US experts slam seismologist conviction

2012-10-23 14:27

Washington - US scientists on Tuesday joined global colleagues in expressing outrage at an Italian court's sentencing of six seismologists to jail for underestimating the risks of a 2009 earthquake.

The Union of Concerned Scientists denounced the watershed ruling - in which the six Italian scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in jail for multiple manslaughter - as "absurd and dangerous".

It cited an earlier warning by the American Geophysical Union that such litigation would "discourage scientists and officials from advising their government or even working in the field of seismology and seismic risk assessment".

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also condemned the verdict, saying years of research had shown "there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster".

"We worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science."


Tom Jordan, who chaired an international commission convened after the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake to offer forecasting recommendations, also opposed the verdict, even though the commission's findings were used by the prosecution.

"It's incredible to me that scientists who were just trying to do their jobs have been convicted of manslaughter," said Jordan, a University of Southern California professor who heads the Southern California Earthquake Centre.

"The system was flawed, but I'm afraid this verdict is going to cast a pall on anyone trying to make things better."

Jordan said his report, which was submitted to the government before the charges were made, was "used as part of a Monday-morning quarterbacking", an American football metaphor that refers to judging decisions based on hindsight.

The US Geological Survey declined to comment on Monday's verdict, saying: "As a federal science agency, it would be inappropriate for the USGS to comment on the legal proceedings and outcome of the Italian courts."

Under the Italian justice system, the seven remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal the verdict.

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 6 April killed 309 people and devastated the walled medieval town of L'Aquila.

  • cobusburgers - 2012-10-23 14:42

    This is just plain stupid. If I was one of those convicted I will merely ignore the ruling of such an idiotic judge and leave the country. I hope the rest of the European Union will condemn the Italian Judiciary system for their stupidity. This is really primitive and sounds like a tale from the middle ages when people were murdered after being accused of witchcraft.

      robbie.crouch - 2012-10-23 16:21

      I trust they take their case to the EU courts, where there will be more common sense.

  • marius.dumas - 2012-10-23 20:38

    There may be three sides to the matter. Earthquake predictions are less of an exact science than weather prediction, even weather prediction is not an exact science. Scientists cannot at all times be sure of what will happen, you can only be happy if they do find something to warn you about. But not everything can be done to certainty. If they called for the evacuation of the city for every tremor which came and where nothing happens, then they will also be sued or dismissed for wasting state resources. I think courts know little about science and should first get expert opinions from relevant scientific bodies before jumping blindly into cases like this. However there still is a principle of negligence where a scientist may neglect to perform duties or follow procedures in high risk disciplines. It is important for engineers and scientists to be responsible and to follow procedures especially where lives are at risk. I can understand that a court will hold scientist responsible in the case of negligence. then on the third stage we should not forget management. Do those scientist have the resources, equipment for proper management, record keeping, auditing and procedures that assist with identifying human error. Often the lack of equipment, manpower and management increases the risk of human error or disorganized environment that promote negligence. scientist are not particularly management experts. Perhaps the gov. should invest in proper management.

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