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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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  • way to drive (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:07PM (#32595166) Homepage Journal

    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.

  • Vice Versa (Score:5, Insightful)

    by broggyr ( 924379 ) <broggyr AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:08PM (#32595186)
    Of course if the scientist predicted a huge quake and none occurred, then he would be targeted for that as well.
  • by ATestR ( 1060586 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:09PM (#32595212) Homepage

    I'll go along with that argument, as long as we can throw politicians in jail any time there is some economic disturbance that impacts the population. After all, they should be able to accurately predict and prevent such things.

  • Science to English (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RichMan ( 8097 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:17PM (#32595316)

    It appears the statement that the precursor data did not indicate a following quake was taken to mean that there would be no following quake.

    This appears to be a science to english translation problem on the nature of causality and dependency.

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

    by Your.Master ( 1088569 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:19PM (#32595342)

    Nothing in the article really suggests that they were wrong given the evidence they had at the time. They're Geologists, not soothsayers.

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:25PM (#32595448)

    Way to drive FALSE PREDICTIONS INTO your country.

    "Uh... to avoid being charged with manslaughter... er... i mean... the data shows that.... there will be an earthquake today... and every other day this year too. Be ready for an earthquake at any moment, because our uhm... data... shows that it could happen!"

  • by kg8484 ( 1755554 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:26PM (#32595460)
    More to the point, throw prosecutors in jail any time they convict someone who is later exonerated.
  • Re:way to drive (Score:5, Insightful)

    by History's Coming To ( 1059484 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:28PM (#32595504) Journal
    I hope they'll also be suing the mathematicians who developed the statistical analysis tools the geologist used. And the engineers who helped develop the equipment. And me. I did absolutely nothing to help, and am therefore either more to blame than the geologists, or maybe less. It's difficult to tell when it's a bunch of lawyers trying to line their pockets from the deaths of innocents.
  • Re:Italy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:44PM (#32595750) Homepage Journal

    "ue-happy country"

    A myth spread by insurance companies.

    While there are issues, and always will be, it's a reasonable system overall.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:50PM (#32595816) Homepage

    jurors, maybe? prosecutors don't convict anyone.

    Prosecutors will sure as hell take the credit when they win because it was obviously their hard work that secured the conviction.

    And, not all things are tried in front of a jury, some are purely in front of a judge.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:01PM (#32595950) Homepage

    who actually know something about earthquakes as opposed to the fuckwits who want to sue.

    This is not suing someone, this is criminal prosecution. They're very different things.

    Basically, they're saying that, due to incompetence, the scientists caused the deaths of those people by not giving sufficient warning -- which, as you point out, so far can't be accurately predicted with any reliability.

    Criminal charges for this demonstrates that the prosecutor doesn't understand science, and is looking for a scapegoat.

    Although, from the linked article on The Independent [], this seem to be coming from pressure from citizens. I'm sure if the warning had been raised, and it didn't happen, they'd be looking to sue for that too.

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

    by horatio ( 127595 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:06PM (#32595984)
    We should hold responsible this prosecutor for every criminal he didn't successfully convict or even bother to charge for lack of evidence - especially any who went on to later kill someone.
  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:10PM (#32596038) Homepage

    Science is generally in a much more nascent stage than most scientists are willing to admit. Perhaps with very real repercussions from providing analyses that cannot reveal useful predictions they may alter their conclusions to reflect the true state of their knowledge.

    You know, most scientists will actually give you a pretty clear idea of where their knowledge ends and where guesswork begins. The good ones will refuse to give solid predictions based on the fact that they can't, and they'll tell you as much. Most people seem to think that scientists can predict damned near anything, and if they can't, the bitching starts about that.

    Heck, the one in question said "no reason to suppose a sequence of small earthquakes could be the prelude to strong event". Likely because they've seen a series of small earthquakes that have not been followed up by a bigger one. And, they've probably seen just as many larger quakes that came out of nowhere, and weren't presaged by smaller quakes. People like to think the planet plays by nice easy rules that say "every time this is going to happen, that will come a a warning sign" -- it's way more complex.

    I feel sorry for any scientist who has to try to explain such things to politicians and the general public in a 10 second sound-bite..

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

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:30PM (#32596314)

    It's all about what's reasonable and normal in the profession.

    If other seismologists look at the circumstances and data and say, "we would have made the same predictions, based on the evidence", then you can't fault these seismologists/geologists, because they're not grossly incompetent compared to their peers in the field.

    However, the Deepwater thing was different. From what I've read, petroleum engineers did not agree with what was going on there, Halliburton engineers thought it was unsafe, but BP managers decided to push ahead anyway.

    These types of things should be judged by juries composed of actual peers. Our Constitution actually uses that word ("a jury of one's peers"), but juries aren't made up of peers, they're made up of morons who are easily swayed by emotional arguments (anyone not fitting this description is thrown out by the attorneys). Cases involving science should be decided by juries of scientists. Any trials about BP should have juries composed of petroleum and other engineers. They're the ones best able to determine who's really right and wrong, not some moron who has no job and no excuse to duck out of jury duty, and certainly not some stupid judge who only knows how to administer law, but nothing about technical matters that these cases hinge upon.

  • by c0lo ( 1497653 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:35PM (#32596356)

    Am I willing to sacrifice the scientists to get rid of the politicians?

    Yes. Yes I am.

    Please do reconsider! Politicians regenerate faster than the scientists (same as weeds vs crops).

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

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:37PM (#32596368)

    They didn't lead anyone to believe something was going to happen. They said there was no evidence that something would happen. Big difference. Instead of calling for an evacuation, and then nothing happening, and all that effort going to waste, they didn't call for an evacuation, and people died.

    The problem is, earthquakes can happen anywhere, any time. Which way do you want your seismologists to err? Do you want them to call evacuations any time they think something could happen? Or do you want them to be more conservative, and only call an evacuation when they're fairly certain there's real danger? If you choose the latter (as these geologists did), then you'll probably miss some earthquakes, and people will die. But if you choose the former, people will be evacuating all the time. If you applied that philosophy, then you might as well just evacuate all of Southern California permanently, because there's a big fault line there and there's always a good chance of an earthquake. They happen there all the time.

    If you want to be safe from earthquakes, the only real way to to move someplace far, far away from any fault lines. But even then, you're not 100% safe; earthquakes happen just about everywhere, they just happen a lot more frequently and with worse severity in certain places (like California). About the only way to be 100% safe is to live in a boat anchored offshore a good distance. Of course, then you'll have to worry about storms, waves, hurricanes, etc.

  • by EvanED ( 569694 ) <> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:38PM (#32596374)

    Of course the difference is that there are millenia of people practicing medicine, and a couple centuries of people doing it well. How much history is there of people predicting earthquakes with any accuracy in a reliable manner? None. There's almost no way that this could be interpreted as negligence.

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

    by tacarat ( 696339 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:47PM (#32596462) Journal
    Go sue your local church. Those are all listed under "Acts of god" and the appointed local representatives were withholding information.
  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:56PM (#32596540)

    That's exactly what happened to healthcare in the USA in the last 30 years.

    When any doctor can be sued for not detecting a disease you can bet there will be plenty of unneeded medical tests prescribed for everyone and costs will skyrocket.

  • Act of God (Score:4, Insightful)

    by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:58PM (#32596558) Homepage

    When dealing with insurance companies or other situations where the environment is taken into account where damage and loss of life are concerned, the words "act of God" are used to describe that which is outside of human control and predictability. An earthquake falls neatly within that scope of definition. And with this happening in Italy of all places, I find it shocking that they do not appreciate the notion of such events being an act of God.

    This is not simply shocking, I see it as a government assault on scientists, scientific research and science in general. They are essentially charging scientists for not knowing everything about everything.

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:01PM (#32596586)

    Were these geologists negligent? Given our current understanding of earthquakes, we can off-handedly state, "probably not", but we aren't sure

    You know that this would get you acquitted in any reasonably democratic country in the world, right?

    The civilized norm is that you must be sure in order to convict anyone of a crime.

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

    by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:30PM (#32596836)

    And as TFA points out, this is after the government shut up a scientist saying there WAS going to be a quake.

    Predict a quake before one happens and you're in trouble. Don't predict one before it happens and you're in trouble.

    One of these days, we scientists need to drive politicians out of our country. And off the planet entirely.

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

    by gruntspeak ( 1835180 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:45PM (#32596960)
    It's absurd to think that after 20 years someone would continue to notice the same headline every morning. What's needed is a more effective method of communicating the impending doom. Maybe....I don't know, maybe through some sort of color-coded chart.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:52PM (#32597024)

    But of course, since it's impossible to prove a negative, obligatory penal action must in practice come down to a judgment call by the prosecutor.

    Otherwise I could say "the prosecutor is a murderer," and because they cannot prove otherwise, an investigation must be started. Any defense to why the prosecutor is not going to be investigated for murder is probably also a defense for why you shouldn't prosecute people for doing science.

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

    by w0mprat ( 1317953 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @09:49PM (#32597806)
    Despite the face that Weather forecasts are nowadays accurate six days out of seven, nobody would dream of accusing meteorlogists of negligence when they get it wrong. Considering extreme weather costs billions in damage and takes countless lives, you would think there would be lawsuits flying everywhere.

    Because hard data (if well demonstrated) actually stands up pretty well in court. The burden of proof is on the accusor to show that the data and method actually showed a possibility of a major earthquake and were negligent in missing it.
  • by treeves ( 963993 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:32PM (#32598072) Homepage Journal

    Many doctors will tell you that many tests are either unnecessary, or even harmful. There was a story just yesterday on /. about the radiation exposure from medical imaging. Other tests are invasive, some have false positives and cause treatments, even surgery, for non-existent conditions, and they all cost a lot.

    There was a This American Life program last year (listen to it here: []) about health care costs and they quoted a doctor who tried to convince an attorney/father of an injured girl not to give her an CAT scan when a simple test based on a rule of thumb would suffice and avoid radiation exposure. He had to weigh the cost of the time it would take to convince the dad/att'y. He admitted, he could just give the CAT scan to save himself the time and avoid a complaint. No one would ever blame a cancer she got twenty years later on the CAT scan, he'd get paid more, etc. Many reasons to give the CAT scan. But, in this case, he decided to push the issue saying it was not in the patients interest to do the CAT scan. The dad relented.
    Another example given: PSA test for prostate cancer.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @10:57PM (#32598258)

    So profit margin is the criterion by which we should choose to do something about excessive costs? Why?
    Are hospitals, medical equipment mfrs, and lawyers with high profit margins OK? Why?

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

    by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @11:08PM (#32598340)

    A geologist is not like a BP engineer. Engineers are responsible for their engineering methods. If an engineer uses poorly understood methods, then they are responsible for the results if they let their project proceed. Geologists do not in general do things that might cause earthquakes.

    A geologist is not like a building inspector that you can hire to tell you that your house is safe and has no termites.

    Geologists study their earth. Their job is not to do impossible things like make short term predictions about what might happen or not.

    It is more like hauling an entomologist into court, because he didn't properly predict that a swarm of termites would arrive in your state.

    Or New Orleans government pressing charges against the meteorologist who predicted the storm would take a different path.

    Electric companies hauling a heliologist to court, because he didn't predict a massive solar flare on X date.

    Or the astronomer who didn't notice a huge meteor and recognize that it would be colliding with earth.

    Some things are called acts of God for a reason.....

  • Cannot be done (Score:2, Insightful)

    by UBfusion ( 1303959 ) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @01:52AM (#32599122)

    This is not funny but very insightful.

    In order to understand statistical predictions, the audience must have specific probabilistic reasoning skills. Unfortunately, humans are by nature very poor probabilistic reasoners (the '70s studies by Kahneman & Tversky have established this) and probably they will never learn (pupils are especially resistant to relevant remedial teaching).

    In addition, "scientists" are notoriously bad at explaining their own findings in plain english, precisely because english (or any other language) and science are incompatible. Therefore, you need either a government, a mass medium or a self-proclaimed science populariser to 'translate' science into 'plain english', which almost always leads to an epic fail.

    Alas, precision, accuracy and truth will always remain lost in translation.

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, nor can it be returned without a receipt.