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US Seismologist Testifies Against Scientists In Quake-Prediction Case 189

Posted by timothy
from the perfect-certainty-isn't-an-option dept.
ananyo writes with this snippet from Nature (for which this earlier Nature article is also background): "'The courthouse in L'Aquila, Italy, yesterday hosted a highly anticipated hearing in the trial of six seismologists and one government official indicted for manslaughter over their reassurances to the public ahead of a deadly earthquake in 2009. .... During the hearing, the former head of the Italian Department of Civil Protection turned from key witness into defendant, and a seismologist from California criticized Italy's top earthquake experts.' Lalliana Mualchin, former chief seismologist for the Department of Transportation in California, criticized the Italian analysis, which he says was based on a poor model. If the court agrees with Mualchin, the defendants could face up to 12 years in jail."
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US Seismologist Testifies Against Scientists In Quake-Prediction Case

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  • by I Read Good (2348294) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @05:13PM (#39066755)

    is that saying "We do not have reason to believe that there will be a catastrophic earthquake" or "It is not likely that there will be a catastrophic earthquake" is NOT the same as saying "There is no danger of a catastrophic earthquake".

    What happened was the scientists came to the former consensus in the meeting, then the politician interpreted it as the latter, and then the politician relayed his version to the people.

    IMHO, blaming the scientists is fucking absurd. I think that of the people indicted in this mess, the only one who is at fault is the politician. The most guilty people in this are the idiots who took action concerning their own safety based on their interpretation of what a politician said and against their better instincts.

  • by mbkennel (97636) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @05:44PM (#39067115)

    "1) You can't be put in jail for losing a civil case. Ask O.J."

    In countries with English-style law. In others, not necessarily.

    I have an in-law who lives in a South American country. He and his wife are facing (entirely bogus) criminal penalties from a private contract lawsuit. It's been dismissed and laughtd out of court every time it comes up before a non-crony-of-plaintiff judge but it gets revived and reallocated. The system is so corrupt that being sentenced to hard time is a possibility from a business collaboration gone bad.

  • by Bobfrankly1 (1043848) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @05:47PM (#39067153)
    Those people broke with their regular routine of sleeping outside in their car after multiple small tremors, based on the assurances of the seismologists on trial. Those seismologist called that open session to discredit a laboratory tech who was claiming the likelihood of a larger earthquake. The seismologists basically told the people that there was no danger, go drink some wine. If they hadn't called that meeting and gave that direction, those people wouldn't have broken routine, and many of them would have had a much better chance at survival.

    This has been discussed on slashdot before [slashdot.org], catch-up on some of the details.

    What truly scientific mind would say that that it is safe to ignore the tremors that had been happening in the area? Why didn't they say "we have no conclusive evidence of a forthcoming earthquake, but here are some general safety tips". Most likely, they were more interested in discrediting and shaming the laboratory tech who had been warning of a big earthquake. When those who are entrusted with public safety choose ego over public safety, and it causes changes that lead to death, I agree that they should be held accountable.

    Read the Nature article [nature.com]. Get the perspective from both sides.
  • by demonbug (309515) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @06:10PM (#39067437) Journal

    Where I live (the Midwest), it's hard to take meteorologists seriously; the weather is just too damn unpredictable.

    So really, I guess it all comes down to the specific situation; if the seismologists had data that, as experts, they should have known was indicating that a major event was forthcoming, but decided to withhold said data from the public (or outright lie about it), then they should be held liable. If they had no such data and were caught as unawares as the rest of the populace, then they should be exonerated.

    It sounds like they are accused of a third possibility; there was no way to know whether a larger event was coming or not, but they reassured the public that there was nothing to worry about. Actually from reading the article, it sounds like the former Director of Public Safety is the one that said that; the guilt or innocence of the scientists depends (or should depend, at any rate) on whether that was their advice to him.

    The former Caltrans seismologist has a point, but I'm not sure it really pertains to this case. Earthquake frequency analysis is a great tool for determining something like insurance rates, where you are trying to figure out how likely it is for an earthquake of x magnitude to occur in y period of time. From a public safety standpoint, the primary concern should be the maximum expected earthquake magnitude, because this is what you need to design your infrastructure to. Frequency analysis does come into play here, as it might not make economic sense to design to the largest earthquake ever recorded (or that there is evidence for), but it offers absolutely no guarantees - just because the largest expected quake is a 6.5, you just had a 6.5 three years ago so on average another shouldn't occur for another three thousand years, doesn't mean that another 6.5 won't occur next year.

    The only reassurance the scientists should have offered is that the string of minor earthquakes did not necessarily mean a larger event was on the way, which I realize isn't very reassuring. They had absolutely no way of knowing whether something larger was coming, or whether the string of minor earthquakes was it. If they actually claimed otherwise, then they are guilty.

  • by canajin56 (660655) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @06:43PM (#39067745)
    According to TFA, the scientists (in their defense) claim to have told the official that there was no increased or decreased risk because they cannot make a definite prediction. The official is the one who turned that into "no risk at all because little quakes release energy and prevent big ones, drink some wine and relax!" Maybe they're lying now to cover their asses. But the big news in TFA is that this official and his boss arranged this press conference to "reassure the public there is no risk" before they even consulted the accused scientists, so I'd tend to believe the scientists that this official twisted their words or outright lied.

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