If you’ve somehow missed the news, seven Italian earthquake experts were found guilty of manslaughter on Monday, October 22, for not properly warning the residents of L’Aquila of the risks of an earthquake of a 6.8 magnitude on the Richter Scale that struck on April 6, 2009. The earthquake killed over 300 residents, displaced hundreds and damaged much of the town’s infrastructure to the point that parts of it remain uninhabited. The judge passed a sentence the following day of six years in jail – two more than the prosecution was looking for – and fines and court fees in excess of $10 million. (Read the New York Times’ story on this case by clicking here).
As can naturally be expected, the global scientific community is in an uproar over the verdict. They feel that the L’Aquila 7 are being found guilty of not predicting that an earthquake was going to happen, which is impossible to do. It has already led to some disaster scientists/experts to resign their posts for fears of facing similar situations. Scientists who deal with disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters are stating that they will now live in fear of stating their scientific opinion or provide a proper assessment of a risk given that they could be taken to court and charged if their opinion is wrong.
The prosecution, to be fair, state that they never actually charged the scientists with failing to predict an earthquake. The 7 were charged with being negligent in their assessment of the risk to the residents of L’Aquila; downplaying the potential of a big earthquake after weeks of small tremors had shook the region and the people into a panic. It was this negligence which led to a false sense of security by the residents and which prevented many of them from evacuating the area ahead of the earthquake’s strike, just days after the scientists had held a press conference that tried to calm the populace. The prosecutor compared the scientists’ flawed assessment and failures to the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers in properly stating the risk that the bad levees posed to New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina.
This whole sad affair wouldn’t have even happened were it not for a local scientist who kept shouting that a major earthquake was coming because he was measuring elevated levels of radon gas around the area. Measuring for elevated radon – a radioactive gas that comes up from the ground as a by-product of uranium – has been both in and out of fashion within geophysics for over 30 years and remains debated as a potential method to predict an earthquake. The science remains inconclusive at best. Unfortunately, in this case, the high radon levels were a precursor. When local authorities took the scientist seriously and began calling for an evacuation, panic set in the area. The state government formed a risk assessment team to calm the situation down, which they did at a press conference on March 30, 2009. They – the 6 scientists and 1 government spokesperson who were found guilty.
My first reaction was to be outraged at how the scientists have been basically railroaded by a legal system that is looking to hide the inadequacies and failures of the larger government system. After all, had code enforcement of new development in an earthquake-prone area been better, there might not have been as much damage or loss of life. The L’Aquila 7 are basically on trial as scapegoats of a larger system that failed the populace.
The greater concern I have though lies at the continued mistrust of science that continues to permeate our societies. Even as we become more dependent on the technological leaps and scientific breakthroughs of the last generation, we seem to carry both a demand for science to solve all of our world’s problems and a distaste for the potential responses that science may provide. We get super storms and moan about hotter summers and colder winters. The moment a scientist utters the words “climate change”, he is painted as beholden to some sort of evil, socialist, hippie agenda. We’re told that earthquakes may happen and, instead of reinforcing our infrastructure to the best of our abilities, we complain over the prediction.
Perhaps it is simply human nature to take the unbelievable and make it mundane. After all, twenty years ago, none of us had e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. Now we use those communication tools to waste away our days. Instead of looking to improve our world, we complain when those things don’t function precisely as we’d want them. Unfortunately, science doesn’t function like a robotic butler that just provides and provides without a care. There’s uncertainty. There’s confusion. There’s mistakes. Science is humanity trying to understand creation. Like any human endeavor, it will fail us at times.
Hold scientists accountable for what they actually did and not because they are the ones left holding the bag.