Italian judge rules scientists guilty of “manslaughter” for failing to predict earthquake

It a ruling that has drawn international attention (and outrage), a judge in L’Aquila, Italy ruled that seven scientists and seismology experts were guilty of “manslaughter,” because on 31 Mar 2009 they assured local residents that there did not seem any imminent risk of danger from an earthquake, yet an earthquake struck a few days later, tragically killing 300 persons.

But as anyone familiar with earthquake science will attest, there is no known technology for predicting earthquakes, except in a general sense to warn that certain regions, based on regional geology and past patterns of earthquakes, appear to be more prone than others to a future earthquake. See, for instance, this brief statement by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thus the scientists were on firm ground, so to speak, in saying that they knew of no imminent danger of an earthquake, although one might fault them for coming across somewhat overconfident. As Seth Stein, a professor of Earth Science at Northwestern University in Illinois, explained, “Our ability to predict earthquake hazards is, frankly, lousy,” and thus “Criminalizing something would only make sense if we really knew how to do this and someone did it wrong.”

Matt Gurney of the National Post in Toronto, Canada, added:

If the commission had warned everyone to take to the hills with all their worldly possessions piled up in shopping carts, they would have been giving scientifically unsound advice. They’d have been right in that instance, but only by a stroke of luck. That might be sufficient for doomsayers and psychics, but not for scientists.

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