As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is currently barreling up the east coast and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find something to watch on television without being interrupted by some Ollie Williams wannabe telling me “It’s gon’ rain!” Alright already, I get it. I’ll go stock up on some Chunky™ Soup.
With current advancements in science and weather prediction we tend to take it for granted that we will be promptly alerted to any potential natural disasters headed our way. Nevertheless, in 2009 an earthquake struck central Italy without warning and killed over 300 people. This past Monday, October 22, an Italian court convicted seven experts of manslaughter who were deemed responsible for failing to give that warning. The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological and disaster experts, were sentenced to six years in prison. However, convictions in Italy aren’t definitive until after at least one appeal, so it was unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.
“It’s a sad day for science,” said seismologist Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. “It’s unsettling.” Earthquake experts around the globe denounced the convictions claiming it was practically impossible for anyone to have predicted the 6.3-magnitude killer.
“The trial began in September 2011 in the Apennine town of L’Aquila, whose devastated historic center is still largely deserted. The defendants were accused of giving ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory information’ about whether small tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have been grounds for a warning.” Prosecutors in the case argued that the L’Aquila disaster was “tantamount to ‘monumental negligence’” and likened the devastation to the damage in New Orleans resulting from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Relatives for some of the victims of the quake said they felt “justice had been done” and the defendants deserved their punishment for “taking their job lightly.” The scientific community is fighting back, however, “condemn[ing] the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.” Geologist Brooks Hanson explained, “There are swarms of seismic activity regularly in Italy and most do not end up causing dangerous earthquakes … if seismologists had to warn of a quake with every series of tremors, there would be too many false alarms and panic.” On the other hand, some experts are arguing that the trial had nothing to do with whether scientists can accurately predict earthquakes. Instead, the trial was about communicating risk to the public.
Which leaves the question, is it better for society to get a possibly premature cautioning by experts or is it better for the experts to wait until they are absolutely sure of an imminent disaster? Does the risk of unnecessary public panic outweigh the risk of a delayed warning? Who should make that decision? Finally, should society be able to hold scientists, seismologists, meteorologists, etc. criminally liable for false, inaccurate, or missing predictions?