EarthquakesConviction of Italian seismologists has others in the field rethinking speaking out

Published 18 December 2012

After six Italian scientists were sentenced to six years in prison for failing to warn citizens of an earthquake in 2009, the scientific community has been forced scared into rethinking predictions and risk in order to avoid possible jail terms

After six Italian scientists were sentenced to six years in prison for failing to warn citizens of an earthquake in 2009, the scientific community has been forced  into rethinking predictions and risk in order to avoid possible jail terms

In April 2009 an earthquake hit the town of L’Aquila Italy, killing more than 300 people. Before the quake, the town experienced a series of tremors. In a press conference a week before the 6.3 magnitude earthquake, a city official, who was not a seismologist, said that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy,” according to a Nature News report.

MSNBCreports that many scientists believe it was that statement that kept citizens from leaving the town, and the  prosecutors used it during the trial. The scientists were eventually found guilty of manslaughter.

Now, scientists are nervous that their science-based predictions could be taken too literally and that that might lead to the same fate if these predictions  are wrong.

The group [of Italian scientists] “got snookered into answering a simple yes or no question: Will we be hit by a large earthquake?” Thomas Jordan, a researcher at the Southern California Research Center at the University of Southern California toldMSNBC. “Seismologists can’t provide an answer to that type of question.”

Five years ago Jordan and his team conducted a study to assess disaster protocols in six major countries known for seismic activity. None of the six countries has a method to calculate the probability of an earthquake. Jordan and his team concluded that giving a hard probability for the chances of an earthquake is almost impossible.

You actually have to deal with probabilities of probabilities,” Jordan said. “That can be a technically difficult conversation.”

Most people have a reasonable estimate of risk probability, according to Jordan. In a survey conducted by Jordan and his team, the majority of Californians knew the risk of seeing a major earthquake was higher than in other parts of the country and they also knew that the southern part of the state face a greater risk than the northern region.

In the future, the fear of possible prosecution may lead scientists to keep their mouths shut when they think that a significant seismic activity will occur, leaving thousands vulnerable to harm. Analysts say that officials need to find a protocol for using estimates by scientists in order to make evaluation calls. The prediction might be wrong, but when it comes to potentially saving lives, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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