Italian Seismologists Are Going to Jail for Not Being Able to Predict the Future

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The L'Aquila earthquake devastated central Italy in 2009, killing over 300 people. But an Italian judge's decision to convict seismologists for failing to predict the quake flies in the face of basic science. Six scientists and a government official have just been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. The "logic" behind Judge Marco Billi's ruling is that the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks team issued reports which lulled the public into a false sense of security prior to the 6.3 magnitude quake. In his ruling, Billi claimed that the defendants circulated "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about earthquake risks. 

Anyone familiar with the basics of how earthquakes work will know that the conviction disregards science entirely. More than 5,000 scientists have signed an open letter warning Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano that the trial sets a dangerous precedent, "impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance." Earth scientists on Twitter have been less cordial in reacting to the conviction: 

Vincenzo Vittorini—one of the civil litigants who tragically lost his wife and daughter in the quake—told Nature's Stephan S. Hall, "This isn't a trial against science." But it's hard not to read it that way, considering the absurd parallels of imagining economists on trial in the wake of a financial collapse. As BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin points out, scientists around the world believe that the very premise of this case undermines science. The fact of the matter is, "We don't know enough to make a good prediction," Kyoto University's professor of seismology Jim Mori tells the PBS News Hour's Miles O'Brien. "I don't think you can be held responsible for something that you really are not aware of."

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