By Simon Copland

In Italy, six seismologists are now under trial, accused of manslaughter, because they did not accurately predict an earthquake in 2009, which killed approximately 300 people.

For about 6 months before the quake, the towns in the central Italian vicinity had received a number of small tremors. During this period, these seismologists provided advice to the Government about the tremors and what they meant for the area.

Despite increasing concern, the scientists stated one week before the major quake that one of its size was “improbable”, though they also added that it couldn’t be excluded. This statement has now lead the scientists to be accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information”, which resulted in the Government not issuing a quake warning before the event.

The consequences of this trial could be huge.

One of the biggest challengers scientists face, in particular when communicating with the public, is that of how to deal with uncertainty. Particularly in areas such as seismology, where we are yet to develop effective tools to predict the movement of tectonic plates, it is often simply impossible to accurately predict many naturally occurring events. This means that scientists must be able to walk a very fine line between giving useful information, whilst acknowledging that any predictions cannot be taken without an understanding that we can never be 100% certain. As a public that wants to engage with, and work with scientists, this is a reality that we must be able to work with.

What this trial says is that we expect much more of scientists – we cannot accept uncertainty in science; we want accurate and complete predictions. This is a request that simply cannot be met. Given this, if these seismologists are convicted, it is very possible that many scientists around the world could start to see that engaging with policy makers and the public around issues clouded in uncertainty is simply too risky a move.

The response for the science community in this case would be obvious: they would just simply stop talking. The impact of that could be huge.

It is simply unfeasible to think that scientists could be punished for not predicting something that we simply do not have the tools to understand at this point.

It is worth keeping an eye on this trial in Italy. If the prosecution succeeds, reverberations could be felt around the world. Scientists are already talking about it now. We must just hope, and fight, to make sure that nothing like this could happen here.