23 October 2012

Something stupid in the state of Italy

The Telegraph and much of the rest of the world'sress is reporting on the result of a trial in Italy where six scientists and a government official have been sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter after providing “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” assessment of risks posed by the devastating L’Aquila earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

The six scientists and a former government official were all members of the Major Risks Committee which met in the city on March 31, 2009, after several small tremors had been recorded in the region. At the time, they ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the tremors would be followed by a large quake, in a judgment which reassured residents. One of the group famously advised them to relax with a glass of wine. Just six days later, a 6.3 magnitude quake devastated L’Aquila.
On Monday, Judge Marco Billi announced the manslaughter sentence to a packed courtroom in a temporary building erected to hear the case in the still devastated city. He also ruled that the defendants should pay 7.8 million euros (£6.4 millions) in damages, with two million euros to be paid immediately.
Needless to say that the scientific community is outrage.
Richard Walters of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, said “The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.”

Prof Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, said: “If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.”

Prosecutor Fabio Picuti had sought four-year terms for each of the defendants accusing them of failing to alert the population of the historic Medieval town only days before quake struck on April 6. Judge Billi’s reason for the longer sentence imposed will be disclosed at a later date.

“I thought I would be cleared. I still don’t understand of what I am accused,” he said. Defence lawyers condemned the sentence and pledged to appeal it - under the Italian system, the seven will remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal.

Marcello Petrelli who represented Franco Barberi, professor of volcanology and a former deputy Civil Protection minister, said the sentence was “incredible and incomprehensible”.

Whichever way you look at it the scientists are being scapegoated for a tragedy. What message does this send to the scientific community? If something goes wrong we are going to take it out on you. The earthquake was a tragedy and I would not for a moment diminish the terrible losses but ustice has not been served here. The day that an italian court can ut the appropriate fault line in the dock then justice can be served

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