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Crime The Courts Science

Geologists Might Be Charged For Not Predicting Quake 375

mmmscience writes "In 2009, a series of small earthquakes shook the region of L'Aquila, Italy. Seismologists investigated the tremors, but concluded that there was no direct indication of a big quake on the horizon. Less than a month later, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed more than 300 people. Now, the chief prosecutor of L'Aquila is looking to charge the scientists with gross negligent manslaughter for not predicting the quake."
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Geologists Might Be Charged For Not Predicting Quake

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  • Re:way to drive (Score:5, Informative)

    by yariv ( 1107831 ) <yariv@yaari.gmail@com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:19PM (#32595344)

    This is science, you never know for sure. In science you never have a complete answer, just a series of partial, half wrong answers. Hopefully you get better answers over time, but you never know the exact, complete answer. In this case we have a complicated system, one we have very little success in predicting its behavior. And they didn't say there will be no earthquake, just that the minor ones don't imply an imminent major one. I see no problem with this claim (as long as it is reasonable by modern seismology).

    "It's hard to make predictions - especially about the future." --Robert Storm Petersen

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:23PM (#32595412)
  • Old kind of strategy (Score:3, Informative)

    by RobVB ( 1566105 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:30PM (#32595534)

    The Chinese did this thousands of years ago with their astronomers. If they failed to predict a solar or lunar eclipse, they'd be executed.

    Citation [cwru.edu]

  • by spidercoz ( 947220 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:36PM (#32595634) Journal

    Human intelligence is generally in a much more nascent stage than most people are willing to admit.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:39PM (#32595684)

    The italian translation is uncorrect. Geologists said that "the risk is zero", that is very different from "we don't know, it could happen or not".

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:44PM (#32595744) Journal

    Science is generally in a much more nascent stage than most scientists are willing to admit

    If you actually bother to talk to any scientists, they will freely and enthusiastically discuss the limits of their field of study. Knowing what you don't know is the most important part of being a scientist.

  • Re:Vice Versa (Score:2, Informative)

    by dageyra ( 1246952 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:56PM (#32595896) Homepage
    I recall that as well, quick Google search turned up these two hits, none that I had read at the time, but same story, different vendor: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/04/06/seismologist-was-forced-to-remove-italy-earthquake-warning-from-the-internet/ [wsj.com] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/04/06/scientist-smackdown-did-a-seismologist-accurately-predict-the-italian-quake/ [discovermagazine.com]
  • by pmontra ( 738736 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:13PM (#32596098) Homepage
    Italian Prosecutors are appointed and not elected http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judiciary_of_Italy [wikipedia.org]
  • by IICV ( 652597 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:26PM (#32596270)

    No, it's not. It's actually an indication that a big earthquake is less likely. Consider this grossly oversimplified model: earthquakes happen because there's potential energy between two chunks of rock; one chunk of rock wants to move North, the other chunk wants to move South, but they're stuck on each other. The pressure between the two keeps on growing and growing until something breaks, and you get an earthquake. If you have lots of small earthquakes, that means that the potential energy between the two chunks of rock is being depleted; this lower potential means that things are less likely to snap in the first place, and if they do ever snap the total energy released (in other words, the magnitude of the earthquake) will be lower.

    It's like the difference between boiling water in a pot with a lid versus boiling water in a sealed pressure cooker; the pot with the lid will bubble and burp and move around a little, but the pressure cooker will eventually explode if you're not careful.

  • Re:way to drive (Score:4, Informative)

    by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:34PM (#32596348)

    Fuck 'em. I wouldn't "predict" a damn thing, but would seek ways to enrich myself from predicted outcomes.

    If people will fuck you for trying to do good, abandon that and fuck THEM instead.

  • Re:way to drive (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anachragnome ( 1008495 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:35PM (#32596352)

    "They're Geologists, not soothsayers."

    Funny you should say that. They are not one in the same, but it seems the Italians have replaced one with the other and expect the same results. Maybe they should go back to the previous technology.

    From the Wikipedia disambiguation page for "Soothsayer":

    "In Roman and Etruscan religious practice, a haruspex (plural haruspices; Latin auspex, plural auspices) was a man trained to practice a form of divination called haruspicy, hepatoscopy or hepatomancy. Haruspicy is the inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals, especially the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry. The rites were paralleled by other rites of divination such as the interpretation of lightning strikes, of the flight of birds (augury), and of other natural omens. Practitioners during the period of Roman dominance gradually adopted the title 'auspex' from the older word 'haruspex', or from the Latin 'avis' (bird) and 'specere' or 'spectare' (to look/see)."

    It might be noted, however, that the Auspex were horrible at predicting violent, volcanic eruptions, possibly explaining their weak representation in the current era. I think geologists are a little more reliable in that department.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:43PM (#32596410)

    They didn't do ANYTHING wrong in the Knox case. Sollecito and Knox were known to be practitioners of dangerous sex acts. ("Foxy Knoxy", wtf?) They tried to get Kercher involved and when she wanted them to stop, they took it too far. The morning after the murder they were coming back into the apartment to clean up the mess. They lied to the police repeatedly. (Knox even did cartwheels at the police station.)

    Their blood was found on the victim's clothing EVEN after their shoddy work trying to clean up the scene. Knox's DNA was even found in the sink in the victim's bathroom, ffs!

    But ignore all that for a moment. The fact is that you and I and your CSI-loving friend Alice didn't see all the evidence. A jury in Italy did. For a whole fuckin YEAR. They heard ALL the arguments for and against. ALL the evidence. ALL the explanations. ALL the fine points of law. They are as bright as you and me. And when they had all the facts in front of them, they found Knox and Sollecito guilty, guilty, guilty. No question about it.

    Don't you think we should be deferring to them? You know?

    Oh, and: if you post a link to a pro-Knox site, you instantly fail. There's a reason they're called "friends", it's because they lie for you.

  • Re:Vice Versa (Score:5, Informative)

    by Arthur Grumbine ( 1086397 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:58PM (#32596560) Journal

    Best snippet from the Time article [time.com] linked to in the first of your WSJ articles:

    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, officially denounced Giuliani in court last week for "false alarm." "These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news," Bertolaso was quoted as saying. "Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes."


  • Re:way to drive (Score:5, Informative)

    by Cico71 ( 603080 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:22PM (#32596738) Journal

    Were these geologists negligent? Given our current understanding of earthquakes, we can off-handedly state, "probably not", but we aren't sure. Is it unreasonable for somebody to want a court to investigate further, given the scale and scope of the damage? Not really.

    Not only that. People should understand some basics of the Italian law system before jumping to conclusions, making comparisons and pretending everyone is an idiot (I'm not referring to you).

    When authorities are notified or simply become aware of crimes, they are obliged to investigate. In this case there were several accusations made by people and prosecutors were obliged to investigate. Just to give some more perspective, charges are for homicide and other related crimes. The researcher that was investigated in the past for saying there would have been an earthquake, was charged (if I remember correctly) for procured alarm to authorities (still a crime).

    Beside the obligation to investigate, I also agree with you that is not necessarily unreasonable to investigate further. I'm pretty sure these guys will be discharged and the outcome of the trial may be helpful in future to prevent similar things to happen (both geologist trying to be less conservative and people being discouraged to make criminal accusations for nothing).

    This helps to understand the technical part of it, but of course there's more: the political part.

    Lately the civil protection department has gone through several scandals related to rebuilding activities of the area and it's close to the current government. Part of the population is pissed off because: they lost relatives, rebuilding is happening slowly and lot of promises remained just promises. The judiciary bench is often accused by the right wing (current government) to have the majority of judges being close to the left wing and to try to overcome the government.

    So, depending on the political orientation, people think either that prosecutors are just doing their jobs, or that they are trying to put pressure on the government accusing the civil protection. You may feel a bit puzzled at this point asking yourself what's the problem if, after all, they are simply following the law that obliges them to investigate. A common argument by right wing people is that there are simply too many notifications of crimes and accusations to investigate on all of them and the judiciary bench selects them (or better give priorities) based on a political agenda.

    So, don't think this is only a matter that has to do with science. It has more to do with the judiciary system and politics.

    Now people can feel free to think everyone here is an idiot :)

  • Re:Vice Versa (Score:2, Informative)

    by endymion.nz ( 1093595 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:17PM (#32597220)
    I always thought pizza was italian and burgers were just some kind of hot sandwich.
  • Re:way to drive (Score:2, Informative)

    by ffreeloader ( 1105115 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:28PM (#32597292) Journal

    It wasn't corrected until after I pointed out the injustice. He was modded as -1 flamebait when I posted.

  • by coaxial ( 28297 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:31PM (#32598070) Homepage

    Corollary 1:
    When any doctor can pad his wallet by ordering tests, you can bet there will be plenty of unneeded medical tests prescribed for everyone and costs will skyrocket.

    Corollary 2:
    When any patient can request test at no cost to them, you can bet there will be plenty of unneeded medical tests prescribed for everyone and costs will skyrocket.

  • Re:Vice Versa (Score:3, Informative)

    by Caraig ( 186934 ) * on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:13AM (#32598970)

    Pizza Hut? Domino's?

    Dude, seriously. You're in New Zealand. You owe it to yourself and your stomach to go to Hell's Pizza. Yes it's called Hell's. It's also some of the best damn pizza in the world.

    Pizza Hut and Domino's are like... they're the Hershey's Chocolate of pizza. Filling, tastes sort of like it should, but totally slumming it compared to Ghirardelli's or Godiva.

    Note: I am not recommending putting Godiva chocolate on your Hell's pizza. Or Hershey's on your Domino's. Unless you really want to. Then knock yourself out. But Godiva on your Domino's is right out. That ain't right, man.

  • Re:way to drive (Score:4, Informative)

    by wanax ( 46819 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:01AM (#32599154)

    It's a difference in language (and/or translation) between civil and common law countries. To be 'indicted' in most civil law countries means that you are being formally investigated. Charges are provided at a later stage (traditionally called assizes). In common law countries on the other hand, it is not necessary to declare that an investigation is being undertaken. But any formal charges require an indictment, which means a grand jury has to find there is probable cause, reasonable suspicion or prima facie evidence to indict.

    (Not a lawyer, but did major in world history)

  • Re:way to drive (Score:3, Informative)

    by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:45AM (#32599308)

    science out of your country.

    No indications means they didn't detect any indication. That could be due to poor technology, or perhaps because there were no indications.

    You know what is funny?

    I recall a couple articles on slashdot around the time it all happened... You know what happened? Look up the links on slashdot if you like.

    An italian seismologist/geologist actually *DID* predict the earthquakes and told everyone to grab their socks and look out. He warned about a week early and was reemed for it and was actually being tried by an italian court for something akin to yelling fire in a theater, etc. Then after the quake happened a little later, I think he got the charges dropped.

    It seems to me in Italy, as in the US, there is a bit of disparity between the people/government and science --- with science only having weight when it is convenient, and being easily discredited when we don't like it.

  • Re:way to drive (Score:2, Informative)

    by jujuchef ( 452269 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:15AM (#32599678)
    There's a good satirical movie called fittingly enough, 'The Man Who Sued God'
    which is based entirely on the insurance exclusion 'Acts of God'.
    Billy Connolly (Scottish stand-up, I compare him to George Carlin) is in it.
  • Re:way to drive (Score:3, Informative)

    by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @05:10AM (#32599894) Homepage
    Would the head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency count as a 3rd party expert?

    What does he have to say about earthquake prediction? "Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes." [time.com]

    Case closed?

  • Re:way to drive (Score:3, Informative)

    by AkiraRoberts ( 1097025 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:24AM (#32601316) Homepage
    Lawsuits against god have been filed. Wikipedia lists at least two factual instances (and numerous fictional ones). And I have a dim recollection of reading, at some point in the past, about a few additional suits vs. the deity that didn't make their way into Wikipedia's hallowed pages.

    Lawsuits vs. god [wikipedia.org]
  • by phlinn ( 819946 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @10:43AM (#32602214)
    He more or less accurately described what actually happened to the health system in this country over the past 40 years or so to drive up health costs. although it was never made mandatory, the system strongly encouraged employers to provide health care. I'm guessing he's thinking of HIPAA, which did put numerous requirements on employer coverage.

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...