Seismologists in Italy cleared of manslaughter charges

So, I suppose this counts as… justice? Sort of? The appeals process in Italy certainly gets to deal with some interesting cases.

Six seismologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on 10 November. An appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them.

The magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the historic town of L’Aquila in the early hours of 6 April 2009, killing more than 300 people.

The finding by a three-judge appeals court prompted many L’Aquila citizens who were waiting outside the courtroom to react with rage, shouting “shame” and saying that the Italian state had just acquitted itself, local media reported. But it comes as a relief to scientists around the world who had been following the unprecedented case with alarm.

There may be some sort of lesson here about when the government gets too far into the business of holding you accountable rather than vice versa. The big story here is not that the seismologists were acquitted, but that they were convicted in the first place. To say that seismology isn’t an exact science would be a massive understatement. For example, there are plenty of scientists who have been predicting for years that the supervolcano under Yellowstone is going to blow up and destroy the United States, plunging much of the world into a mini ice age in the process. It very well might, too. But if you ask them when it will happen, they generally tell you that the date could be somewhere between this weekend and 10,000 years from now.

This seems to be the point that Doug Mataconis is making about it.

Not being an expert on Italian law, I am not going to comment on the legal merits here, but the outcome strikes me as correct. As a general rule, we should want scientists like these men to be as open as they can be about the warnings that they issue, while not needlessly stirring up panic. The incentive that something like the charges and conviction in this case would have created would be for scientists to give the worst possible warning in all cases, which would raise the probability of them being eventually seen as the “boy who cried wolf” to the point where their warnings might be ignored in the future, to everyone’s detriment.

There are limits to everything… even accountability. I’m not saying that professionals – including scientists – are not responsible for damages caused if they are negligent or incompetent at their jobs. Engineers who are supposed to inspect structures can’t afford to be completely off base when an aging, deteriorating bridge collapses. But expecting seismologists to predict earthquakes within a window of weeks or months is like expecting meteorologists who can’t tell you if it will rain next Friday more than half the time to accurately forecast the temperature 100 years from now. (Wait.. that might be a bad example.)

I’m glad the scientists were released. I’m a bit more disappointed that the citizens are taking to the streets calling for their heads.