The L'Aquila Earthquake Trial

In 2009 an earthquake in the L'Aquila region of Italy caused extensive property damage and mortality. Looking for someone to blame for the tragedy, the local government seized upon a report from a local colloquium of scientists suggesting that the L'Aquila region was not a high risk area for seismic activity, and was thus unlikely to experience an earthquake in the near future. Officials accused the scientists of deliberately providing false information which prevented proper earthquake preparedness. These scientists were held responsible for the deaths caused by the seismic event and were charged with manslaughter. In 2012 the scientists were convicted and they are currently in the process of appealing the conviction. This conviction comes in a country that, while well known for rampant corruption in its government, is not known as being particularly anti-science beyond its close association with the Catholic church. This makes this verdict all the more surprising, as it makes it clear that the Italian government and courts would sooner suppress science in the name of finding a scapegoat rather than owning up to their failure to provide effective earthquake infrastructure.

The Role of Science

This verdict is offensive in its ignorance, and it speaks volumes about the rift between public perception and verified fact in the field of research science. Scientists study their field of interest with the hope of advancing common knowledge, thereby improving the state of humanity. While areas of research may be basic in nature - specific protein structures, for example - or more readily applicable - a new cancer treatment or the like - the long term goal is always meant to be beneficial. If one were to develop a new technique that could save millions of lives by eradicating malaria with the stipulation that such a technique may cause occasional deaths, it would be absurd to assume that scientists intend to cause those few deaths. Instead, those deaths are an unfortunate side effect of a well reasoned and well meaning scientific approach that stands to improve countless lives. The development of all drugs and other scientific insights that are able to directly benefit people are rigorously rested to minimize the incidence of these side effects and to make sure that the drugs follow a predictable course. Even so, despite abundant testing, there will always be patients that suffer some unexpected side effect for reasons that could never have been predicted. Likewise, no matter how sure you are that there won't be an earthquake in your area in the near future, you can never be certain, and so imposing restrictions on opinions and on science in general in sight of this lack of certainty is foolish.

It is true that there are maleficent scientists who abuse the confines of research and the public trust for their own benefit, as occurred in the case of Andrew Wakefield and the infamous autism-vaccine scandal. In that instance, former MD Wakefield published a scientific peer reviewed study in the journal The Lancet in which he claimed to have identified a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and the development of autism, a malignant disease with no clear or immediate origin. Soon, however, it was shown that Wakefield's results were fradulent, and that he was in fact manipulating statistics and using insufficient sample sizes to support his conclusions. In addition, he was being paid by plaintiffs that wanted to form a case against the drug companies that produced the MMR vaccine. Such payment constitutes a clear conflict of interest, which Wakefield failed to declare or admit to. This publication has since been rescinded and over 200 studies have refuted its results in the ensuing decades, but the damage to the public conciousness was done, and tehre are now hundreds of thousands of people that live under the bizarre delusion that vaccines are in fact a cause of autistic spectrum disorders. These cases are few and far between, however, and they almost exclusively arise from an environment in which financial incentives drive the scientists in question to commit fraud. These instances are hugely damaging to the reputation of science as an empirical discipline of peer review, however they do not provide the public with free license to accuse well meaning scientists of fraud whenever it is convenient.

Fact vs. Scientific Fact

Well conducted scientific research should inform the public of information pertinent to any aspect of the universe, and in the case of the L'Aquila incident the report was intended to be a well reasoned assessment of the probable risks of extreme seismic activity in this particular locale. Science relies upon constant challenges, and only studies which are replicated and which are borne out by history can truly be said to represent scientific “fact”. Indeed, in science it is very uncommon for a researcher to claim that their work proves a given point, as they remain open to the possibility that they have misinterpreted there results, or that there are other unknown factors influencing their outcome. As such, scientific literature is in a constant state of revision as new details are unveiled and new intricacies are envisioned. For this reason scientific “facts” are more accurately referred to as “theory”, in that it is impossible to prove any scientific assertion with absolute certainty.

The public perception of the word “theory” is negative and likens the word to the notion that something is a random or weakly supported guess. In the United States this shaky and slippery slope is used by the anti science evangelical crowd in a vain attempt to refute the Theory of Evolution, based on the grounds that scientists “aren't sure” if it is real or not or they would not refer to it as a theory. The reason for this issue is that theory has made its way into the public lexicon as a word wrought with uncertainty, implying that any theory one might have is inherently awash with caveats and is unlikely to hold up under extreme scrutiny. In reality, however, popular scientific theories are incredibly well supported (the theories of evolution or gravity, for example), and are thus treated by the public as fact. While for most purposes this distinction is arbitrary and unneeded for daily life, it becomes a concern when it is abstracted to the whole of science without proper qualification. If one is going to apply a concept that one has only a general understanding of and attempt to hold others responsible for one's own faulty reasoning, then one is likely to be a fool.

In the L'Aquila incident it is very likely that the officials in charge of this egregious prosecution interpreted a data-supported theory - namely that L'Aquila was unlikely to experience a major seismic episode in the immediate future - as fact. Indeed, it is a very human trait to tend to believe that events with a low probability of happening will not happen at all. Indeed, most people who drive in a car don't actively think that they are likely to die in a car, even though statistics suggest that it can be a dangerous means of travel relative to air travel or trains. If their cars do crash and they are injured, they don't sue the statistics boards that compile road traffic accident data on the basis that they were told that there was a nominal chance that they themselves would be involved in a serious accident - that would be farce and such a suit would be immediately dismissed. Likewise, the scientists cannot be held responsible for reporting what the data told them so long as they were not intentionally manipulating or falsifying the data to arrive at an incorrect conclusion. It is not the fault of the L'Aquila scientists that the regional officials interpreted their report as a fact rather than a simple probability. They took it as something of a guarantee, and used this to justify their further absurd actions. The internal workings of the Earth that drive earthquakes are very poorly understood and seismology is still a highly observational discipline, meaning that no report on earthquake likelihood could ever reasonably be interpreted as anything beyond an informed prediction by anyone without an axe to grind.

A Failure to Communicate

In actuality it is very likely that the situation in L'Aquila would have been no different if the scientists in question had not released any report at all, as there would not have been sufficient time to build any new earthquake protections by 2009 without extensive government funding. Instead the scientists became scapegoats, with their unfortunate report serving as a lightning rod for the outrage and devastation following the tragic earthquake. Interpreting the paper as a retrospective fact was little more than a convenient way to shift blame from a failure of the civic institution of government to protect its people to a failure of the scientific institution to inform and advance humanity.

The implications of this guilty verdict are ludicrous and dangerous, and a failure to overturn the verdict will only impair future scientific research and public information. If a scientist is likely to be held accountable for their predictions, which they themselves know will never be 100 accurate, then there will be a strong resistance to the desire to publish new works. As a result, science could grind to a halt for fear that any misstep would result in public vengeance.

Going Forward

Science has always been, and needs to remain, a self-regulated and self-correcting discipline. While it is important for oversight to guarantee that scientists are not committing abject fraud, governments should not have the authority to turn scientific theory into premeditated fact. Doing so will weaken the entire institution and will drive researchers away from governments that promote such lines of persecutory thought, driving scientific exoduses that will alter the shape of the current academic landscape.

While knowing the ultimate fate of the L'Aquila seismologists is at present impossible, there is a very real possibility that they will become martyrs in a witch hunt. No, they will not be put to death as that would be even more unreasonable than imprisoning them, but thy may well be jailed for over a decade despite being blameless in the deaths that the Italian government is holding them responsible for. These scientists are blameless and ascribing any form of guilt to them is an exercise in absurdity. While the desire to assign blame is understandable, these researchers never intended to provide a false sense of security or to deliberately mislead the public. They merely presented their well researched data as a cogent theory that summarized their predictions. Their predictions were wrong, but their science method itself was not, and society needs to rectify this issue for the sake of the future of science. If we allow researchers to be held accountable for things that they never themselves stated or believed, the end result will be a suppression of scientific research as no one will want to run the risk of incurring the wrath of an angry public. Such risks would halt scientific progress and stall societal advancement, and as such it is our duty to prevent the spread of such ludicrous notions.

Earth Sciences | Science in Society

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