In the days before the massive 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people, injured 1,500 and left more than 65,000 homeless in L’Aquila, Italy, one government official told locals to relax with a glass of wine. Three years later, he and six scientists have now been found guilty on manslaughter charges and sentenced to six years in jail because they failed to properly warn residents.
The verdict has placed an unwelcome spotlight on the scientific community. And while it is impossible to predict when earthquakes will hit, is it possible that these scientists, all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (and assembled after several small tremors had already hit), irresponsibly downplayed a risk?
Florin Diacu, a professor of mathematics at the University of Victoria and author of “Megadisasters: The Science of Predicting the Next Catastrophe,” recently wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times on the subject. According to Diacu, the judge’s decision to sentence the scientists displays the same distorted logic as a surgeon being imprisoned for warning a patient that there’s a small chance of dying during surgery if the patient does, in fact die. “Imagine the consequences for the health system,” he writes, adding, “In response to the verdict, some Italian scientists have already resigned from key public safety positions.”
However, according to Charlotte Pritchard of the BBC News, the problem in the L’Aquila case wasn’t the idea that an earthquake couldn’t be accurately predicted; it was the scientists’ reassuring press conference that put them at fault. “The message seemed to be that there was nothing to worry about at all. This is the falsely reassuring statement which formed part of the case against them, “ she writes. The maligned government official, Bernardo De Bernardinis, “advised worried residents to go home and sip a glass of wine,” even specifying what kind: “’Absolutely a Montepulciano.”
The opinions seem evenly divided between those who blame the scientists for a cavalier attitude and those who are scandalized by the idea that they could be imprisoned for delivering what was presumably an honest prediction. The real fallout, as both Diacu and Jonathan Amos at BBC News point out, could be the verdict’s effect on the scientific community, which Amos believes is being put on trial. The feeling in the community, he reports, is that the case might set the damaging precedent of deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits.
No one would argue that the press conference advice was definitely a gaffe – which would have been overlooked had the catastrophic earthquake not happened. Should the scientists have been jailed for false reassurance, or is science unfairly on trial?