By Dawn Cranfield
Scientists Convicted of Manslaughter over Earthquake Warning – What’s Next?
Six Italian scientists and a government official have been sentenced to six years in prison for not giving a significant warning regarding an earthquake that killed 300 people in L’Aquila in 2009. The seven were charged with giving “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” in 2010, according to the LA Times.com.
So what does this mean to scientists who predict major catastrophes as a whole? Is this a free-for-all to put the blame on those who have studied the discipline of weather, seismology, global warming, or even health? If there is a major outbreak of bubonic plague that cannot be predicted, is there going to be an outcry from the public to come down on officials from the CDC and other scientists to be jailed? What about meteorologists who cannot properly foretell when a major snowstorm will hit the Sierra Nevadas and motorists get stranded? Is that evidence for a court case to be brought before Judge Judy?
While those examples may start to sound absurd, when people are jailed over an event that is not a foregone conclusion, where does it end? In this case, there had been seismic activity in the area in the months leading up to the fatal earthquake, an area that had seen significant activity in past years. As an observer of human behavior, a prediction to evacuate the city might have created widespread panic and may have even been ignored.
This case does little to address the fact that when you are accused of something in a court of law, at least in the United States, there would at least be some assumption that you had some way of preventing the event that happened. As this was an earthquake, a natural occurrence of seismic activity, movement of tectonic plates, there is little that the seven could have done to have prevented this. They could not even have accurately predicted the exact time, date, location, or magnitude of the earthquake; that being said, the accusation of manslaughter is morbidly absurd.
However, we are not talking about these United States; we are talking about the Italian government. According to Reuters, “The case has drawn condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working in seismology and seismic risk assessments.” (Reuters.com)
Even though these seven will be appealing the decision, the scientific community must be reeling with the news this morning; if they do have to serve the six years they were sentenced to, it will be a great injustice. When children are wide-eyed and thinking about what they want to do when they grow up, and they think about the sciences, they undoubtedly think about the joy of discovery, or helping out mankind, the last thing they would be thinking about would be being held responsible for something they could not predict, much less prevent.