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Seismologist Manslaughter Trial Begins Next Week 185

Posted by Soulskill
from the defining-reasonable-prognostication dept.
El Puerco Loco writes with a followup to a story we discussed in May about the manslaughter charges facing six seismologists and one government official in Italy after an earthquake there killed 309 people and destroyed 20,000 buildings. The case is going to trial next week, and an article at Nature provides an update on how things stand: "The indictments have drawn global condemnation. The American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), both in Washington DC, issued statements in support of the Italian defendants. ... The view from L'Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. ... [The charges allege that the defendants] provided 'incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information' to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. [Prosecutor Fabio Picuti] says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness. 'I'm not crazy,' Picuti says. 'I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila.'"
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Seismologist Manslaughter Trial Begins Next Week

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  • by gtvr (1702650) on Friday September 16, 2011 @01:53PM (#37422576)
    Can the prosecution prove that with proper warning, any specific number of lives or amount of property would have been saved? I doubt it.
    • by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Friday September 16, 2011 @01:55PM (#37422618)

      No one in Naples has moved away from Vesuvius despite insistent warnings of disaster from seismologists.

    • by DanTheStone (1212500) on Friday September 16, 2011 @01:57PM (#37422642)
      The crime is (apparently) that they failed to provide sufficient and consistent information for everyone to ignore.
      • Some of the dead might have heeded.

        Thats sounds emo-ish, but I do know people who take into consideration how disaster prone area is before they buy a house there.

        • by MightyYar (622222) on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:18PM (#37422804)

          I won't live somewhere if I can't afford earthquake and flood insurance at that location. The insurance actuaries are better at calculating risk than I am :)

          • by nedlohs (1335013)

            So as your income increases you are happy to live in riskier areas?

            I'm pretty sure some people would rather not be dead even though their property was adequately insured.

            • by SomePgmr (2021234)
              I assumed he meant it as a rule of thumb, not a strict, context-adjusting, home-buying criteria.
            • by MightyYar (622222)

              So as your income increases you are happy to live in riskier areas?

              Maybe "afford" isn't the right word. I use the cost of insurance as a gauge as to the riskiness of the area. Even within my neighborhood, there is wide variation in the cost of flood insurance depending on your elevation and which side of the creek you live on.

              I'm pretty sure some people would rather not be dead even though their property was adequately insured.

              I'm pretty sure those people no longer care one way or another :)

            • because as your income increases, you can better prepare for the risks. Like having your mansion made to withstand an earthquake, and having it rebuilt (on the gov't dime) if it's bad enough.
            • by Grishnakh (216268)

              No, he's saying that he's not an expert on what locations are risky and which locations are not. Are you? If you are, then that means that you're a professional seismologist, a flooding expert, and several other things all at the same time, which I highly doubt.

              Regular people can't be asked to be experts at numerous sciences just to select a house to buy. However, insurance companies have people on staff who do consult with these experts, and then use this information to calculate insurance rates. Regul

      • by berwiki (989827)
        well said. bravo.
      • by esocid (946821) on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:22PM (#37422846) Journal

        The crime is (apparently) that they failed to provide sufficient and consistent information for everyone to ignore.

        Easy solution: point out Mt. Vesuvius, and tell the populace to follow what happened in AD 79.

        If you want sufficient and consistent information, don't sue the people who have devoted their entire lives to doing so, otherwise you'll be left doing it the old fashioned way, not having any information at all.

        • by Dunbal (464142) *
          Yup. Coming soon, doctors will be charged for failing to bring the dead back to life. Way to step back a whole 1000 years or more. The geologists at worst might be negligent and need a reprimand from their professional college at best. But manslaughter? OK, how about charging the government too, because after all they clearly hired incompetent geologists.
        • The crime is (apparently) that they failed to provide sufficient and consistent information for everyone to ignore.

          Easy solution: point out Mt. Vesuvius, and tell the populace to follow what happened in AD 79.

          If you want sufficient and consistent information, don't sue the people who have devoted their entire lives to doing so, otherwise you'll be left doing it the old fashioned way, not having any information at all.

          The scientists in question not only failed to provide consistent and reliable information, they were told by the government to do so. So much for their dedication to truth. They also helped silence one of their own who refused to toe the government line. If you want to hold up scientists as shining examples of integrity, these are the wrong ones, dude.

          • by TeXMaster (593524) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @02:03AM (#37427178)

            The crime is (apparently) that they failed to provide sufficient and consistent information for everyone to ignore.

            Easy solution: point out Mt. Vesuvius, and tell the populace to follow what happened in AD 79.

            If you want sufficient and consistent information, don't sue the people who have devoted their entire lives to doing so, otherwise you'll be left doing it the old fashioned way, not having any information at all.

            The scientists in question not only failed to provide consistent and reliable information, they were told by the government to do so. So much for their dedication to truth. They also helped silence one of their own who refused to toe the government line. If you want to hold up scientists as shining examples of integrity, these are the wrong ones, dude.

            If by "one of their own who refused to toe the government line" you're referring to Giampaolo Giuliani, you should keep in mind that the person in question is a ignorant, preposterous asshole with a penchant for conspirational victimism. He's the guy that maintains that he had predicted when and where the "big one" would have hit in that string of tremors, while his predictions were wrong by as much as a week (in time) and around 100km (IIRC; I'd have to check again, been some time since I debated the last time with someone actually believing his crap): errors which are insignificant in geological scales, but are enormously significant in terms of civil protection: had the DPC actually taken action to move the population following Giuliani's warning, the death toll could have been much higher than what it has been (think about it: you move people 100km away from the forecast epicenter location, and they end up being closer to the actual epicenter than they were originally).

            There is a lot of blame that can be distributed around for what happened in L'Aquila, but what the inhabitants are looking for is a big, flashy scape goat rather than the actual responsible for the scale and dimension of the damage. Hitting the seismologist is probably just part of a bigger control strong-arming that is currently going on between the DPC and the research institutions that do the actual data collection and analysis (among other things). So while the populace is looking for a scape goat, the ones actually responsible for the damage will carry o their own way.

            Most of the earthquake damage was actually concentrated on two kinds of buildings: very new ones, which built on the cheap and without respecting the anti-seismic criteria which are obligatory when building in areas (such as that one) which are known to be at high seismic risk, and very old ones: in these cases, what happened was that some buildings had "custom changes" done by their more modern inhabitants, changes that (not intentionally) significantly weakened their structure, causing them them to fall and to bat against other buildings that would have managed to resist otherwise (domino effect).

            The lead responsibility for the actual damage rests mainly on two actors: a number of builders and contractors (the most infamous of which is Impregilo, which is rather well known to operate mostly by corruption —corruption to win contracts, corruption to get paid more than their job is worth, corruption for getting paid without actually doing the work, and so on and so forth—) and the actual local population. The fault does rest on the DPC shoulders because of it being the government agency specifically tasked with prevention and intervention in case of disaster, a task which it was quite obviously incapable of fulfilling correctly: not because of it's failure in communicating correctly with the population "in time", but because of the failure to exert the appropriate control for the whole 20-year span before the earthquake: prevention means checking that the new buildings do satisfy the anti-seismic criteria they are suppos

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Sal Zeta (929250)

        Nope. the crime is that they deliberately ignored all the information available at the moment, and they even suggested the people to get back at their own homes after some earthquakes had previously happened in such zones, even destroying some buildings. It's extremely probable that most of such research institutions were pressed to mislead the population due to the local government, which supported the speculative construction industry backed by some companies controlled by the local mafia.

        If you can unde

        • by Dunbal (464142) *

          and they even suggested the people to get back at their own homes after some earthquakes had previously happened in such zones, even destroying some buildings.

          And if they had warned people to stay away and the next earthquake had happened in say, 50 years (very short for geological time), what then? Sued for spreading alarm among the population?

          • by Sal Zeta (929250)

            Sorry, maybe I was a bit unclear on my previous post. Such previous incident happened no less than few days before the bigger earthquakes. And the reaction was something very different than a carelessness act. Some of the people in charge of the local seismic centers were wiretapped some day after talking with local homebuilders and politicians, and was pretty clear that they were aware that what happened was a direct consequence of their decision to ignore most of the advices coming from the center.

            They

        • by Imrik (148191)

          You neglect to mention that it was a politician not one of the scientists that made that suggestion, inaccurately representing the conclusions of the committee of scientists.

      • by joocemann (1273720) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:12PM (#37423344)

        I should point out (lacking links to slashdot stories because I'm on a phone) that the scientists DID predict the earthquake, but were somethinglike 2 weeks early... they partially evacuated, and in under 2 weeks the authorities initiated "yelling fire in a theater" type charges against the scientists. Once those charges were made in haste, the actual earthquake came and people died.

        From what I can deduce; authorities are blame shifting the damages that arose by hastily saying the scientists were wrong instead of admitting that they were right all along (albeit with imperfect prediction).

        • Not that simple.

          There was someone who "predicted" the earthquake - for a town 60km over that actually sustained little damage.

          The seismologists on trial are the ones who called a special meeting to debunk the "alarmist" scientist.
        • I think it's more like one scientist predicted the earthquake.

          And currently, it's the scientists and the government official that tried to place that particular scientist in jail that are now being targeted by the angry populace.

      • by Hentes (2461350) on Friday September 16, 2011 @04:21PM (#37424066)
        Did you read the article? Those people weren't clueless. They have lived in a high risk area for generations and knew that if they feel a tremor they should get out of the house immedietly. Which is what they did until the comittee went to the town in order to calm them down (supposedly under government pressure). In the meeting, one scientist said that the tremors in fact decrease the risk of an earthquake because they release the pressure. Wich sounded logical to a layman but is total bullshit. Another scientist who dared to disagree was sued and silenced.The people of the town concluded that there is nothing to be afraid of and left the precautions they practiced for centuries. This wasn't an honest mistake but deliberate spread of misinfromation.
    • by suso (153703) *

      Sounds more like a lynch mob to me. Someone choose to be in a position where the people could blame someone when random acts of nature kill people, and that seems to be exactly what happened here.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        If you're in a position to evaluate danger and you hide facts and issue platitudes, then you're certainly unethical, and possibly criminal.

        I say try them and see how the facts work.

        • by suso (153703) *

          If you're in a position to evaluate danger and you hide facts and issue platitudes, then you're certainly unethical, and possibly criminal.

          I say try them and see how the facts work.

          You're kidding right? Italy is the country that holds the Vatican.

          • The Vatican is in its own state, not Italy.
          • by jonbryce (703250)

            No it isn't. The Vatican is a separate country located in the middle of Rome.

            • by blair1q (305137)

              Which they did to avoid being tried for their crimes in Italy. Then they got a horde of Swiss soldiers to protect them from the Italian soldiers. Which, of course, is sufficient.

        • You just made that all up. F u for doing so.

        • by timeOday (582209)
          True, if people were truly capable of rationality and free of hindsight bias. But they aren't.

          If the suit is justified, then it was equally justified *before* the quake. The information was just as "imprecise" and "contradictory" then as now. Yet there was apparently no firing or disciplinary action, let alone a lawsuit. That proves this is a witch hunt.

          • by blair1q (305137)

            You can't sue for the possibility of injury. You have to have an injury first. This isn't a suit, it's a charge of criminal negligence. Same deal. No damage = no charge. Now, if Italian law actually had a statute saying what you said, then they could be charged before the Earthquake, if the prosecutor could show the scientists were not reporting their data accurately. Which would be fine, if they had a statute before the fact. They likely did not, or nobody noticed. But once people died, then you had

    • by nharmon (97591)

      I know almost nothing about Italian law, but you might need to show that such warnings would have saved lives, but rather that such warnings could have saved lives. If the seismologists had a legal duty to care in issuing the warnings, and failed to do so. I could see some culpability for that.

      • I know almost nothing about Italian law, but you might need to show that such warnings would have saved lives, but rather that such warnings could have saved lives. If the seismologists had a legal duty to care in issuing the warnings, and failed to do so. I could see some culpability for that.

        The case isn't about a missed warning that could have saved lives, it's about the commission issuing a statement of "no danger" that cost lives. From TFA:

        Maurizio Cora ... told prosecutors that after the 30 March shock, he and his family retreated to the grounds of L'Aquila's sixteenth-century castle; after the 11 p.m. foreshock on 5 April, he said his family "rationally" discussed the situation and, recalling the reassurances of government officials that the tremors would not exceed those already experienced, decided to remain at home, "changing our usual habit of leaving the house when we felt a shock". Cora's wife and two daughters died when their house collapsed.

        The scientists and those who delivered the press conference are pointing fingers at each other, and in the meantime people are dead. It would seem the Italian perspective is "throw the whole lot on trial, and let the court figure it out".

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by shadowfaxcrx (1736978)

      Does it matter (to them) if they can? Go read up on the Amanda Knox situation, and I think you'll get the same impression I did - Whether she's guilty or not, the Italian justice system is seriously screwed up.

      That this case can even make it to trial is a reinforcement of that belief.

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      This is Italy.
  • Which is worse (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alphatel (1450715) * on Friday September 16, 2011 @01:54PM (#37422592)
    In America, climatologists get sued and harassed [aaas.org] for making public statements about global warming.
    • Perhaps these prosecutors and politicians should be careful. They may be setting themselves up for a burning at the stake when the climate really starts a changin'.
      • by Compaqt (1758360)

        No kidding. Which has a more direct relation to death and destruction: Acts of God (term of art), or releasing/plea-bargaining/failing to convict a prisoner/arrestee?

        Live by the sword, die by the sword.

    • Re:Which is worse (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mc6809e (214243) on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:24PM (#37422880)

      In America, climatologists get sued and harassed [aaas.org] for making public statements about global warming.

      Weren't they sued because they were public employees refusing to provide the public with all their data? The public paid for the data and the research. Seems reasonable the public should get to see what they bought.

      • We pay for Defense Department research and data. Seems reasonable that the public should get to see what we've bought.

        • Re:Which is worse (Score:4, Insightful)

          by sloth jr (88200) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:02PM (#37423224)
          Yup, agreed. I figure you probably were being sarcastic, but yeah: we do pay for DoD research and data, and we certainly should be able to see that. Too much is classified that doesn't need to be, and that which does need to be classified is classified for too long.
      • Um, no, not if the people being provided the data don't have the training to properly analyze it and would just end up using it to spread misinformation about what the state of climate science is.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Mashiki (184564)

          Yes because we all know that people "outside the ivory towers" are just "uneducated masses" who have no understanding of things like physics, chemistry and biology. With no chance of having taught themselves.

          None at all. That's what we call elitism.

        • Not a fear without foundation, I grant you. But looking like you're trying to hide the data is much, much worse than anything they could do *with* the data.

      • Re:Which is worse (Score:4, Informative)

        by wsanders (114993) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:47PM (#37423708) Homepage

        The refusers in question were academic researchers not government employees. Just because you receive a federal grant does not mean you are obligated to make all of your unpublished data, emails, and records available to extremist crackpots. The FOIA does apply "to data produced with federal support that are cited publicly and officially by a federal agency in support of an action that has the force and effect of law. "

        Citation: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/business/awards/foia.html [usda.gov]

        There was another case involving a NASA scientist who was simply being harassed by climate-change deniers. NASA has much less leeway since it's a federal agency.

      • by dbIII (701233)
        Are you are referring to the fucking obvious DoS attack by mail with a co-ordinated bunch of requests arriving simultaneously each listing three countries in alphabetical order with no overlap? Would you prefer these people to work or to waste a few employee years on responses that would never be read anyway?
    • by PPH (736903)

      Which would make sense if the geologists were running around predicting earthquakes that didn't occur.

    • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

      by Dunbal (464142) *
      In the meantime, the Martian south polar ice cap continues to recede year after year, proving that human pollution is the cause of planetary warming on Mars. If only we hadn't sent those rovers.
    • by formfeed (703859)

      In America, climatologists get sued and harassed for making public statements about global warming.

      You liberal, It's not called global warming anymore!

      Global warming was bad terminology, because some idiot might think that every single spot on earth has to become warmer for the average temperature to rise. It's global climate change now. Which of course is also bad terminology, because change is good - or at least value neutral. (My suggestion would be to call it "The wrath of God for our sins of over-consumption and disrespect of creation". A bit long, but it would give you a majority.)

      • by jonbryce (703250)

        And what's more, it must increase day-on-day with no cooling phases. I predict that in a few months time, people will be pointing to some snow in the northern hemisphere and saying it is totally conclusive evidence that global warming can't possibly be taking place. We have entered an extreme cooling phase in the past 6 months.

    • by t2t10 (1909766)

      Look at the article: they get sued to release their data and research, which was gathered using public funds. And, yeah, people are asking hard questions of scientists when they are asked to create massive new government programs and expenses. I don't have a problem with that.

  • Even if I tell you the risk of something is insignificant, that doesn't equate to zero, and that means it can still happen. So, I still don't see how they are not expecting actual prediction here when that is the only way to be sure.
    • The thing is they didn't say, "We think the risk is low", they said there was "no danger". I do not support this prosecution, but the scientists involved acted irresponsibly by trying to convince people there was no danger.
    • by ultranova (717540)

      Even if I tell you the risk of something is insignificant, that doesn't equate to zero, and that means it can still happen.

      "Insignificant" does not mean "very small", it means "not worth considering". Don't make such value judgements unless you're willing to be held responsible for them.

  • Maybe they should post warnings under each of the city limits signs; "Warning: Contains earth quakes." *deep sigh*
  • Now that's an interesting twist on things. Holding them accountable for not being truthful with the public. Depending on the details, I would generally consider the government official significantly more accountable than the seismologists. That is, unless the seismologists were complicit (rather than merely compliant) in the government official's attempt to make things seems more rosy than they were.

  • Giampaolo Giuliani (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ichijo (607641) on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:15PM (#37422768) Homepage Journal
    When one seismologist is accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defence, forced to remove his findings from the Internet, and reported to police for "causing fear" [wikipedia.org] when he predicts an earthquake, is it no wonder why other seismologists would hesitate to report an impending earthquake?
    • Well, he was an alarmist. He had predicted something like 10 of the last 3 earthquakes.
    • by Bobfrankly1 (1043848) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:31PM (#37423542)

      When one seismologist is accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defense, forced to remove his findings from the Internet, and reported to police for "causing fear" [wikipedia.org] when he predicts an earthquake, is it no wonder why other seismologists would hesitate to report an impending earthquake?

      What is interesting is that the seismologists on trial appear to have called a special open session to basically discredit Giuliani (a laboratory tech) and calm the public. There wasn't a hesitation to report an impending earthquake, there was a statement of "many small tremors = no big earthquake = nothing to worry about" followed by an urging to go drink some wine. This caused many to ignore their routine (if a small tremor happens, the family sleeps outside or in a car). The break from routine (prompted by the statement of safety) cost many their families and/or lives as they slept inside "medieval" buildings that were not "anti-seismic".

      There appears to be quite a bit of he said/she said between the scientists and those who took part in the press conference, and it's notable that the "commission did not issue its usual formal statement, and the minutes of the meeting were not even prepared, says Boschi, until after the earthquake had occurred."

      Either way it's a real mess and many people died, and if the Nature article is correct, the press conference led people to believe it was safe when it was not. This caused more people to die then if a statement hadn't been issued. It's a difficult situation, and I wouldn't want to be the magistrate overseeing this.

  • by gmuslera (3436) * on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:28PM (#37422918) Homepage Journal

    Seismologists (and alarmists) had been saying since long time ago that in some moment a big quake will hit San Francisco area, and the city hasnt even tried to be evaquated. Had been predicted that in some moment could be a big tsunami generated by a volcano in the Canary Islands that could kill a lot of people in the caribbean and eastern north america, yet nothing had been done about it. And somewhere in a (probably long, but last year raised concerns) future the yellowstone caldera could blow, and still North America is populated, wasnt evaquated because that incoming predicted disaster. In fact, this cities [cracked.com] are predicted to be somehow destroyed in a not very far future, and still people live there.

    Even predicting that something will happen don't mean that it really will, or when, or with a strenght enough to worry about, or that authorities will do something, or that people, even warned, will do anything. If some of those predictions become true, lots of people will die, should the people predicting those things be treated as mass murderers if their predictions ever become true?

  • For all the non lawyers at /. this may seem a travesty but this is such a brilliant piece of legal work by the prosecutor. Not only has he become famous -- instantly, he has a shot at changing the way the country functions and has managed to get untouchable people to be touched. Plus he has managed to get attention from the international community and the heads of his state. I expect that he has a good shot at putting the scientists behind bars after which he will move on to a well deserved legal career as

    • by blair1q (305137)

      However, it's Italy. So expect the trial, which should last a day, to take 84 years.

    • Why would all this put the prosecutor in any sort of favourable light (so that anyone would be interested in offering him sought-after positions)?

  • When some surprising calamity happened, didn't they sometimes execute the king's fortune teller for not predicting it?

    This makes about as much sense, though I have less sympathy for the fortuneteller than I do the seismologists.

  • I expect the Italian government is having a hard time recruiting scientists and engineers to work in government posts. Why would you if some grandstanding prosecutor will go after you because you dissembled like a government bureaucrat. Had they issued unambiguous risk assessments of living in antique masonry buildings the management up the food chain would have been after their scalps for causing a panic.
  • Three thousand years of documented history isn't enough? It's not like the place became seismically active overnight. Get a fucking grip you Italian morons. Jesus I wish I could slap the whole fucking country from here.
  • The Italian court assembled an international panel of nine expert seismologists to write a report on the current state of earthquake prediction. The US representative was USC professor Thomas Jordan who runs the Southern California Earthquake Center. I heard him summarize this report in Golden Colorado last month. ironically it was few days following the Colorado and Virgina quakes.

    Seismologists mostly prefer using the term "forecasting" instead of prediction for couple reasons. First, forecasting pres
  • "Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population"

    So let me see if I have this straight... they aren't upset about the inability to predict earthquakes, they are upset because they didn't know how severe the upcoming earthquake was likely to be.

  • Who is going to dare study science or do research with threats like this?

  • If anything, sue the seismologist's bosses. I'm fairly certain that it was their politically minded bosses who told them to "let's not panic the proles".

  • If when defending your decision to the press you feel the need to use the phrase "I'm not crazy", you've probably just blown your best excuse...

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