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Litigation gone wild! A geologist’s take on the Italian seismology manslaughter case

by Donald Prothero, Jun 01 2011

The story has been in the news, and discussed in Steve Novella’s last post. Back on April 6, 2009, a Richter magnitude 5.8 (moment magnitude = 6.3) earthquake 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 with 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? There’s more to the story than the short news clips mention, of course. Apparently, an Italian lab technician 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 is now in the courts. I don’t know much about the Italian legal system, but I’m hoping that the seismologists’ attorneys will bring in the “big names” of seismology from around the world to testify (or at least collect depositions, as well as statements from all the major world scientific organizations) to show that the charges are baseless. If the Italian justice system works as a court should, the judge should throw the case out of court before this frivolous suit goes any further.

If the victims insist on suing someone, they should leave the seismologists alone and look into the construction of some of those buildings. The stories out of L’Aquila suggest that the death toll was much higher because of official corruption and shoddy construction, as happens in many countries both before and after big quakes. In fact, much of the construction is apparently Mafia-controlled in that area—good luck suing them! Sadly, the ancient medieval buildings that crumbled were the most vulnerable because they were made of unreinforced masonry, the worst possible construction material in earthquake country. Yet all over the world, it’s the cheapest and simplest material to use, so houses are continually rebuilt out of the same bricks and cobbles remaining from the last quake—setting them up as guaranteed death traps for the next quake. This is the single biggest factor explaining why quakes in the developing world are so deadly, while those in the U.S. kill fewer than 6 people a year (on average) over the past century.

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. 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.

29 Responses to “Litigation gone wild! A geologist’s take on the Italian seismology manslaughter case”

  1. Max says:


    Did Giuliani deserve to be prosecuted for causing alarm? In other words, are fringe predictions a crime whether or not they’re right?

    The public is angry at the scientists not because they didn’t predict the quake, but because they rejected the “correct” prediction and told people to relax and have a glass of wine.

    About building construction, the Guardian said:
    “Manslaughter charges for natural disasters are not unusual in Italy, but they have previously concerned breaches of building codes in areas at risk of quakes.”

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I don’t know how the Italian legal system works, but in the US, someone could be sued for causing a false alarm about earthquakes, although I know of no such cases. Someone could NOT successfully sue legitimate seismologists for failing to predict a quake, or for rejecting a prediction by a lab technician using a method known to be unreliable (even if he does get lucky and it happens). And yes, I would assume that the strongest legal case can be made against builders who did substandard work since this is a clear case of negligence.

      • Reposted from Novella;s original post:

        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?”

  2. MadScientist says:

    Unfortunately people have the incorrect notion that Giuliani was somehow correct even though he got the date and location of the quake wrong. How many details does Giuliani have to get wrong before people realize that he’s just plain wrong?

    I like this blog entry about the prediction claims:

    There are even further links to read. I like a blog with citations.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I tried to accommodate you–nearly every key point I made has a citation link.

    • Max says:

      Here’s a nice quote from the Guardian story:
      “The information was completely wrong, he forecast it for Sulmona,” Boschi told reporters. “Imagine if we had accepted such data and evacuated Sulmona, most of the evacuees would have been in L’Aquila today,” Boschi said.

      Now, pseudoscientific predictions should be condemned whether or not they’re right. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but it would be fraud to pass it off as being accurate. But if someone dies as a result of fraud (or any crime), then it really could be manslaughter.

  3. Richard Smith says:

    Now, if only the following were true:

    In a litigious society like Italy or the U.S., this is a serious question. If a religious zealot does make a prediction and fails, he’s liable, because people will panic and make foolish decisions and then blame the zealot for their losses.

    I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, though. Ah, well, it’s not the end of the world.

    • Deb says:

      Example: Christchurch.

      We had a minimum damage 7.1 followed by a maximum damage 6.2. Look up Ken Ring and his predictions about aftershocks. While he is not a religious zealot nor encouraging people to act on his advice, he is creating a lot of scare in the citizens.

      Many left town on March 20 due to his prediction for a “one for the record books” shake that morning. There was a small aftershock that evening, so of course there are blogs like “How many times does Ken Ring have to be right before people take him seriously?” Despite that he’d predicted a record-breaking destructive quake before 12pm, not a minor shake 5.0 or thereabouts in the evening which cause no further damage anywhere.

      Whether people can or should be sued for the actions others take based on their advice is a hot topic here right now, because of him. There is a fuzzy grey line. How many folks have spent how many dollars avoiding town when he tells them to (or worse – leaving Christchurch to live elsewhere on these false scare stories)? It’s dubious (IMHO) where we draw the line between scaremongering panic-creating zealots who should be held accountable for the actions of their followers, and personal responsibility of the adults who made their own choices based on information (not recommendations!) given.

      My opinion on Italy? As I heard it they are being sued not for failing to predict, but because they downplayed the risk. However, since earthquake risk is generally not really known with any accuracy, I doubt that what they stated at the time could be proven to be anything other than completely accurate *at that time*, even though there ended up being a big shake.

  4. Neil from Spain says:

    I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The Pope sent holy oil to the victims. What more do you want?

  5. Dr M says:

    Nature News presents the story quite differently:

    If this account is correct, the seismologists (or, rather, a panel including seismologists) are not being sued for “not predicting the earthquake”, but for saying what for someone who knows nothing about seismology may look like a prediction of no (risk for an) earthquake, i.e. for falsely leading people to believe that there isn’t a danger. That is something quite different.

    Now, of course, it is not too hard to make the case that the seismologists are still not at fault — certainly not in any legal sense anyway, and in my opinion not in any true moral sense either.

    • NatureNews? Is there homeopathic earthquake protection involved?

      • Dr M says:

        Are you stoned?

        If not, can you please clarify how your comment is relevant to what I said?

      • Mike says:

        Nature News is a anti-vacicnation/pro-homeopathy, pro-detox and pro- woo website.

        The grain of salt you need to take with this site could possibly kill you.

      • I see the problem.

        The source is “NatureNews” – part of the nature publishing group, and quite legitimate.

        Not – “naturalnews” – the crank website of the health ranger loon.

      • CJG says:

        Yeah I didn’t see anything related to homeopathy/vaccinations on their site either. Simply clicking on the link he provided would have cleared this up.

      • My apologies; not smoking anything, but I was thinking of Natural News, not Nature News.

  6. Italy is not the US. You cannot successfully sue professionals unless they clearly misbehaved.
    For instance, if a doctor tries an experimental therapy on you (after giving you all the information you need about it) and something bad happens, you cannot sue him. In the US you can, so you end up having stupid insurance policies.

  7. Donald Prothero says:

    That’s what I pointed out in my article–that the furor is over their treatment of Guiliani’s “prediction”, which when the scientific case is brought to court, will be exposed as the lucky shot that it was, and NOT a true prediction supported by reliable evidence

    • MadScientist says:

      Why would people even call Giuliani’s prediction a lucky shot? If the earthquake happened in Sulmona as he predicted, would l’Acquila have suffered so much? It’s not even a lucky shot, it’s post-facto rationalization similar to all the Nostradamus claims or just about any prophecy for that matter. Odds are that Harold Camping just has to hang on for a few more weeks and he’ll see a ‘sign’ that his prophecy was correct (likely some natural disaster, though nothing like the scale of what happened in Japan).

  8. Gary Nolan says:

    I think we’re confusing two issues aren’t we? We’re talking about lawsuits (Which are civil matters with monetary awards, a plaintiff and a defendant). But, aren’t these guys being criminally prosecuted for manslaughter? Which would be a prosecutor vs. a defendent, no money awards, but possible jailtime instead?

    • Gary Nolan says:

      For the record, my point being, frivolous lawsuits are one thing, but frivolous prosecutions are way more serious, because now you have elected officials abusing the system as opposed to just random crackpots trying to make a buck. Either way, great article, and I agree wholeheartedly that this action is disgusting on the part of the Italian Government.

      • BillG says:

        Frivolous lawsuits or prosecutions like these require counter-suits if only to combat the ignoramus of science – thus educating a deprived public and saving time and funds on future bogus suits.

        Regardless, predictions are relatively easy:

        1)be extremely vague
        2)make plenty of them

  9. BKsea says:

    I still think you are attacking a straw man description of the case. It seems to me that the scientists are being prosecuted because they DID make a prediction. They predicted there would NOT be any earthquake.

    They could have stated that the risk was not substantially different relative to normal risk, or that risk remained low. Instead, they stated there was “NO DANGER.”

    I still find it difficult to defend prosecution for this statement. However, it is an innacurate claim that may have led people to behave in a manner that contributed to their deaths. It is not nearly so silly as your straw man case of “failing to predict the earthquake.”

    • Max says:

      “They could have stated that the risk was not substantially different relative to normal risk, or that risk remained low. Instead, they stated there was ‘NO DANGER.'”

      They said a major quake was improbable:
      “Prosecutors point to a memo issued after a commission meeting on 31 March 2009, which was called because of mounting concerns about the seismic activity in the Abruzzo region, in central Italy. The memo stated that it was ‘improbable’ there would be a major quake, but the threat could not be discounted.”

      But this still encouraged residents to stay home, so it had the same effect as saying there’s no danger.

    • Gary Nolan says:

      What article are you reading? (I’m not beaing a wiseacre by the way, I’m asking an actual question).

      There’s no indication in this article that these people predicted it was safe. The article seems to indicate the seismologists simply pointed out that Giuliani made an irresponsible matter-of-factly prediction based on radon levels which they rightly pointed out are not a statistically reliable indicator of a quake.

      They didn’t say he was wrong, they merely stated there was no reliable evidence that he was right. They cautioned that people should not act based on his opinion because it was not reliably certain to occur if it was based on radon levels alone.

      • Max says:

        The prosecution’s case rests on this:

        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.

        Well, if the risk of a big quake is the same as it is on a normal day, then people should relax and not evacuate, same as on a normal day.

  10. Bill Riedel says:

    I give a PowerPt presentation entitled:

    Truthiness, Scientification and Bullshit in Communication – From Public Health to Politics.

    Here is what I think is relevant to this discussion:

    Perhaps the most important question to be examined will deal with potential legal consequences for bullshitters – Andrew Aberdein deals with the question in, Raising the tone: Definition, Bullshit, and the Definition of Bullshit, Chapter 10, page 152 of Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch, 2006, Bullshit and Philosophy – guaranteed to get perfect results every time, Open Court, Chicago. Aberdein observes: “In British and American common law, a civil claim for negligence arises when the defendant has a duty of care to the plaintiff which he neglects to exercise, thereby harming the plaintiff. Here the deceptive bullshitter has a duty to tell the truth; neglecting this duty harms his audience if they come to believe his false statements…. The associated culpability can range from inadvertence to wilful blindness”.

    I further explore this in a post entitled:

    On Truthiness and Safe – how safe is safe if safe isn’t really safe?
    If someone told you that the food supply is safe; but that there are up to 13 million cases of foodborne disease and 500 deaths annually (Canada), you would be right to question the individual’s integrity. Yet the food (un)safety community has been communicating in that manner for years….

    In other words, I believe scientists are often careless when they communicate – we need to be more humble and indicate how certain or uncertain we are – see post at

  11. Carl says:

    I’m hoping that the seismologists’ attorneys will bring in the “big names” of seismology from around the world to testify…

    May I assume you would be happy to testify?

    Now the Italian courts are saying that (despite world scientific consensus) seismologists are liable if they don’t predict quakes.

    No, as you say elsewhere in your article, the courts have not ruled. It’s prosecutors who are arguing this.

  12. CJS says:

    There was an interesting book a couple of years back, The monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, which describes the Italian judicial system as being fantastically irrational and out of control, sort of a non-stop McMartin preschool or O. J. trial year in and year out – he estimates some fantastic number (I don’t recall how many zeros involved) of people who have been wrongly imprisoned just in the post-war era.