Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Earth The Courts News Science

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

US Seismologist Testifies Against Scientists In Quake-Prediction Case

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 16, 2012 @04:55PM (#39066481)

    This trial is a farce.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      The Italian justice system in general is a farce. See also the Amanda Knox trial.

      • by Grishnakh (216268)

        Well then it can't be any worse than the American justice system, which is also a farce. See the OJ Simpson trial and the execution of Troy Davis.

        • by mbkennel (97636)

          the first wasn't a problem from the professionals actually operating it (they were average level of competence).

    • by Asic Eng (193332)

      That's not why they are being charged:

      Guido Bertolaso, former head of the Department of Civil Protection [...] a few weeks ago a wiretap revealed that he had apparently set up the meeting to convey a reassuring message, regardless of the scientists' opinion. [...] Mualchin said that seismic hazards were not properly assessed in L'Aquila. [...] "They [the scientists] were conscious of the high risk in the area, and yet did not advise the people to take any precaution whatsoever" he said.

      Now those accusat

  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOsPam.gmail.com> on Thursday February 16, 2012 @04:59PM (#39066531) Journal

    The problem is in part a scientific one, Mualchin said. The Italian scientists based their analysis on the frequency of earthquakes in the area. This is known as the probabilistic seismic-hazard analysis (PSHA), a method that is state of the art in many countries, but that, in Mualchin’s view, systematically underestimates seismic hazard because it does not consider extreme and rare events.

    "Frequency is not important, what really matters is the largest earthquake we can expect, the strongest one that has happened in the past. Risk prevention should be based on that," he said. This is the philosophy behind deterministic seismic-hazard analysis, a method that Mualchin says has been mostly abandoned by the scientific community, to the point that younger seismologists do not even learn about it.

    So they were using what is commonly considered a "state of the art" model? I'm guessing the prosecutors happened to find a guy in the United States that apparently even admits to adhering to models that are less commonly accepted than the model that the scientists used. I wonder if he's got an ax to grind now that his preferred model is no longer taught? I don't know anything about these two models but this sounds like infighting and I'm sure it's really easy for Mualchin to step in after the fact and show that his "abandoned" model would have worked better in this particular case. Any seismologists here that can speak to the current research in earthquake prediction and the actual effectiveness of these two models?

    I sure am glad I'm not a seismologist, this would angry up my blood.

    • by LilGuy (150110)

      I don't know for sure, but from my listening to NPR and alternative radio seismology and hurricane prediction models are a crapshoot. They're actually worse than chance would give in the same circumstances.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      They were using a probabilistic model yet they claimed that there is absolutely no chance of a major quake. In other words, they were lying.

      • 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.
    • Ah, the good old fat tail risks rears its ugly head. I bet they assumed normal distribution as well.

  • Ob. Moe (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rik Rohl (1399705) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @04:59PM (#39066535)

    Let's burn down the observatory so this can never happen again!

    • by Desler (1608317)

      Or don't make broad statements that you can't guarantee are correct and when being wrong can cost lives?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Or don't make broad statements that you can't guarantee are correct and when being wrong can cost lives?

        There is no way to guarantee that it is safe. Unfortunately the only safe response for the scientists and seismologists would be "Yes, there is always a risk of a deadly earthquake", which would result in no one ever believing them when it was true.

        • by Rary (566291)

          There is no way to guarantee that it is safe.

          Then they shouldn't be announcing in a press conference that "there is no danger".

          Those were the exact words used.

          • by tragedy (27079)

            Which of the following is there "no danger" of happening to me:
            1. Direct meteorite strike
            2. Fatal walrus attack
            3. Simultaneous spontaneous nuclear decay of every atom in my body

      • by LilGuy (150110)

        Or don't make broad statements that you can't guarantee are correct and when being wrong can cost lives?

        Exactly. I made my own case up above to this effect but I'm not sure it was as clear as what you just said. http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=2676011&cid=39066671 [slashdot.org]

    • This is kind of appropriate.
  • by tmosley (996283) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @05:03PM (#39066591)
    Watch now as all your scientists flee to avoid being the next to be targeted for being wrong.

    Sure, maybe they should lose their jobs, or government grants even, but PRISON!?
  • by RightSaidFred99 (874576) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @05:07PM (#39066665)

    Students pursuing seismology as a profession saw a sharp decline.

    Why would anyone pursue a career where it's so easy to make a simple mistake and be liable for penalties like this for something that is out of your control?

    • by couchslug (175151)

      Never predict and stick to research.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      I predict all Italian seismology students will now leave the country when seeking jobs in their field. With the EU worker laws, this should actually be pretty easy for them.

    • by jklovanc (1603149)

      That is exactly waht engineers do every day. They build things, make mistakes and when nature test the building and it fails when within design parameters the engineer is liable. The issue is the enginner stated the building wiuld not fail under certain conditions and if it does the engineer is liable.

  • 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 jklovanc (1603149)

      What got the scientists in hot water was that, upon hearing the politician's interpretation of their findings, they did not correct him. Had they spoken up the misinformation would have been corrected and the people would not have the false sence of security.

      • by kencurry (471519)
        Not that simple. I believe these guys were politically appointed. Correcting a politician in public (esp. in Italy) would surely mean loosing one's situation.
        • by jklovanc (1603149)

          In other words the political appointees feel their jobs are more important than people's lives. It is called doing what is right to protect lives and if a scientist does not have enough backbone to do that they should not be scientists consulting on safety issues.

    • by Lehk228 (705449)
      the largest mistake was made by the scientists for meeting with Italian politicians, Italy is more corrupt than the post soviet states
    • by manaway (53637) *

      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.

      Saying the only one at fault is the politician, but the most guilty are the idiot people, doesn't really make sense. And suggesting people should trust their instincts above what they perceived to be a scientist's report is risky territory. Though knowing when to distrust a politician gets easier with age.

      To simplify a lot: people act on instincts, experience, news, and many other notions. Profitable news edits quotes from politicians. Politicians edit reports from scientists. Scientists produce reports bas

  • by helixcode123 (514493) on Thursday February 16, 2012 @06:02PM (#39067351) Homepage Journal

    Things falling on people kill people. From the photos in TFA it looks like the're using unreinforced masonry. This is deadly in earthquake zones, but this situation has more to do with local building codes and enforcement than seismic potential.

    In the current state of earthquake prediction, the actual prediction of *when* an earthquake will occur is not all that reliable. However the prediction of how much ground acceleration can be expected from potential seismic activity is reliable and building codes can be created accordingly.

    • by rahvin112 (446269)

      not all that reliable = not at all reliable.

      It's impossible to predict an earthquake. It's a random event, and science has discovered no indication that any event proceeds an earthquake of a certain magnitude. The closest we can get on a fault is an average return cycle which is absolutely an average and has no guarantee of being even within 2 standard deviations of the average. In volcanic areas it's a bit different in that earthquakes tend to cluster around magma events, BUT again there is no way to predi

    • From the photos in TFA it looks like the're using unreinforced masonry. This is deadly in earthquake zones, but this situation has more to do with local building codes and enforcement than seismic potential.

      The buildings also look quite old, as in centuries, not decades. It's not like people go and update all the buildings in the country every time the building code changes. It's quite common in Europe to live in a house that was built before the US or Australia were even found by Europeans. My weatherboard home in Australia is about 70yrs old and by our standards that is ancient, but from a European perspective it's practically brand new.

      Over time buildings will "evolve", sometimes quite quickly. For examp

      • by Uberbah (647458)

        It's quite common in Europe to live in a house that was built before the US or Australia were even found by Europeans.

        This. What's that saying - "in America, something 100 years old is old, and in Europe 100 miles is a long way". Something built in 1912 is a new building by European standards.

  • First problem is suing the weather guy for unnecessarily ruining your plans. Predictions sometimes fail because they are predictions. They are not statements of facts. They are guesses based on best effort analysis of avaliable data. You can make the same case in reverse. The weatherman said it was going to snow yesterday and the day before that and it never did. So today when he said snow again I did not believe him and as a result I did not get up early, got snowed in and lost my job for failing to
    • by 0123456 (636235)

      First problem is suing the weather guy for unnecessarily ruining your plans. Predictions sometimes fail because they are predictions. They are not statements of facts. They are guesses based on best effort analysis of avaliable data.

      Speaking of the 'weather guy', there's the infamous case of Michael Fish announcing on British TV that there wasn't going to be a hurricane that night... followed by not-quite hurricane force winds that caused widespread damage and killed a bunch of people. Even though he was technically correct, the damage might not have been so bad if people hadn't been watching him on the TV news and had been prepared for such a storm.

      While I agree that jailing these people in this case seems crazy, no-one should be anno

No user-servicable parts inside. Refer to qualified service personnel.

Working...