Should Scientists Who Failed To Predict Italian Earthquake Be Held Liable?

Should Scientists Who Failed To Predict Italian Earthquake Be Held Liable?

Should Scientists Who Failed To Predict Italian Earthquake Be Held Liable?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 14 2011 2:33 PM

Should Scientists Who Failed To Predict Italian Earthquake Be Held Liable?

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Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not as sexy as Amanda Knox’s appeal. But Italy is soon to host another trial fraught with scientific disagreement and emotion. Next week, a group of seismologists will face charges of manslaughter. The reason: They failed to predict an earthquake in the city of L’Aquila. Stephen S. Hall tells the story in the new edition of Nature. The two sides are at odds as to what the trial is about. In an open letter, scientists claimed that “the seven Italians essentially face criminal charges for failing to predict the earthquake—even though pinpointing the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term remains, by scientific consensus, technically impossible.” In contrast, Vincenzo Vittorini, whose wife and 9-year-old daughter were among the 309 to die in the 6.2-magnitude quake that struck in 2009, says “This isn’t a trial about science.” Rather, he says that he and the rest of the L’Aquila citizens were given a false sense of security by the scientists, who had met earlier that day to assess the possibility of a major seismic event following a cluster of relatively minor rumbles.

Of note: Hall writes, “The trial has already had a chilling effect on scientists' willingness to share their expertise with the public.” This is deeply troubling, since laypeople depend on scientists to translate their knowledge for public consumption. Hall’s call to revamp communications between scientists and the public is critically important and goes well beyond this case: Other prime examples of distrust between researchers and those who can’t quite recall their high-school science include vaccination and climate change.

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Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, New America, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.