Idiocy Redefined: Italian Scientists Found Guilty of Not Being Able To Predict Quake Impact
By on October 23rd, 2012

When Einstein said that human stupidity knows no bounds, he wasn’t kidding. Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been found guilty of “multiple manslaughter” and sentenced to six years in prison. Their crime? They couldn’t predict the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, which was bad enough to kill 310 people in the city.

The L’Aquila devastation

Incorrect warning

In 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake ravaged the city and these seven people had issued warnings which said that there is not much to be worried about. Tremors felt before 6th April, 2009 (the day of the quake) were not properly heeded by this group of scientists and, according to the prosecution, they delivered “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information. Thus, they have committed a crime. In addition to the six-year sentence, they have been barred from holding any public office ever again.

Revisiting the not-so-golden times?

This reminds me of the medieval times, when fortune tellers and soothsayers in court could be beheaded for making the wrong prediction. But haven’t we progressed from those dark days of ignorance? Weather science, and especially seismology, the science of earth movements, is a very unpredictable area of knowledge. We hardly know anything about the exact mechanism of the cause of earthquakes and thus we cannot predict it.

It’s not as if you’re looking into a crystal ball…

One of the damning statements from the prosecution bench came from one of their witnesses. Guido Fioravanti had called his mother on that night, just after the first tremor had struck. He says:

I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.

He lost his father to the quake.

Just not possible

But the issue is bigger. The question is how we view science. Science is very accurate about many things, but climate science is not one of them. Are we going to stop making predictions? What about the numerous times the scientists have got the path of a cyclone correct? Why is it so difficult to understand that the parameters involved are just too many in number and that it’s impossible to track every one of them with the demanded accuracy? It’s difficult to even predict how the parameters influence the system and one another!

And thus, the human race wallows in stupidity.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.
  • http://www.pallab.net Pallab

    I was following the discussion on Reddit and HN, and some Italian’s suggested that the issue is not as black and white as what the western media is suggesting.

    From Nature.com article:
    The prosecution’s closing arguments [...] made it clear that
    the scientists are not accused of failing to predict the
    earthquake. “Even six-year old kids know that earthquakes can not be
    predicted,” he said. “The goal of the meeting was very different:
    the scientists were supposed to evaluate whether the seismic
    sequence could be considered a precursor event, to assess what
    damages had already happened at that point, to discuss how to
    mitigate risks.” Picuti said the panel members did not fulfill these
    commitments, and that their risk analysis was “flawed, inadequate,
    negligent and deceptive”, resulting in wrong information being given
    to citizens.

    More reading material at http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4683657 and http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4686812

    Now, I am not defending what Italy did. I am just genuinely curious. Punishing scientists for incorrect prediction is crazy! But, did the scientists also fail in their duty?

 
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