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Seismologists Charged with Manslaughter

by Steven Novella, May 30 2011

The Italian Government has charged their top seismologists with manslaughter because they failed to predict the devastating 2009 earthquake, which killed 308 people. The scientists, and the seismology community, are stunned – primarily because it’s impossible to predict earthquakes.

On it’s surface the story is pretty sensational and downright silly:

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake, reported the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

That may have something to do with the fact that earthquake science is imprecise, incomplete, and often produces contradictory information. The scientists and their colleagues are calling this a witch hunt and warn that it will have a chilling effect on scientists, a very real concern.

I have to say, however, that I get the uneasy feeling that I am not getting the entire story. The media (at least the English-speaking media) are telling one story – the government is going after scientists for not predicting the impossible to predict. This may, in fact, be the actual story. But I wonder if there are some nuances here that we are missing. For example, did the scientists make any irresponsible statements that had nothing to do directly with their ability to predict the quake? I’m just speculating, but this is a story I would not take at face value until more information comes to light.

Regardless of how accurate the report is, it raises some interesting points, the most obvious of which is how should experts be held accountable for their performance. We often call upon experts to give us their expert opinion, and sometimes the stakes are very high. This happens in medicine every day – in any applied science. We cannot fault experts for not being perfect, for not foreseeing the unforeseeable, and for not having crystal balls. We do expect them to be honest and transparent about their uncertainty.

We can require that they meet minimal standards of competence. In medicine, this is the “substandard care” criterion. We don’t blame doctors for bad outcomes (many of which are unavoidable) or for the limits of our current knowledge and technology. In order for a doctor to be held liable for their practice they had to have been practicing demonstrably below the standard of care.

We can apply this here – did the top seismologists of Italy commit scientific malpractice in their assessment of the risk of a large quake? By all accounts, the answer is no.

Another relevant issue here is the balance between warning the public about credible risks, while not panicking them. In this case the Italian seismologists said, in effect, that the recent tremors were not necessarily sign of a big quake in the near future. There still might not be a big quake for years. But, they warned, a big quake is coming eventually. That sounds like a fair assessment of the science.

We don’t want to cause unnecessary concern, or disrupt society with constant warnings about potential disasters. At the same time, we do want people to be prepared for possible disasters. There may also be times when we can predict that a catastrophe is imminent, and then we will want to get the information out along with specific instructions.

Apparently, the judge did not like the balance that these scientists struck:

The charges filed by the prosecution contends that this assessment “persuaded the victims to stay at home”, La Repubblica newspaper reported.

But defense for the scientists claim that they never said anything akin to – there is no risk.

Again – this is a case study in how such risks are to be presented to the public. The way I see it you are always at cross-purposes and have to compromise – the more you warn the public, the more prepared they will be, but the more panicked they will be. The less you warn them, the calmer but less prepared they will be.

I think scientists, especially a consensus of recognized experts, should be free to express their scientific assessment to the public, without fear of being the target of later litigation (unless they really did commit scientific malpractice). Politicians and regulatory agencies should take their cue from the scientific community, but may want to also add their own spin in order to tweak the balance between reassurance and preparedness.

Perhaps what we have here is the government covering their butts by blaming the scientists, when no one was to blame. It was an unpredictable natural disaster. Learn from it for the next time.

18 Responses to “Seismologists Charged with Manslaughter”

  1. Max says:

    Quote in context:

    An interview with commission member Bernardo De Bernardis, of the national civil protection department, in which he rejects suggestions that the public should worry, is cited in the prosecutor’s case.
    Asked whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine, he said, “Absolutely, a Montepulciano doc [a Tuscan red wine]. This seems important.”
    The charges filed by the prosecution contends that this assessment “persuaded the victims to stay at home”, La Repubblica newspaper reported.

    He sounded pretty certain that the recent tremors were not a cause for concern, and maybe they weren’t. It was just his way of saying, “There’s no evidence that the recent tremors significantly increase the risk of a big earthquake in the near future.”

    • Max says:

      The earthquake in Japan had some large foreshocks.

      More on foreshocks

      “Even in areas where foreshocks are fairly common, there is no way of distinguishing a foreshock from an independent earthquake…
      One well-known successful earthquake prediction was for the Haicheng, China earthquake of 1975, when an evacuation warning was issued the day before a M 7.3 earthquake. In the preceding months changes in land elevation and in ground water levels, widespread reports of peculiar animal behavior, and many foreshocks had led to a lower-level warning. An increase in foreshock activity triggered the evacuation warning.”

      • Donald Prothero says:

        But the Haicheng prediction was followed 17 months later by the failure to predict the 1976 Tangshan quake, with killed more than half a million. Unlike Haicheng, there were NO precursors in Tangshan–and that’s been the problem with EQ prediction ever since. No two quakes are alike. Some have precursors, some don’t, and many “precursors” (including foreshocks) NEVER lead to a quake. That’s why NO reputable seismologist predicts quakes, nor does any reputable seismic agency make statements that the events at L’Aquila reliably predict a quake. They could have just as easily subsided with no effect (as they do in many places), and then people would be suing for the false alarm!

  2. Max says:

    Would this count as scientific malpractice?

    “Tokyo Electric Power Co said meltdowns of fuel rods at three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant occurred early in the crisis triggered by the March 11 disaster.
    The government and outside experts had said previously that fuel rods at three of the plant’s six reactors had likely melted early in the crisis, but the utility, also known as Tepco, had only confirmed a meltdown at the No.1 reactor…
    Some analysts said the delay in confirming the meltdowns at Fukushima suggested the utility feared touching off a panic by disclosing the severity of the accident earlier.”

    • Beelzebud says:

      Tepco is handling this about as well as the communist Russian government handled Chernobyl. The nuclear industry is its own worst enemy. Their deceit causes more doubt about atomic power, than an army of Greenpeace activists could ever hope to achieve.

      • Sobieski says:


        I live in Japan, thankfully about as far from Fukushima as one can be, and this is dead on.

        Last week they announced that the “fuel has overheated and it cannot be said with certainly that the fuel has not left it’s jacket material moved to the bottom of the containment vessel”, and “it may be regrettably true that the amount of harmful substances released may not be as small as originally believed”…and it’s always followed by “but there are no immediate health effect”. True enough, but if I poke you with a syringe full of HIV, there will be no immediate health effects. Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud.

        And because the Japanese are such a passive and timid people, easily swayed by ritual apologies from men who have no intention of suffering real consequences, TEPCO officials can look forward to a comfortable retirement. Their temp-agency “jumpers” will of course die slowly with no benefits or health support. TEPCO’s apologized, after all.

        But this has engendered enough (justified, as it turned out) fear that nuclear power is dead in Japan. I used to be a big proponent of nuclear power, but seeing the way one of the most advanced industrial nations handles it, no more. The technology is only as good as the people building and running it, and in Japan at least, they are corrupt liars who faked safety checks, lied at every step of the disaster, and even now are weaseling out of paying reparations. It cannot be said that I do not agree with the usual Chinese response to executive malfeasance.

      • Max says:

        To quote Dr. Alexey Yablokov, who studied the effects of Chernobyl, “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.”

  3. DeLong says:

    I wonder what the Italian authorities and courts would do with a person like Harold Camping? Camping caused people to quit jobs, sell their homes and possessions for something that had no basis in fact.

    • Other Paul says:

      Nothing would be done by the Italian State to pursue a legal case against a person like Harold Camping.

      You’d have to do it as an individual prosecution. Opinions and pronouncements uttered by the religious get a free pass by pretty much any state power on this beknighted planet.

      Mind you, the leeway allowed ‘religious’ organisations in the USA is probably unique to that country. Few other states permit the kind of freedom (including tax breaks) to any kook or freak calling themselves a ‘church’ as is permitted there (to the USA’s credit, of course).

      Harold in Italy! Hah! [An in-joke for Berlioz afficionados].

  4. I’ll venture this is Berlusconi’s latest way of hand-waving to distract, or attempt to distract, the Italian people from his mistress/hooker scandals, his mistress/hooker running for parliament scandals, his party’s tanking at the polls in recent municipal elections, etc.

    That said, if it works? Look for conservative sleezebags elsewhere to pull the same.

    Sen. Coburn: “If you claim anthropogenic global warming will cause more severe storms, then was it not criminal malpractice for you to fail to predict the Joplin tornado?”

  5. CountryGirl says:

    You do know that neither global warming nor global cooling cause tornados I hope. Our continent’s unique geography causes storms which are powerful enough to spawn tornados. The large land mass extending into the artic which allows cold air to move South and the warm Gulf of Mexico waters combined with wind flow bringing the warm moist air into contact with cold air cause massive thunderstorms. This will happen even when this current global warming reverts to the next cycle of global cooling (which it will if history is any predictor).

  6. Traveller says:

    You should be more accurate.

    It is not the “Italian government”, but local prosecutors (as it is clear from the links you reported and the links in those articles).

    • Max says:

      The Fox News piece says, “Italian government officials have accused…” and also that the AAAS “wrote a letter to the Italian government last year.”

      • Federico says:

        Then Fox News reported incorrectly. There’s no way the government can start an accusation in Italy, the justice system is completely independent.

    • Until further notice, Berlusconi IS “the Italian government.”

  7. Max says:

    “Japan underestimated the risk of tsunamis and needs to closely monitor public and workers’ health after the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a team of IAEA safety inspectors said in a preliminary review of the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl…
    [The well-documented weaknesses] start with a failure to plan for a tsunami that would overrun the 19 ft break wall at Fukushima and knock out back-up electric generators to four reactors, despite multiple forecasts from a government agency and operator TEPCO’s own scientists that such a risk was looming.”

    Sounds like the experts did predict the tsunami risk, but were ignored by management, so this is more like the Challenger disaster.

  8. Federico says:

    There’s strong separation of powers in Italy: this accusation is from local prosecutors, which are completely independent from government. There’s no involvement of the italian government in this accusation. (and I really don’t like this government but just to be clear)

  9. Donna Gore says:

    Have they pressed charges against God as well ??