The trial of Italian scientists and officials over their actions before a serious earthquake reached a verdict on Monday. In late September the prosecutors in the case recommended four years in prison for each of the seven defendants in the case. The judge disagreed, giving six year sentences to each defendant. They are expected to appeal.
The charges stemmed from statement made shortly before the April 2009 earthquake that lead to over 300 deaths and significant property damage. Some of the statements, which apparently suggested that small tremors in the region reduced the possibility of larger tremors later, persuaded many to remain inside on the night of the big quake.
The quick reaction to the verdict in many circles been to characterize the action as anti-science. There has also been a trend to label the charges as failing to predict the earthquake. The problem was one of risk communication. Even if the scientists’ assessment of the chance of a big quake was accurate, proper risk assessment and mitigation should include the consequences of the quake. That would appear to be a missing element in the communications connected to this incident.
Press accounts have not helped. Look at the conflicting messages in this CNN account of Italian scientists resigning in the wake of the verdict. References to prediction alternate with discussions of risk communication. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but to the average reader, prediction implies more certainty than scientists typically suggest.
That’s not to say the verdict is fair or reasonable. It already has had a chilling effect, with researchers resigning rather than risk the possibility of jail time for an assessment that doesn’t pan out. Do we ticket weather people for bad forecasts?
There also has been little attention focused on those who constructed the buildings, or the civil authorities that could have shored up the town to better handle quakes.
And this probably connects to my lack of understanding of Italian law, but manslaughter seemed excessive, compared to other forms of criminal negligence.
So, bemoan the verdict if you like. But anti-science is a few steps too far.