Italy condemned as court jails six scientists over Aquila quake
Geologists across the world horrified by verdict, but some believe scientists failed victims of quake
SCIENTISTS have expressed horror at a decision to jail six Italian seismologists for wrongly reassuring the people of L’Aquila before an earthquake that killed 309 people.
Six scientists and a former government official were sentenced to six years in prison for multiple manslaughter, and were ordered to pay more than €9m in damages to survivors and inhabitants.
Residents of L’Aquila had felt tremors months before the quake that devastated the city on 6 April 2009. Witnesses told the court that their family members had remained in their homes after being reassured by experts but later died when the 6.3 magnitude quake hit.
However, scientists have insisted that the seismologists could not have predicted the earthquake. Defence lawyers condemned the sentence and pledged to appeal it. Under the Italian system, the seven will remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal. An open letter from 5,000 scientists to the President of Italy denounced the trial.
Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey told AFP that the chances of predicting when a large earthquake is going to strike are "somewhat more remote than finding the Holy Grail".
The verdict will have "a chilling effect not just for seismologists but for science", he warned. "People will be very cautious about giving an opinion."
Charlotte Krawczyk of the European Geosciences Union said the verdict struck at scientists' right to speak honestly and independently. She said she feared "it is not just seismology which has been put on trial but all science".
R Brooks Hanson, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said there is a risk "more harm will be done than good" in terms of how scientists, particularly in Italy, are able to convey information about natural hazards. "What this is going to say is that you will always have to overreact," he told The Times. "You are going to create more panic and fear."
However, David Ropeik, a risk consultant and author, disagreed. "The trial was not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes," he wrote in Scientific American.
"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." Ropeik believes the scientists’ poor communication "failed" a "frightened community looking to the scientific experts forguidance".
Dr Vincenzo Vittorini, who lost his wife and daughter in the quake and now represents an association that supports victims' families, said the verdict must mark "a departure point to change the way risk prevention is done in Italy".
Quoted in Nature magazine, he said: "We have been saying for three years that seismic risk was underestimated in L'Aquila, and now a court has confirmed we were right."