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Seismologist Manslaughter Trial Begins Next Week 185

El Puerco Loco writes with a followup to a story we discussed in May about the manslaughter charges facing six seismologists and one government official in Italy after an earthquake there killed 309 people and destroyed 20,000 buildings. The case is going to trial next week, and an article at Nature provides an update on how things stand: "The indictments have drawn global condemnation. The American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), both in Washington DC, issued statements in support of the Italian defendants. ... The view from L'Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. ... [The charges allege that the defendants] provided 'incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information' to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. [Prosecutor Fabio Picuti] says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness. 'I'm not crazy,' Picuti says. 'I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila.'"
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Seismologist Manslaughter Trial Begins Next Week

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  • Giampaolo Giuliani (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ichijo ( 607641 ) on Friday September 16, 2011 @02:15PM (#37422768) Journal
    When one seismologist is accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defence, forced to remove his findings from the Internet, and reported to police for "causing fear" [wikipedia.org] when he predicts an earthquake, is it no wonder why other seismologists would hesitate to report an impending earthquake?
  • by joocemann ( 1273720 ) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:12PM (#37423344)

    I should point out (lacking links to slashdot stories because I'm on a phone) that the scientists DID predict the earthquake, but were somethinglike 2 weeks early... they partially evacuated, and in under 2 weeks the authorities initiated "yelling fire in a theater" type charges against the scientists. Once those charges were made in haste, the actual earthquake came and people died.

    From what I can deduce; authorities are blame shifting the damages that arose by hastily saying the scientists were wrong instead of admitting that they were right all along (albeit with imperfect prediction).

  • by Bobfrankly1 ( 1043848 ) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:31PM (#37423542)

    When one seismologist is accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defense, forced to remove his findings from the Internet, and reported to police for "causing fear" [wikipedia.org] when he predicts an earthquake, is it no wonder why other seismologists would hesitate to report an impending earthquake?

    What is interesting is that the seismologists on trial appear to have called a special open session to basically discredit Giuliani (a laboratory tech) and calm the public. There wasn't a hesitation to report an impending earthquake, there was a statement of "many small tremors = no big earthquake = nothing to worry about" followed by an urging to go drink some wine. This caused many to ignore their routine (if a small tremor happens, the family sleeps outside or in a car). The break from routine (prompted by the statement of safety) cost many their families and/or lives as they slept inside "medieval" buildings that were not "anti-seismic".

    There appears to be quite a bit of he said/she said between the scientists and those who took part in the press conference, and it's notable that the "commission did not issue its usual formal statement, and the minutes of the meeting were not even prepared, says Boschi, until after the earthquake had occurred."

    Either way it's a real mess and many people died, and if the Nature article is correct, the press conference led people to believe it was safe when it was not. This caused more people to die then if a statement hadn't been issued. It's a difficult situation, and I wouldn't want to be the magistrate overseeing this.

  • Re:Which is worse (Score:4, Informative)

    by wsanders ( 114993 ) on Friday September 16, 2011 @03:47PM (#37423708) Homepage

    The refusers in question were academic researchers not government employees. Just because you receive a federal grant does not mean you are obligated to make all of your unpublished data, emails, and records available to extremist crackpots. The FOIA does apply "to data produced with federal support that are cited publicly and officially by a federal agency in support of an action that has the force and effect of law. "

    Citation: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/business/awards/foia.html [usda.gov]

    There was another case involving a NASA scientist who was simply being harassed by climate-change deniers. NASA has much less leeway since it's a federal agency.

  • by Hentes ( 2461350 ) on Friday September 16, 2011 @04:21PM (#37424066)
    Did you read the article? Those people weren't clueless. They have lived in a high risk area for generations and knew that if they feel a tremor they should get out of the house immedietly. Which is what they did until the comittee went to the town in order to calm them down (supposedly under government pressure). In the meeting, one scientist said that the tremors in fact decrease the risk of an earthquake because they release the pressure. Wich sounded logical to a layman but is total bullshit. Another scientist who dared to disagree was sued and silenced.The people of the town concluded that there is nothing to be afraid of and left the precautions they practiced for centuries. This wasn't an honest mistake but deliberate spread of misinfromation.
  • by TeXMaster ( 593524 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @02:03AM (#37427178)

    The crime is (apparently) that they failed to provide sufficient and consistent information for everyone to ignore.

    Easy solution: point out Mt. Vesuvius, and tell the populace to follow what happened in AD 79.

    If you want sufficient and consistent information, don't sue the people who have devoted their entire lives to doing so, otherwise you'll be left doing it the old fashioned way, not having any information at all.

    The scientists in question not only failed to provide consistent and reliable information, they were told by the government to do so. So much for their dedication to truth. They also helped silence one of their own who refused to toe the government line. If you want to hold up scientists as shining examples of integrity, these are the wrong ones, dude.

    If by "one of their own who refused to toe the government line" you're referring to Giampaolo Giuliani, you should keep in mind that the person in question is a ignorant, preposterous asshole with a penchant for conspirational victimism. He's the guy that maintains that he had predicted when and where the "big one" would have hit in that string of tremors, while his predictions were wrong by as much as a week (in time) and around 100km (IIRC; I'd have to check again, been some time since I debated the last time with someone actually believing his crap): errors which are insignificant in geological scales, but are enormously significant in terms of civil protection: had the DPC actually taken action to move the population following Giuliani's warning, the death toll could have been much higher than what it has been (think about it: you move people 100km away from the forecast epicenter location, and they end up being closer to the actual epicenter than they were originally).

    There is a lot of blame that can be distributed around for what happened in L'Aquila, but what the inhabitants are looking for is a big, flashy scape goat rather than the actual responsible for the scale and dimension of the damage. Hitting the seismologist is probably just part of a bigger control strong-arming that is currently going on between the DPC and the research institutions that do the actual data collection and analysis (among other things). So while the populace is looking for a scape goat, the ones actually responsible for the damage will carry o their own way.

    Most of the earthquake damage was actually concentrated on two kinds of buildings: very new ones, which built on the cheap and without respecting the anti-seismic criteria which are obligatory when building in areas (such as that one) which are known to be at high seismic risk, and very old ones: in these cases, what happened was that some buildings had "custom changes" done by their more modern inhabitants, changes that (not intentionally) significantly weakened their structure, causing them them to fall and to bat against other buildings that would have managed to resist otherwise (domino effect).

    The lead responsibility for the actual damage rests mainly on two actors: a number of builders and contractors (the most infamous of which is Impregilo, which is rather well known to operate mostly by corruption —corruption to win contracts, corruption to get paid more than their job is worth, corruption for getting paid without actually doing the work, and so on and so forth—) and the actual local population. The fault does rest on the DPC shoulders because of it being the government agency specifically tasked with prevention and intervention in case of disaster, a task which it was quite obviously incapable of fulfilling correctly: not because of it's failure in communicating correctly with the population "in time", but because of the failure to exert the appropriate control for the whole 20-year span before the earthquake: prevention means checking that the new buildings do satisfy the anti-seismic criteria they are suppos

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein