Friday, May 27, 2011

Seismologists charged with not predicting deadly earthquake

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Bernardo De Bernardinis
Bernardo De Bernardinis

Science on trial: Scientists monitor ongoing geophysical activity, stipulate that risk of dangerous event is relatively low, government official twists this to mean that there’s no danger, actual disaster occurs and people die, government blames scientists:

What’s the Context:

  • The case, which was brought in 2010, hinges on the statements of Bernardo De Bernardinis of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency at a press conference a week before the quake. His agency had asked the scientists to convene and discuss whether the increasing seismic activity in the area might indicate a risk of a major quake.
  • At the subsequent press conference, De Bernardinis, who is being tried along with the scientists, told the crowd, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” (via Nature News) People say that as a result of this reassurance, they didn’t leave their homes or take other precautions against the quake struck.
  • However, in the minutes of the meeting, the scientists do not say that there was “no danger,” though they say that a swarm of mini-quakes is no certain indicator that a major one is on the way. Additionally, “the idea that minor earthquakes release energy and thus make things better is a common misperception,” Susan Hough, a geophysicist at the USGS, comments (via Nature News). “But seismologists know it’s not true. I doubt any scientist could have said that.” The scientists have since said the statement misrepresented their opinions.
  • Nearly 4,000 scientists have signed a letter of support for the seismologists, saying that the government should focus its efforts on enforcing building codes—the area is a very high-risk quake zone—rather than trying the scientists. “The proven and effective way of protecting populations is by enforcing strict building codes,” says Barry Parsons of Oxford University, a signer of the letter (via Nature News). “Scientists are often asked the wrong question, which is ‘when will the next earthquake hit?’ The right question is ‘how do we make sure it won’t kill so many people when it hits?’”

The Future Holds:

  • The trial begins on September 20. If convicted, the scientists and De Bernardinis could serve up to 12 years in prison.
  • The president of a L’Aquila association of the earthquake’s victims hopes that the trial will lead to a more thorough investigation of what happened, particularly with regard to information the committee may have had about which buildings were more likely to crumble. “Nobody here wants to put science in the dock,” he says (via Nature News). “We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.”

It’s always an extra bitter tragedy when more people die than arguably should have due to lack of warning and preparation, and it’s only human to wish to point the finger at someone when something goes wrong, but this trial is beyond ridiculous. Not only did the scientists never say that there wasn’t any danger (you can once again thank some clueless government functionary for trying to avoid having to deal with preparing for an actual disaster), but the idea alone that scientists can somehow predict earthquakes is asinine. Sure, it may be possible at some point in the future, when our understanding and equipment get to a certain level, but for now, the best we can do is calculate the odds of a seismic event happening in some generalized region within an equally vague timeframe. It’s one hell of a leap to go from that to deciding that scientists are responsible for determining where and when the next big shake will happen.

The trial is a vindictive farce, and what’s more, it’s a terrible insult to all those decent and hardworking scientists who regularly put their own reputations – and lives – on the line in the course of their work. To blame them for the deaths of hundreds of people over something that is absolutely out of their control – and for a statement that is demonstrably not theirs – is both cruel and lazy finger-pointing. The good men and women of science should be reinstated and receive an official apology, and De Bernardinis ought to get a couple hard slaps on the wrist, at the least (though I don’t think even he deserves prison time).

(via @BadAstronomer)