.

  12. It’s easy to deal with the chilling effect.  “You have a degree in seismology, and you refused to make a public statement when an earthquake was impending. Guilty.” Or even “you have a degree in seismology, and you’re leaving the country so as to avoid making earthquake predictions. We’ll have you extradited back to face trial for that.”

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