Irregular Update Saturday: That Italian Earthquake Trial Could Test Risk Models

I recently read this Scientific American update (via Nature) on the manslaughter trial of several Italian scientists.  The case arose after the city of L’Aquila was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in 2009.  The allegations of manslaughter come from statements made by the scientists at a meeting and a press conference in the days before the quake.  Several tremors had been felt in the region, and the claim is that the scientists did not sufficiently warn the public to take appropriate action.  At least one civil official has been indicated (and will likely soon have company), and I find it plausible that they may be seeking political cover via the scientists.  Wiretap evidence mentioned in the article could support such a scenario.

The latest update focuses on the testimony of former chief seismologist for the State of California’s Department of Transportation.  Lalliana Mualchin was a notable exception to the strong scientific outcry against the indictment of the scientists, and he pulled no punches on his estimates of the models used to assess earthquakes in the region.  Mualchin is arguing that the probabilistic risk models used in many countries systematically underestimates seismic hazards because rare and extreme events are not considered.  He argues for a return to the deterministic models previously used in the seismology community.  Differing conceptions of risk could be at play, and the Italians may change how they map seismic risk in the future.  However, Mualchin’s testimony about new building codes (he thinks the changes won’t have much impact) leaves that possibility in doubt.

As I noted earlier, I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility of scientific negligence here, but I’m not sure manslaughter quite fits the bill.  However, I am not a lawyer, and I am even less familiar with Italian law.  I do expect this trial to continue for a while, so there is more to come.


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