By Claire

By now I’m sure you’re all familiar with the case in Italy, of the seven people (six scientists and a former government official) who were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake that killed 300 people in 2009.

Worldwide, there has been outcry from the scientific community (and the community in general) over these charges. In essence, the scientists have been held accountable for failing to predict an event that can not be predicted. It appears that the scientists have become the scapegoats for this disaster, allowing the people affected by the quake to feel like justice has been served in some way.

Upon further investigation, the scientists have actually been charged for failing to accurately communicate the risk of a large earthquake that in this case, happened to eventuate and kill 300 people. The prosecutor’s case is built on the belief that the scientists gave out “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information”.

A government official speaking to the press stated,

“the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.”

When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis famously replied “Absolutely.”

Reading that statement above makes me cringe. I do have to agree that in this case, the true risk of an earthquake occurring was not accurately communicated and instead, you do see an element of platitude in those comments. BUT! I still do not believe that this is grounds for a criminal conviction and six-years in prison.

But this trial does raise an important question when it comes to communication of risk. At what point does the statistical chance of an event occurring become high enough that some degree of preparedness and alarm is warranted. If there is a 5% chance? 25% chance? Any chance at all??

Risk of a large earthquake occurring in Italy. You’ll notice, L’Aquila is right in the middle of a higher probability area.

In an earthquake prone area there is ALWAYS some risk of a large earthquake. Does this mean that residents should be constantly on alert? At what point do individuals who choose to live in these areas take responsibility for some degree of risk because of the place they choose to live?

When the scientists were directly asked about the likelihood of a large earthquake, altogether different information was provided. Enzo Boschi, then-president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Rome – had this to say at a meeting that took place a week prior to the large earthquake:

It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 [a devastating earthquake that previously hit L’Aquila] could occur in the short-term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.

Clearly, there is a breakdown in communication between the scientists and the public. This statement is very different to the one given to the public via the government official.

I really do feel for the scientists, who were stuck in an awkward situation. Firstly, they were not the ones who communicated risk to the public. This was done via a government representative who clearly went about interpreting the risk presented by the scientists for the media. I’m confident that the scientists in their official brief, made no mention of relaxing at home with a glass of wine. So if that is the case, can we still hold the scientists responsible, or does responsibility now fall on the official who played down the scientists’ findings?

Secondly, the predicted risk of a large earthquake occurring at this time, was only 2%. When the risk is so low, is it sound science to suggest that there was in fact a possibility of a large earthquake occurring, knowing how panic can affect groups of people. If the scientists had in fact suggested there was a likelihood of a large earthquake, there was a 98% chance that this prediction would be wrong. In the same situation, I think I would have done the same thing.

Unfortunately, this law suit now opens the possibility for law suits in other areas of uncertainty, and that is a dangerous slope to be on. Does this mean we can now sue the Bureau of Meteorology for ruining a wedding, because they failed to predict rain on a particular day? Or that we can sue our accountant for failing to predict the GFC and losing all our money?

I personally think that our society has too many legal clauses in it already, without everyone now having to cover themselves for things that have a 2% chance of occurring!

Hopefully, common sense will prevail, and the scientists’ convictions will be overturned in appeal. The only people who win out in this case are the lawyers.

Check out this great news story in Nature related to the trial.