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Earthquake predictions and a triumph of scientific illiteracy in an Italian court (+video)

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Rarely since a Catholic inquisition in Rome condemned Galileo Galilei to spend the remainder of his days under house arrest for the heresy of teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun, has an Italian court been so wrong about science. 

Today, a court in the central Italian city of L'Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.

This headline isn't the sort of thing that's generally expected from Italy anymore. The church quietly abandoned its objections to heliocentrism in the early years of the 18th century, and by the early 19th, had fully accepted the scientific facts.

But according to the BBC, a modern Italian secular institution is now the one struggling to grapple with science. The seven convicted men stood accused of "inexact, incomplete, and contradictory" information about the risks posed by tremors in the weeks ahead of the April 6, 2009, earthquake that caused so much destruction.

The seven, all members of the "National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks," were convicted after an apparently emotional trial in which the testimony of people who had lost loved ones was allowed, as if it was relevant to the question of whether current science can predict earthquakes. No grief, no matter how great, can answer that question (which is a resounding "no," by the way).

The scientific consensus has been clear on this for some time. As much as the world would like the ability to predict earthquakes, it's eluded the best efforts of scientists for decades. The plate-tectonic revolution in geology held out some hope for greater predictive abilities as it gathered steam in the 1950s and 1960s. But while scientists have a much better understanding of why earthquakes happen and where they're likely to occur than at any point in human history, their predictive powers are so vague as to be practically useless – beyond recommending people shouldn't live in quake zones like L'Aquila. People are generally resistant to such advice though. The city was rebuilt after major earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, just as it has been rebuilt now.

A seismologist can predict with reasonable accuracy that a certain area will have, say, a major earthquake every hundred years on average. "Area" of course being defined rather loosely. A prediction of an earthquake at 10:26 AM this coming Tuesday in Jakarta, say? Impossible. Even to promise a major quake within a one-week or one-month window is beyond human ability.

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Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science put it this way in an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in June 2010, urging the trial be headed off:

Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake protection that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.

Of course, smaller earthquakes – tremors – do often precede major ones, and can be useful indicators that major trouble is heading down the pike. Or not. Sometimes you can have a series of tremors and no major quake. Or a major quake that doesn't appear to be preceded by any unusual activity at all. What do geologists do when asked what a series of tremors means? Use their best judgment.

That's what the Italian scientists were convicted of today: exercising judgment in a murky area, getting it wrong, and being severely punished for it. If the verdict is upheld, that sends a message to scientists that they'd better keep their mouths shut when asked for their opinion in Italy.

Joel Cohen, a professor at Columbia and Rockefeller universities who applies mathematical models to complex environmental problems, explained how the decision was made in a piece earlier this year:

Italy’s National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded (emphasis added).”

Six days later disaster struck. Should Mr. Boschi and his colleagues pay for this? And what would have happened if he'd said "there is a high probability of a major earthquake at some point in the next year?" Would the city of 70,000 have been evacuated? And what if no earthquake came in a year? Would Boschi have been sued for damages?

For now, the men are appealing. One would assume they'll win their appeal, though plenty of people never expected this strange case to make it this far.

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