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Litigation threatens scientific progress

by Donald Prothero, Nov 21 2012


Back on 2011, I blogged about the earthquake that occurred on April 6, 2009. It was a Richter magnitude 5.8 (moment magnitude = 6.3) quake that struck the province of Abruzzo in central Italy. It killed 308 people, injured 1173 more, and 65,000 were made homeless. The quake damaged almost 11,000 buildings in the medieval city of L’Aquila, and caused about $16 billion worth of damage over the region. This was the deadliest earthquake to hit Italy since the 1980 Irpina quake, a Richter magnitude 6.9 event in southern Italy, which killed 2914 people, injured over 10,000, and left 300,000 homeless. The L’Aquila event was preceded by hundreds of foreshocks, which caused much of the population to flee the city and seek shelter before the main quake. There were also hundreds of aftershocks, some of which were over 5.3 in Richter magnitude.

Naturally, people were upset, and wanted someone to blame. In the case of most natural disasters, people usually regard such events as “acts of God” and  try to get on with their lives as best they can. No human cause is responsible for great earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods. But in the bizarre world of the Italian legal system, six seismologists and a public official have been charged and now convicted of manslaughter for NOT predicting the quake! My colleagues in the earth science community were incredulous and staggered at this news. Seismologists and geologists have been saying for decades (at least since the 1970s) that short-term earthquake prediction (within minutes to hours of the event) is impossible, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. As Charles Richter himself said, “Only fools, liars, and charlatans predict earthquakes.” How could anyone then go to court and sue seismologists for following proper scientific procedures?

What’s going on here? As I reported in 2011, there’s more to the story than the short news clips mention. An Italian lab technician (not a seismologist) named Giampaolo Giuliani made a prediction about a month before the quake, based on elevated levels of radon gas. However, seismologists have known for a long time that radon levels, like any other “magic bullet” precursor, are unreliable because no two quakes are alike, and no two quakes give the same precursors. Nevertheless, his prediction caused a furor before the quake actually happened. The Director of the Civil Defence, Guido Bertolaso, forced him to remove his findings from the Internet (old versions are still on line). Giuliani was also reported to the police for “causing fear” with his predictions about a quake near Sulmona, which was far from where the quake actually struck. Enzo Boschi, the head of the Italian National Geophysics Institute declared: “Every time there is an earthquake there are people who claim to have predicted it. As far as I know nobody predicted this earthquake with precision. It is not possible to predict earthquakes.” Most of the geological and geophysical organizations around the world made similar statements in support of the proper scientific procedures adopted by the Italian geophysical community. They condemned Giuliani for scaring people using a method that has not shown to be reliable.

Sadly, most the of press coverage I have read (including many cited above) took the sensationalist approach, and cast Guiliani as the little “David” fighting against the “Goliath” of “Big Science”. Apparently, none of the reporters bothered to do any real background research, or consult with any other legitimate seismologist who would confirm that there is no reliable way to predict earthquakes in the short term and Giuliani is misleading people when he says so. Giulian’s “prediction” was sheer luck, and if he had failed, no one would have mentioned it again. Even though he believes in his method, he ignores the huge body of evidence that shows radon gas is no more reliable than any other “predictor”. In this regard, he is much like other quack “scientists” who get free news coverage “predicting” earthquakes—and then the press never bothers to challenge their credibility, or ask the quack “what happened?” when his prediction proves false. People want to believe that “solitary geniuses” are better than the hundreds of scientists who have established a large body of evidence and research, and that his treatment was due to his “success”, not to his crying “wolf”. That is probably why the entire sordid affair ended up in the courts.

So it came as a shock when, on October 22, 2012, the Italian courts convicted six scientists of manslaughter for failing to predict the earthquake. (Their case is now under appeal, so hopefully sanity will be restored in the next round).  Seismologists around the world were stunned that scientists were demonized for doing their jobs properly, even though the defense had offered numerous witnesses from the international seismological community who testified that short-term quake predictions are impossible. I’ve read through all the accounts I can find, but it seems that the testimony of the international seismologists was completely ignored. Instead, the trial focused on the efforts of the scientific officials to prevent widespread panic by asserting that Giuliani’s prediction had no scientific basis (which is true), and that there was no strong evidence of a major earthquake coming soon (also true). The courts seemed to be punishing scientists for their efforts to prevent panic, and for realistically stating that the probability of Giuliani’s prediction of a quake were very low. Unfortunately, when the quake did happen, people tried to find someone to blame, and scientists were a convenient scapegoat.

As USC seismologist Tom Jordan wrote:

The Italian scientists were trapped by a simple yes-or-no question: “Will we be hit by a damaging earthquake?” This was not surprising given Giuliani’s alarms, but it was not one they could answer conclusively. From what they knew a week before the earthquake, a big shock was not very likely: the probability of a false alarm (if an alarm were raised) exceeded the probability of a failure-to-predict (if an alarm were not cast) by a factor of more than 100. Even so, seismic activity had increased the probability of a large earthquake by a significant factor, perhaps as much as 100-fold, above the long-term average. Distracted by Giuliani’s predictions, the authorities did not emphasise this increase in hazard, nor did they focus on advising the people of L’Aquila about preparatory measures warranted by the seismic crisis. Instead, they made reassuring statements that were widely interpreted to be categorical.

This raises another question: what does this imply for scientists who are working in a field that might have predictive power? In a litigious society like Italy or the U.S., this is a serious question. If a reputable seismologist does make a prediction and fails, he’s liable, because people will panic and make foolish decisions and then blame the seismologist for their losses. Now the Italian courts are saying that (despite world scientific consensus) seismologists are liable if they don’t predict quakes. They’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Already, a number of prominent Italian scientists have resigned their posts in protest, and most of the rest will simply stop doing any kind of research that could get them sued.  In some societies where seismologists work hard at prediction and preparation (such as China and Japan), there is no precedent for suing scientists for doing their jobs properly, and the society and court system does not encourage people to file frivolous suits. But in litigious societies, the system is counterproductive, and stifles research that we would like to see developed. What seismologist would want to work on earthquake prediction if they can be sued? I know of many earth scientists with brilliant ideas not only about earthquake prediction but even ways to defuse earthquakes, slow down global warming, or many other incredible but risky brainstorms—but they dare not propose the idea seriously or begin to implement it for fear of being sued.

This state of affairs sure isn’t good for science—or for society. But until the more litigious countries find some way to address it, the potential advances that scientists could make to improve our lives are unnecessarily held back.

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21 Responses to “Litigation threatens scientific progress”

  1. Gilles says:

    “Sadly, most the of press coverage I have read (including many cited above) took the sensationalist approach, and cast Guiliani as the little “David” fighting against the “Goliath” of “Big Science”. ”

    Just like the Seralini debacle.

  2. fizz says:

    The situation is a bit different: they have been accused not of not having predicted an earthquake, but of having released unscientifically based strong reassurances to the population that no big earthquake would have happened, notwithstanding the many early small quakes, under pressure from politicians.
    This led to people remaining in houses that had already started to be damaged by the swarm, and that crumbled during the big quake of the 6th of April.

    There are actual phone recordings of the instructions from the politicians to the scientists to release a doctored statement.

    There are falsified papers and documents.

    The world press have quite misinterpreted all this trial, it’s not an attack to science, it’s an attack to political pressures over science.

    This is a google translated article that explains some more facts…
    http://translate.google.it/translate?sl=it&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=it&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ilfattoquotidiano.it%2F2012%2F10%2F23%2Fsentenza-grandi-rischi-scienza-non-centra-sismologi-inguaiati-dalla-politica%2F391443%2F

    • MadScientist says:

      The verdict is still strange; the scientists said there was no reason to believe a large earthquake was imminent and that there is no reason to evacuate – that of course is true, but by coincidence there was a large earthquake which of course no one predicted. Even if we were to suppose that this is an attack on political interference, what are the scientists supposedly guilty of and why were they convicted?

  3. Walter says:

    “Sadly, most the of press coverage I have read (including many cited above) took the sensationalist approach, and cast Guiliani as the little “David” fighting against the “Goliath” of “Big Science.”

    Huh? Neither of the two reports you link to do that, and most stories I’ve seen on this topic have made pretty clear that we can’t predict earthquakes. In fact, the BBC article quite extensively quotes a seismologist. I’m not saying the media doesn’t need to improve its science coverage — I’m just not seeing it in this case.

    • Daniel says:

      Knocking down strawmen. It’s Prothero SOP.

    • itzac says:

      I took that statement to be specifically in reference to Italian media. Unfortunately, Donald doesn’t link to any Italian reports.

      The context of the links he does provide clearly indicates those reports are meant to bolster his case, not that they are examples of the sensationalist reporting he’s talking about.

  4. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    I think this case will prove to be windfall for seismology research institutes around the world, as they take advantage of the coming “fire sale” of Italian seismologists looking to go elsewhere.

  5. Nyar says:

    “No human cause is responsible for great earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods.”

    But new taxes can totally prevent them. Amirite?

  6. Max says:

    Here’s a case of litigation threatening expert witnesses.
    http://www.nature.com/news/outcry-over-jailed-russian-chemist-1.11462

    A Russian businessman was under investigation because the 42 tons of food poppy seeds he imported from Spain had some poppy straw mixed in, potentially containing opiates.
    So his lawyers called on a chemist, Olga Zelenina, to testify that it’s impossible to fully eliminate such impurities, and that the opiate content was minuscule.
    Guess what happened next. SHE was charged with aiding and abetting attempted drug trafficking by an organized group.

  7. Max says:

    “In the case of most natural disasters, people usually regard such events as “acts of God” and try to get on with their lives as best they can. No human cause is responsible for great earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods.”

    But global warming makes extreme weather events like floods more likely, correct?

    • Student says:

      It does make some events more likely, but that doesn’t make them more predictable.

      Global Warming doesn’t really have anything to do with seismology though.

  8. MadScientist says:

    As one of the defense lawyers stated, it was an incredible failure of the legal system and sensibility – the Italian legal system as such does not necessarily promote this type of outcome. It would be far more surprising if the original verdict is upheld.

    As for Bertolaso, his predictions were utterly useless (all wrong); I don’t understand why people even believe he predicted this quake – we may as well say Nostradamus predicted it.

    Here’s a short list of major quake predictors that don’t predict anything:

    + foreshocks
    + radon emissions
    + Piezo luminescence
    + animals behaving strangely
    + anomalous thermal phenomena
    + gas emissions in general (radon isn’t the only gas people have toyed with)

    You can bet one of the above will be featured in a story soon after a major earthquake.

    Christchurch in New Zealand experienced a long sequence of very strong shocks with multiple shocks felt every week for over a year; it seems to have finally abated (but from the records the residents should still be able to feel at least 1 shock per week). That just goes to show that a powerful earthquake doesn’t necessarily mean the stress is relieved enough in the region to prevent further large quakes in the near future (there seems to be a myth that there’s no danger after a large quake and the immediate aftershocks). There’s always another slab of rock around which can fracture or slide.

  9. Trimegistus says:

    I’m sure litigators in the USA are just waiting to use this as a legal precedent next time there’s an unexpected natural disaster. And the “Party of Science ™” will help by continuing to block tort reform.

    • tmac57 says:

      Setting aside the fact that tort reform issues in the U.S. are overblown,and not nearly the problem that they have been portrayed to be,this case is a criminal case,not a civil matter,but your usual demagogic spin is duly noted.

      • Student says:

        I personally liked the “Party of Science” line.

        Tri, Democrats aren’t being claimed as “The Party of Science”. They’re just not as anti-science, and science-illiterate as the opposition.

        They’re the better option, not the best option.

        Deal with it.

  10. d brown says:

    I am, not going to take up a lot of space here. But Italian law has done many weird things. The “usual demagogic spin is duly noted.”

    • Archie Clebberdale says:

      Demagogic spin indeed. Apparently on the whole Italy normally isn’t that different from the rest of Europe, but the judge was reading banners rather than the law and listening to chants rather than the experts. In a properly functioning justice state this shouldn’t even be possible as the judiciary is supposed to be neutral and independent, but we’re talking about Italy.

  11. H2 says:

    “Naturally, people were upset, and wanted someone to blame.”

    Why don’t they blame god™? She caused it.

  12. Max says:

    Hopefully, if the Italian appeals court could overturn the murder conviction of Amanda Knox, they can overturn the conviction of the seismologists.