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Legal Earthquake Rocks the Scientific Community

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On October 22, an Italian court found six seismologists and one government official guilty of multiple involuntary manslaughter for failing to accurately predict an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which killed around 300 people. The trial lasted from September 2011 until October 2012, but it took a judge only a little over 4 hours to decide it. Each man received a 6-year jail term. They were also banned for life from any public office and ordered to pay a total compensation of 7.8 million euros. An appeal is planned.

Convictions are not usually carried out in Italy until after an appeal process is completed. This means, not only that imprisonment is likely to be delayed, but also that the international scientific community will have more time to rouse itself and rally around the case. Prior responses are an indicator of what to expect. On June 29, 2010, 5,000 scientists from “the American Association for the Advancement of Science … the world’s largest multi-disciplinary society” signed an open letter to the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (PDF). Its purpose was to support the indicted seismologists.

Frankly, the conviction seems to have caught the scientific community off guard; they appear not to have believed it would actually happen. Now that it has, the conviction will almost certainly become a centerpiece of international controversy. This is probably inevitable because of the sheer prominence of the scientists involved. For example, one of them is the internationally respected seismologist Enzo Boschi, who formerly headed the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

Moreover, the questions raised profoundly impact the future of the scientific community. One question looms large: Is it legally safe for scientists to work for or consult with government officials? Given how much money and status scientists currently enjoy by partnering with the state, a divorce could revolutionize how science is done.

One of the lawyers for the victims of the earthquake stated, “This is a historic sentence.… It also marks a step forward for the justice system and I hope it will lead to change, not only in Italy but across the world.”

Background of the L’Aquila case

On April 6, 2009, an earthquake rated 5.8 on the Richter scale and 6.3 on the moment magnitude scale rocked the city of L’Aquila in central Italy. The UK Guardian (April 5, 2010) reported on the aftermath, “Within days it was established that 307 people were dead, 1,500 injured, and 80,000 homeless.” (Other sources vary slightly in their counts.)

In the months prior to the earthquake, there had been hundreds of tremors, and some researchers were warning of a major quake. Residents were nervous, with talk of evacuation in the air. On March 31, 2009, Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks held a meeting in L’Aquila; the subsequently convicted scientists were in attendance. According to records of the meeting, Dr. Boschi was asked if the swarm of tremors could presage a major quake similar to the one that had devastated L’Aquila in 1703. He answered, “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.” The scientists made no public statements, nor did they caution preparedness.

The international journal of science Nature (Sept. 14, 2011) reported the publicity that surrounded the meeting.

In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis [the later-convicted public official] said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger,” adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.”

The population of L’Aquila was greatly relieved. It seemed that no evacuation nor preparations were necessary. Indeed, many people who had been planning to evacuate changed those plans. Six days later, the city was torn apart.

The subsequent trial of De Bernardinis and the six seismologists hinged on whether they were criminally negligent in making their statements about an earthquake risk and in not stressing the need for preparedness. The judge’s answer was yes.

It is barbaric to prosecute scientists — or anyone — for voicing a mistaken or ill-conceived opinion. The reckless opiner may deserve to lose the respect of peers or his status in society; but criminal proceedings are never justified. Moreover, the six scientists are clearly being scapegoated by an enraged and anguished populace who are conducting the intellectual equivalent of a mob lynching. This is the time to stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry.

But, overwhelmingly, the scientific community is defending neither freedom of speech nor freedom of inquiry, even though the scientists may themselves believe they are doing so. Most of their immediate reaction has focused on two points.

The first defense

The first defense of the “L’Aquila six” is purely factual. Experts have queued up to attest to the impossibility of predicting earthquakes with any accuracy. They argue that no seismologist should be held legally accountable for failing to deliver the impossible.

But what if it were possible to predict an earthquake with some accuracy, in the same way that it is possible to predict the course of a storm? If the scientists had merely been mistaken, would their errors justify a criminal prosecution, let alone one for manslaughter? Freedom of speech means you are free to state wrong opinions without being prosecuted for them. If freedom of speech depends on the certainty possible in the subject under discussion, then no such freedom exists.

Moreover, the scientific community seems far less concerned about the free speech of those outside its exalted cloisters. The Guardian reported on a L’Aquila lab technician named Giampaolo Giuliani.

For several days, Giuliani had been watching with mounting anxiety as his four radometer stations, placed in and around L’Aquila, showed very high and rising levels of radon gas emissions from the ground. By Sunday 5 April, he was convinced that within 24 hours there would be a quake — but he could not raise a public alarm. He was under an injunction, served a week earlier, that forbade him to do so on the grounds that his predictions would spread unfounded panic.

Privately, that fateful evening, Giuliani phoned urgent warnings to relatives, friends and colleagues. Finally, he lay down fully clothed with his wife and two daughters, leaving the windows and doors wide open for a quick exit. A couple of hours later, they fled outside as the quake hit.

The injunction occurred because Giuliani attempted to report his findings to the authorities. He was questioned by the police and legally forbidden to speak further about a possible earthquake. Scientists did not themselves issue the injunction against Giuliani, but neither are they defending a universal right to express opinions on science as much as on ethics or politics; until and unless they do, the defense of six of their own sounds like special pleading.

What should have happened in L’Aquila? Both Giuliani and the scientists should have been able to speak freely, and then the people should have decided for themselves whose evidence or opinion to accept.

The second defense

The second defense scientists are making for the L’Aquila six is that the prosecution will discourage scientists from working for and with the government. Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey accurately stated, “The question being asked by people is: what is this going to do for future relations between the scientific community and the public and state?” Luciano Maiani of Italy’s Major Risks Commission has answered the question, calling the court verdict

the death of the services provided to the state by professors and professionals. It is impossible to supply the state with advice in a professional and composed way under this crazy judicial and media pressure.

But lamenting a schism in the partnership between the state and science is hardly a defense of free inquiry. Nothing has politicized science so much as its scramble for tax-funded grants and for tax-paid government positions. Nothing has so corrupted the pursuit of truth as the need to satisfy political agendas in order to prosper professionally. Again, scientists rallying for their privileged relationship to the state sound like they are engaged in merely special pleading.

In a Spiked online editorial entitled “A Disaster That Science Brought upon Itself,” Brendan O’Neill wrote about the L’Aquila six. He condemned the verdict as having “a strong whiff of the Middle Ages about it, except instead of dunking witches for bringing about a harsh winter and destroying crops, we lock up scientists for failing to foresee a fatal earthquake.”

Nevertheless, scientists themselves are not without responsibility. He continued,

But … isn’t the verdict also the tragically logical conclusion to the scientific community’s feverish adoption in recent years of the role of soothsayer, predictor of the world’s end and proponent of solutions for how to prevent it? Over the past decade, leading scientists have repositioned themselves as modern-day diviners, particularly in the climate-change debate, where they insist that not only can they tell us what the world will look like in 50 years’ time, but also what minute changes all of us must make now if we want that future world to be different.

The prosecution and subsequent defense of the L’Aquila six cannot be fully understood without considering the elitism of the scientific community, its burning ambition to affect government policy, and the intimacies it wishes to exchange for favors with government.

Conclusion

At its political root, the case of these Italian scientists should be about freedom of speech and freedom of scientific inquiry. If it is not, if it becomes a rallying point for preserving privileges, then scientists themselves will be largely to blame.

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Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).