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Earth Science

Scientist Forced To Remove Earthquake Prediction 485

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the not-quite-your-average-psychic dept.
Hugh Pickens writes to mention that Italian scientist Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher at the National Physical Laboratory of Gran Sasso, recently gave warning about an earthquake that was to happen on March 29th of this year near L'Aquilla. Based on radon gas emissions and a series of observed tremors he tried to convince residents to evacuate, drawing much criticism from the city's mayor and others. Giuliani was forced to take down warnings he had posted on the internet. The researcher had said that a 'disastrous' earthquake would strike on March 29, but when it didn't, Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, last week officially denounced Giuliani in court for false alarm. 'These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news,' Bertalaso was quoted as saying. 'Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes.' Giuliani, it turns out, was partially right. A much smaller seismic shift struck on the day he said it would, with the truly disastrous one arriving just one week later. 'Someone owes me an apology,' said Giuliani, who is also a resident of L'Aquila. 'The situation here is dramatic. I am devastated, but also angry.'"
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Scientist Forced To Remove Earthquake Prediction

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  • Bad Science (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:16PM (#27480497)
    The research put forward by Giuliani is from the 1980s and 1990s and was found to be completely unusable as a predictor. People make predictions of quakes all the time and some of those will be correct just by chance, which is likely the case here. Furthermore, finding correlation with radon does not mean it can be used as a predictor. You cannot evacuate cities for long periods just to find out that it was a false alarm.
    • Re:Bad Science (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 06, 2009 @05:08PM (#27481229)

      It was in fact chance. I'm italian and saw the interview in which he alledgedly predicted the earthquake, he didn't, he said something very inconclusive that now is interpreted as a prediction.

      That person is in fact predicting an earthquake every week. Abruzzo is a very active seismic area in Italy, and just by chance he was dramatically right this time.

      In fact this person is insulting the people who lost everything in that earthquake, because he's riding the wave of his alledged prediction.

      I'm disgusted by this kind of charlatans.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        I'm disgusted by this kind of charlatans.

        Personally I am disgusted that nobody thought to check the structure of buildings in an earthquake prone area.

    • Re:Bad Science (Score:5, Insightful)

      by GlassHeart (579618) on Monday April 06, 2009 @07:53PM (#27482999) Journal

      You cannot evacuate cities for long periods just to find out that it was a false alarm.

      Correct, but you could update your emergency kit, stock up slightly on water and food, make sure your car has a full tank of gas, and run some refresher fire/earthquake drills. On a larger scale, the government could pre-position medical supplies, communications equipment, vehicles, and staff.

      In other words, depending on the perceived accuracy of the alarm, you have a range of options that cost various amounts of money. An earthquake warning with a week's error can already save lives for just minimal cost.

  • You can't (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FST777 (913657) <frans-jan.van-steenbeek@net> on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:16PM (#27480499) Homepage
    That is heard quite often: "even with science, you can't..."

    You know, some day we just might. Maybe not today, maybe never, but please, when someone who knows more than you about a certain topic warns you, listen!
  • Hmm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gardyloo (512791) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:18PM (#27480523)

    My immediate reaction is to say, "Ha! Science, bitches: It works!" and laugh at the officials who denounced the prediction. However, the very fact that the prediction was *so* precise, saying that the devastation would strike on a certain day, seems particularly irresponsible.

        My thoughts go to those hurt in this incident. As the official says, though, it's not a habit to plan for stuff like this---perhaps it should become so.

    • Re:Hmm... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Fallen Kell (165468) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:30PM (#27480727)
      Actually, he didn't alert anyone of the one that happened today/yesterday because he was warned that he would be arrested if he raised an alarm again, even though his last alarm was accurate, even if it wasn't as large an event that he initially thought, the mini-quake relieved some of the stresses his model was predicting. But his model predicted that the massive event was to happen as it did now, but he could not raise the alarm about it.

      He is absolutely right that the officials should be apologising, not only to him, but to all the people who lost their lives or were injured.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by photonic (584757)

        You are right, the scariest thing about this story is the fact that he was forbidden to speak. As already mentioned by others, earthquake prediction is not an exact science (yet), so it wouldn't have warranted evacuating a whole city. But I think it wouldn't have hurt too much if because of his 'scaremongering', some people would have been reminded to review their emergency plans. If he would have given such warnings every month without anything happening, people would ignore him in the end. The irony of th

  • Still (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dedazo (737510) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:18PM (#27480529) Journal

    Does anyone have data on how many truly false predictions have been made? Because one out of X might not be enough to condemn the politicos and glorify the scientist. Clearly these things do need to be managed carefully.

    • Yep (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:52PM (#27481015)

      If you throw out predictions left and right, well sooner or later you may get lucky. That doesn't mean you are actually any good at predicting. The predictive value of a model doesn't come from getting a single answer right or near right, it comes from accurately modeling reality. That means having a track record of predicting events, and not making predictions when there are no events.

      As an extreme example I could make a computer program that predicts a major earthquake every single day. You input a day, it says "Major quake will happen." Well, that program would occasionally be right. Any time an earthquake happened I could claim my software predicted it. However that wouldn't me meaningful, in the face of the massive number of false positives, the thousands upon thousands of days where it was wrong.

      So ya, I need to see some real data that shows that his software had a reasonable prediction rate, not just that he happened to get lucky this time.

  • by 0WaitState (231806) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:18PM (#27480533)
    This is almost as ironic as when Bobby Jindal (governor of Louisiana and one-time preznitial hopeful) mocked funds for volcano monitoring in the federal budget [google.com], and a week later an Alaskan (monitored) volcano blew up, with an orderly response since the eruption had been predicted for some time. Attention politicians: science is not negotiable. It's part of that reality thing not on your side.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MozeeToby (1163751)

      Ok, let's just be clear here, Bobby Jindal didn't mock spending money on volcano monitoring, he mocked having money earmarked for volcano monitoring in what was supposed to be an economic stimulus bill. I'm a freaking die hard democrat and even I can admit that there is a huge difference between those two things. One is politicians meddling in things they shouldn't be, the other is a legitimate complaint about the way our laws are written up.

      • by samkass (174571) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:35PM (#27480775) Homepage Journal

        Bobby Jindal didn't mock spending money on volcano monitoring

        Here's what he said. You decide if he was suggesting that monitoring volcanoes is "wasteful spending":

        "While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes ... $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring." Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C."

      • by JerryLove (1158461) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:37PM (#27480821)

        The problem with calling something "not part of economic stimulus" is: All spending is stimulus.

        Volcano monitoring, which is part of the money in question, gives money to consumers (workers who are paid) to place and monitor equipment which is purchased (money to sales) from a manufacturer (money to manufacturing company and workers therein).

        "spending money", by definition, "stimulates spending" (as it *is* spending)

      • by gad_zuki! (70830) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:56PM (#27481081)

        >I'm a freaking die hard democrat and even I can admit that there is a huge difference between those two things.

        There isnt. Any stimulus bill is a really spending bill to keep people employed. For instance, the people doing the monitoring are buying supplies from my company that keeps me and others employed. They might use services from my friend's company. That money isnt destroyed, it goes into the economy in some fashion.

        Jindal is a anti-science loon. The GOP is an anti-intellectual party and they often make jabs at spending in the sciences. Its pathetic.

  • Off by a week? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blackholepcs (773728) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:18PM (#27480537) Journal
    That seems like a pretty good improvement in earthquake prediction. If this guy can consistantly predict earthquakes with a +/- of one week, I'd say he's doing something right, and should be listened to. But he has to do it consistantly. One out of one is a good start.
  • Spot on... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Space cowboy (13680) * on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:20PM (#27480571) Journal

    If indeed, it is "impossible to predict earthquakes, it seems to me that getting a minor quake on-the-day of prediction, and the major quake hitting a week later is pretty much as good as could possibly have been expected.

    Now if all he did was guess, it'd be a whole different ball-game, but as far as I remember, doing this "science" thingy involves recognising a problem, taking measurements, postulating a theory to fit those measurements, and (sadly, in this case) testing that theory against further predictions it made. Seems like he followed the rule-book on that one...

    Part of the problem, of course, is that people (including, one might say *especially*, elected officals) aren't good at assessing risk. They consider risk to be the consequences of an event, whereas really it's the consequences of an event multiplied by the probability of that event. It's why we look out for "global killer" meteorites, even though they are incredibly unlikely. The risk inherent in such a strike makes it worthwhile to keep putting in the effort at detecting them. It's easiest to illustrate when the fate of the whole world lies in balance, but the principle remains the same even for localised disasters such as this one...

    So often, it comes down to better education being the key to good decision-making. Why is it that we let people who only want to run for power take on the mantle of power over us ? I recall a Sci-Fi story where on election, all a (wo)man's worldly goods were forcibly sold, and the cash amount held in trust. Once the successor appeared, the departing official was given access to his/her trust fund again - the implication being that you had to do well by everyone else before you could do well for yourself. I'm not suggesting this is workable, but perhaps an element of personal stake might be a useful thing for a politician to have... Perhaps then they'd listen to the scientist, and not just go on gut instinct...

    Simon.

  • this man can pretty much go to any city on the planet right now, make an excitable announcement, and cause a mass exdodus

    that's a rather interesting gift

  • the way it goes. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Composite_Armor (1203112) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:21PM (#27480587)

    you cant be right once and be believed,
    you have to be right twice.

    i look forward to any future seismic prediction technology.
    complete with references.
    of which this event will most likely be a hard data point.

  • Stupid scientists! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kaliann (1316559) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:23PM (#27480615)

    How dare you be inaccurate in your warning about the timing of a natural disaster? You caused me to be outraged and dismissive on record in the media! Now people think I'm a douchebag, and it's all your fault!

    Must be a European thing. I'm sure nothing like that could ever happen here in the good ol' US of A.

  • DNF (Score:5, Funny)

    by dchaffey (1354871) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:23PM (#27480623)
    'These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news,' Bertalaso was quoted as saying. 'Everyone knows that you can't predict the release of Duke Nukem Forever.'
  • Forced? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nightfire-unique (253895) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:24PM (#27480649)

    If he was legally compelled to fall silent in his warnings, whoever silenced him should be jailed for involuntary manslaughter or at least criminal negligence causing death. There should be equal consequences both for yelling "fire!" when there is none, and for yelling "no fire!" when there is.

    • Re:Forced? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by FroBugg (24957) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:54PM (#27481049) Homepage

      Nonsense. He made the prediction using methods which have been proven to be unreliable. All the current research is against him, and there was no substantive reason to believe his claims had any merit.

      Besides, he predicted an earthquake a full week ahead of the one that actually struck. What if he had been listened to and people evacuated? They'd have watched his day pass and started to wonder. They'd be sitting in hotel rooms, or with family members or friends, and thinking about the food rotting in their fridges and the money they're losing by not being at work. A huge number of them would certainly have returned to town by the time the actual quake struck, and the death toll would have been similar.

      The problem here is not that someone here using poor science happened to be sort of right, the problem is that Italy is a country with high risks of earthquakes and exceedingly poor construction and preparation.

  • by Chyeld (713439) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .dleyhc.> on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:28PM (#27480693)

    Particularly brain dead politicians. Wasn't it also a local Italian prosecutor that decided the best way of dealing with a video of some kids bullying another one, was to sue Google [cnet.com]?

    I'm not saying Italy has a monopoly on boneheaded politico's but their particular brand of antics seem to stick on my mind.

  • by Midnight Thunder (17205) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:29PM (#27480717) Homepage Journal

    Has anyone recorded earthquake prediction measurements and compared them? I would be curious to know which ones have been closest to the mark and on what frequency? I suspect different measurements are likely to be right some of the time, but not all the time, because the seismic triggers may vary from region to region.

  • Hmm... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kabocox (199019) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:41PM (#27480877)

    It sounds like the guy kinda went about it the wrong way. He should have just had a note or a webpage up with his current data and predictions with chance of an event happening on any given day. Folks would treat it sort of like a weather forecast.

    Heck, when it comes to weather, we like to look at the live radar maps and make our own decisions. Hey it's going to be raining for the next hour or two... ;) We aren't quiet there for earthquakes, yet.

  • by jfern (115937) on Monday April 06, 2009 @04:50PM (#27480997)

    Science demands more than a single data point of "within a week". He needs to get more data points so we determine whether he was just lucky or whether his predictions have some real value.

  • by Clandestine_Blaze (1019274) on Monday April 06, 2009 @05:12PM (#27481285) Journal

    Here's quote [usatoday.com] from a USAToday article.

    Pezzopane, the provincial president, said residents may have been lulled into complacency because so many smaller quakes had jolted the area, including two or three earlier in the night.

    "Considering what happened, a bit more concern, more attention might have saved lives," she said.

    National officials insisted no quake can ever be predicted and that no evacuation could have been ordered on the basis of the recent jolts.

    "There is no possibility of making any predictions on earthquakes. This is a fact in the world's scientific community," Civil protection chief Guido Bertolaso told reporters

    Talk about saving face...

    They're not completely wrong - there currently is no scientifically acceptable method of predicting earthquakes that is time-tested, but at the very least, they could give some credit to Giuliani for seemingly predicting this earthquake, and offer him a full apology for calling him an imbecile.

  • Over predicting (Score:5, Informative)

    by linuxwrangler (582055) on Monday April 06, 2009 @05:13PM (#27481287)

    There's a guy in the Bay Area who claims he can predict earthquakes with high accuracy and offers up the fact that he has predicted every recent large earthquake. But as one scientist commented (borrowing from somewhere, I believe) that, "indeed, he has predicted 150 of the last 8 earthquakes."

    Based on what we know so-far, he predicted a destructive quake on March 29. This did not happen. Prediction failed.

    But there was another earthquake that day. Big deal - isn't that what "seismically active" means?

    Just looking at the current Northern California map I see over 170 quakes listed. And that's only the last 7 days where this predicted event was 9 days before the quake. I'm not surprised there was a "smaller" quake that day. There are usually quite a few every day.

    As to the charge of "silenced", I'll wait and see what that really means. If he was ordered to destroy scientific publications with his claims or cease his research discussions it's one thing. If they declined to once-again drive vans with bullhorns around town having falsely reported an imminent quake just a month earlier, it's another thing entirely. It will probably end up being somewhere between those extremes.

    Radon emission changes have preceded earthquakes. But they have also "preceded" non-quakes. And quakes have been preceded by the lack of change in radon as well. Hardly a reliable predictor, so far.

    One should not lambaste officials without looking at the scientist's track-record. I have yet to see a single item suggesting that he had a serious track-record of predicting with any reasonable level of accuracy the time, place and magnitude of an event as well as "safe" periods.

    I think it would have been more responsible to just lay out the facts. There is evidence that certain events we are monitoring (radon, ground-water changes, full/new-moon, ...) tend to precede an earthquake. We feel the risk is higher than normal. Please be sure you are as prepared as possible with the usual recommended supplies of food, water, tools, etc. and consider training if you haven't done-so in the past.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mikael (484)

      It might be just my imagination, but whenever there is a large earthquake in one region of the Earth, there always seem to be two other earthquakes in longitudes +/-120 degrees from the original earthquake within a month. Does the shifting of the crust have any effect on the centre of gravity of rotation?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dissy (172727)

      One should not lambaste officials without looking at the scientist's track-record. I have yet to see a single item suggesting that he had a serious track-record of predicting with any reasonable level of accuracy the time, place and magnitude of an event as well as "safe" periods.

      Fortunately that's OK, as we have also yet to see a single item suggesting government officials are any different ;}

    • Re:Over predicting (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JumperCable (673155) on Monday April 06, 2009 @08:27PM (#27483237)

      As to the charge of "silenced", I'll wait and see what that really means.

      The first articles specifically states that he was "forced to remove warnings from the internet". He was reported to the police & dragged into court.

      Personally, I would count that as having been silenced.

  • by CohibaVancouver (864662) on Monday April 06, 2009 @05:48PM (#27481749)
    This is a critical component to any good disaster movie from the 70s.

    - Towering Inferno: Building developer refuses to cancel dedication party after bad wiring is found and fire starts.

    - Jaws: Town mayor refuses to close beach after attack from big shark.

    Come to think of it, Tommy Lee Jones's and Pierce Brosnan's Volcano movies were the same deal...
  • by fatboyslack (634391) on Monday April 06, 2009 @10:32PM (#27484153) Journal

    In other news many still deny global warming despite what these so-called 'scientists' are telling us.

    Sigh.

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