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Five Years Later: Italian Supreme Court Lets Earthquake Scientists Off the Hook

The seismologists had been handed down six-year jail terms for failing to predict a quake.
Image: Joanna Faure Walker (UCL IRDR)

One of the bleaker events in the recent history of science occurred over five years ago with the trial and conviction of six Italian seismologists and engineers following a devastating earthquake responsible for the deaths at least 308 residents. Their crime? Giving what the court deemed to be bad scientific advice to the residents of the central Italian city of L'Aquila—telling them (indirectly) that they'd be safe in their homes following a series of mild tremors. In essence, the scientists had failed to predict a quake.


The charge was manslaughter. In 2012, all six received six year prison sentences.

In March of 2009, the group of scientists participated in an advisory meeting in the midst of a series of low and medium strength tremors that had been shaking the local L'Aquil landscape for several months. Their general conclusion was neutral, but, crucially, they failed to object to an idea that had been raised during the sessions that the tremors may be good when it came to earthquake risk as they would most likely have the effect of discharging energy from compressed tectonic plates. Most earthquake scientists reject the notion.

A public official named Bernardo De Bernardinis then shared the energy discharge idea with a journalist, who then shared it with the public. (De Bernardinis was likewise convicted of manslaughter, but his conviction has been upheld.)

"If they had said there was a risk they would have done their job."

In the original trial, the presiding judge, Marco Billi, denounced the group's risk analysis as, "superficial, approximate, and generic." Finally, last year, a trio of appellate judges overturned the convictions, declaring that Billi's original judgement was "uncertain and fallacious." Prosecutors immediately appealed to the Italian supreme court, which determined last week that the appellate court had been correct in overturning the manslaughter convictions. It was, after all, only De Bernardinis that had reassured the public.

Some family members of the quake victims weren't exactly pleased by the decision. "If they had said there was a risk they would have done their job," declared a man who had lost his wife and two daughters in the disaster, according to Science Insider. "But they didn't have the balls to say that."

The whole mess cuts to the root of what science even is. Oft held aloft as a beacon of certainty in a vague world, science just as much walks hand in hand with probability and error. This may be vanishingly small amounts of error, but a prediction is not the same thing as a promise.

Science is instead so often based on inductive reasoning, which is a way of reaching conclusions about the world in the face of missing or incomplete information. Observations build toward facts or truths, sometimes with almost perfect certainty, but we are always left to contend with the black swan. This is just the nature of science.

As Franco Coppi, the group's defense lawyer in the original trial, declared then in his closing remarks: "If an event cannot be foreseen and, more to the point, cannot be avoided, it is hard to understand how there can be any suggestion of a failure to predict the risk."