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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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  • It was predicted! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tobiah ( 308208 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:15PM (#32595298)

    I forget the specifics, but a local technically minded person had predicted this earthquake, largely based on gas venting. He gave a date and it didn't happen, so the local politicians went about prosecuting him for the equivalent of yelling "fire!". But then the earthquake hit the next day. I assume this is a continuing effort on the part of the local politicians and prosecutor to lay the blame anywhere but on themselves.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:16PM (#32595312)

    Yeah, there's the Knox case. This is also the country that convicted Google for a video that was posted to Youtube (even though Google took it down within hours of being notified).

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

    by mea37 ( 1201159 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:23PM (#32595402)

    If an event is present "all the time", and "99.99%" of the time it is a "false alarm", then it isn't an indicator at all.

  • by nalidog ( 1682910 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:23PM (#32595408)
    Does this mean that we can send meteorologists to jail for getting the 5-day forecast wrong?
  • 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.
  • Re:It was predicted! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lakitu ( 136170 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:24PM (#32595420)

    Article on slashdot about this is found here: []

    Italian scientist Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher at the National Physical Laboratory of Gran Sasso, recently gave warning about an earthquake that was to happen on March 29th of this year near L'Aquilla. Based on radon gas emissions and a series of observed tremors he tried to convince residents to evacuate, drawing much criticism from the city's mayor and others. Giuliani was forced to take down warnings he had posted on the internet. 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, last week officially denounced Giuliani in court for false alarm. 'These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news,' Bertalaso was quoted as saying. 'Everyone knows that you can't predict earthquakes.' Giuliani, it turns out, was partially right. A much smaller seismic shift struck on the day he said it would, with the truly disastrous one arriving just one week later. 'Someone owes me an apology,' said Giuliani, who is also a resident of L'Aquila. 'The situation here is dramatic. I am devastated, but also angry.'"

    Oh, Italy, please don't ever change.

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

    by paeanblack ( 191171 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:38PM (#32595656)

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

    Predictability is a continuum, not a binary scale. Earthquakes fall much further on the "hard to predict" side of things, but there is no arbitrary point at which you can draw a line. If a home inspector incorrectly claims a house has no sign of termites, a forester claims that a fire poses no danger to settled areas, or BP engineer claims that the methods used at Deepwater posed no danger to the environment, you aren't always going to be comfortable saying "oops, shit happens"

    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.

  • by tHeNeXuS ( 1835132 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:41PM (#32595708)

    Ok, maybe you need to know something about the Italian judiciary system. In Italy there is something called "obligatory penal action", which means that if there is even the simple suspect of a crime being committed, then an investigation must be started.

    In the quake case, the investigation started because the people responsible for monitoring the situation explicitly reassured the population by telling them that there would be no big quake. Any responsible scientist, given the continuous small shakes that were ongoing, would have at least said something on the line "We believe there will be no major quake, but please do not lower your guard".

    And that is why there was an investigation that ended with them being charged for negligence.

  • Re:It was predicted! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:46PM (#32595776) Homepage Journal

    even a broke clock can be correct once in a while.

  • Re:way to drive (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @05:58PM (#32595924)

    Except it's not funny. It's an unnecessary political comment about politics in a country not related to the story. If it was funny, or related, then you might be right. Until then, shut the fuck up.

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

    by icebike ( 68054 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:13PM (#32596100)

    Never the less, this is a perfect way to kill a science in its infancy. Had they released probability figures someone would find fault with that as well.

    They did not HIDE their findings, they simply did not make predictions.

    You have to call witnesses in most countries. (Itally, not so much). Where will they find Geologists willing to set the science back 500 years for failing to make a prediction?

    Damned if they do, and Damned if they don't, I would choose a different career path.

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

    by hazem ( 472289 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:13PM (#32596108) Journal

    Winston P. Graves liked consistency in his life. He sat down at the table in his breakfast nook and carefully opened the paper with one hand while pouring cereal into a bowl with the other. He scanned the headlines and noted the "9.0 Earthquake Predicted Today: Mass Devastation!" and calmly looked toward his bowl while he poured the milk. He took comfort in the headline knowing there was no cause for concern. It was the same headline that had been there yesterday. And the day before. And every day before that since the big quake 18 years ago that actually did devastate the city and had killed more than 20,000 people. Following the quake, the attorney general, known for his flair in front of juries, won convictions, and death penalties, for the government geologists who had failed to predict the quake, and for the newspaper editors who had failed to act on the finally accurate prediction of the quake by a local astrologer. Since then, the new government geologists and newspaper editors following the example of that astrologer and published formal predictions of deadly earthquakes every day. Of course there had not been any notable earthquakes since then, but neither had there been executions.

  • by dominious ( 1077089 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:21PM (#32596218)

    "We believe there will be no major quake, but please do not lower your guard".

    Do you know how the people would interpret the second part of the sentence?

    something along "ZOMG we're all gonna dieee!@#"

    When people are afraid and worried you just talk to them like you talk to a child, as "don't worry nothing bad is going to happen"

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

    by rm999 ( 775449 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:22PM (#32596240)

    What if it was due to incompetence? What if it was their job to save lives and instead they were slacking off? From a linked article:
    "L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente recalled his frustration at receiving no clear reply to his repeated questions and the apparent lack of concern on the part of some present."

    As a person of science I think it's great you are giving benefit of the doubt to the scientists, but maybe the prosecutors deserve some too. My intuition is to believe the committee when they say they couldn't have done a better job, but they are clearly biased. I'd like to see what third party experts have to say. It is a good thing this is being investigated, but threats of prosecution should probably wait until the investigation is done.

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

    by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:24PM (#32596252)

    Last I heard, prosecutors don't get paid based on the number of people they go around charging. Convicting, probably, but there's probably easier cases to make.

    I don't know about Italy, but here in America, prosecutors (DAs) are publicly-elected officials. This means that aside from being attorneys, they're also politicians. So to get re-elected, it's in their interest to generate as much publicity for themselves as possible which their constituents like (but not publicity that brands them negatively).

    Prosecuting scientists for not predicting the future might not generate immediate financial returns, but if it's something that's somehow popular with the electorate, even if the case ultimately fails, then it absolutely does constitute "lining pockets" because it help get them re-elected.

    Even if the prosecution isn't completely popular, as long as it's not extremely unpopular, it's good for the DA: "no publicity is bad publicity", as they say.

  • by takev ( 214836 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:29PM (#32596300)
    Actually Italy already has a history of suing scientist who predicted an earth quake which didn't happen (well not on that day, it happened a few days later).
    In any case, I predict there won't be any geologist in Italy in the near future.
  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @06:42PM (#32596400)

    In the quake case, the investigation started because the people responsible for monitoring the situation explicitly reassured the population by telling them that there would be no big quake. Any responsible scientist, given the continuous small shakes that were ongoing, would have at least said something on the line "We believe there will be no major quake, but please do not lower your guard".

    Except for the guy who warned them about it, of course. []

    He was muzzled for attempting to incite a panic after predicting the very same quake these other seismologists said there was no evidence for. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don't. There was no evidence, really, not anything definitive. It was just an educated guess that happened to be correct.

    What's really disgusting is the only reason the scientists said anything at all was because the government set up a panel specifically to reassure the population that there would not be an earthquake. So the scientists told the truth: there was nothing abnormal about the tremors, and there was no evidence for an impending quake. They also said that did not mean there would not be a quake, just that there was nothing to suggest there would be one. Italians obviously missed that part.

    The people who should be on trial are the politicians/bureaucrats who set up the panel to begin with, not the scientists who told them exactly what they asked for (and truthfully).

    At this point, if you're an Italian seismologist and the government asks you if there is going to be an earthquake, my advice is to respond with "Fuck if I know."

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

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:05PM (#32596624)
    In the entirety of human history there've only been 2 earthquakes that one would even consider suggesting had been predicted. And those two were predicted on an extremely tenuous basis one involving missing pets and the other under the as yet unproven radon releases. Perhaps in the future there will be a reasonable means to do so, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon.

    I'm writing this sitting in an area that's been predicted to have a massive 8.0+ earthquake for at least the last 30 years. It has yet to hit and while it probably will, that's not a particularly useful prediction.
  • Re:Italy? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by painandgreed ( 692585 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:30PM (#32596824)

    I thought the USA was the sue-happy country. Don't we have a patent on it or something? Italy better start preparing for a lawsuit from the U.S.

    Dude, Rome had the entire lawyer thing down well before the Republic fell. IIRC, there is writing of Caesar discussing the sue happy nature of Rome much like it is discussed in the USA today and for a time he even was a lawyer.

  • Re:Vice Versa (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:30PM (#32596834)

    Better safe than sorry...

    I predict there will be a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake within the next 500 years. My recommendation is that people evacuate.

    If people want predictions on a more useful time scale, magic 8-balls really aren't that expensive and will probably be just as accurate, if not more so.

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

    by ( 1093595 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @07:33PM (#32596856)
    Wasn't this the town that the whole building concent process was so corrupted in that almost none of the houses were earthquake proofed, and many had fake earthquake provisions to fool inspectors? Sounds like the city just wants to move the blame.
  • Re:way to drive (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DigiShaman ( 671371 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:16PM (#32597218) Homepage

    They would then be sued for causing false alarm, loss productivity of a city, looting, and perhaps increase in homicide rate during the evacuation period. As a geologist, you would be setup to fail regardless.

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

    by ffreeloader ( 1105115 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @08:27PM (#32597290) Journal

    I see... Another humorless /.er.

    His sarcasm was very appropriate given what's going on in our country today, and what the mayor of the town in Italy is doing. It was both relevant and timely as this entire story is political in nature. The mayor is playing politics by suing the geologist to cover up his own ineptitude and corruption in not making sure his town actually was earthquake-proofed as had been alleged.

    This is exactly what has been done by US government inspectors falsifying records relating to having equipment on hand so there could be an immediate response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and our president being so tied to the unions that he refused the help that would have made sure the oil wouldn't be reaching our wetlands and beaches at this time.

  • by Protoslo ( 752870 ) on Wednesday June 16, 2010 @11:17PM (#32598402)

    In the federal courts, if both the prosecution and defense agree, any trial, even a felony trial, can be a bench trial. It is apparently a fairly controversial defense tactic, but I was reading an article [] the other day that contended that the conviction rates in bench trials had gone down during the period with federal mandatory minimum sentencing drug laws.

    But barely a year after the introduction of federal sentencing guidelines, judges and juries began heading in different directions. In the 14 years from 1989 through 2002, the conviction rate of federal juries increased to 84 percent, while that of federal judges decreased to 55 percent. In 2006, jury conviction rates exceeded bench rates by 25 percentage points (89 percent to 64 percent, respectively).

    The hypothesis is that while the jury is not allowed to know the weight of the sentence before convicting (and will thus convict fairly easily), the judge is much more careful about what constitutes a "reasonable doubt" in light of the certainty that he will be compelled to send some guy to prison for ten years for having a few pot plants.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:47AM (#32601522) Homepage Journal

    I don't think that's how malpractice works, perhaps a lawyer here can chime in? The way I (a layman) understand it, you can sue for anything but that doesn't mean you'll win. To win you need to prove that the doctor didn't follow accepted practices.

    If you go to the doctor with chest pains and the doc gives you an EKG, the EKG says no heart disease, so he says "you're ok, it's just heartburn" and a year later you discover you have breast cancer that could have been cured had it been detected, don't you think you should be able to sue when the doctor failed to test for that possibility?

    A lady friend of mine and I were watching a movie when we thought she was having a heart attack. To make a long story [] short, heart disease was quickly ruled out. They then did an ultrasound for a gall bladder problem, also negative. This was followed by exploratory surgery and found she had a hole in her intestine.

    Had they said "it's just gas" or something rather than doing all those tests, she would have died. Had they not done all those tests they would not have been following accepted mediacl practices, and they would have been liable for malpractice because they would, in fact, be malpracticing.

    What's gone wrong with the US medical system is the soaring cost of medical insurance for patients, malpractice insurance for medical personnel, and drug costs because there's no incentive for the patient to shop around; [] the co-pay is the same no matter what the pharmacy charges.

    In short, the insurance industry is at the root of the fact that US spends more on health care than any other country, while not having anywhere near the quality of care by any metric. The insurance industries have used the malpractice boogeyman to take your attention off the fact that they are the problem, not the lawyers, and you've swallowed their propaganda hook, line, and sinker.

"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde