Seismologists Convicted, Idiots Delighted

This might be the most insane court decision since Galileo’s heresy conviction (history buffs can read the charges and Galileo’s confession here).

The latest news out of Italy is everywhere, so we’ll give you a few excerpts from the BBC. This is their headline: L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter. Here it comes, with bold font added by us:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

It’s not easy to be a scientist in Italy. Galileo got convicted for saying that the Earth moves, and then these guys get convicted for failing to say it would move. Besides, they have no sense of causality in Italy. They should have put the Earth on trial — it’s the one that did the moving. Let’s read on.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

[…]

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

The trial lasted for 13 months and the judge reached a decision in only four hours? Smart man! Here’s more:

The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report. In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.

What? No burning at the stake? They’re going soft in Italy. The BBC continues:

The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial.

[…]

Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts.

Okay, that’s enough for now. There will be more to be said about this. But we can’t help feeling that court decisions like this are very encouraging to the creationists. We know what they’re thinking: Today the seismologists, tomorrow the evolutionists!

Update: See Italian Seismologists Appeal Their Convictions.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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28 responses to “Seismologists Convicted, Idiots Delighted

  1. “The Emperor Zhong Kang supposedly beheaded two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, who failed to predict an eclipse 4000 years ago.”

    Solar eclipse#Historical eclipses

  2. leostargazer

    Time for scientists to start “judging” the “idiot” judges. What a joke.

  3. retiredsciguy

    The judge should be tried for false imprisonment. By the way — are these local judges in Italy elected?

    Look for a mass exodus of scientists from Italy.

  4. Tomato – despite the blogger’s desire to make case sound credible, he does the reverse. Here, for example, is something he says: “Dr. Vittorini’s frustration and anger are understandable. The scientists did a horrible job of communicating. In fact, the scientists didn’t communicate at all!”

    So, now scientists are legally required to give an opinion on possible natural disasters? And if they get it wrong, in the clink you go? And this is supposed to show that its not an attack on science?

    One wonders if the blogger would be as accepting of a ruling that bloggers who do a poor job of communicating should be put in jail.

  5. The trick is that they didn’t do a poor job of communicating. They basically said that there was no chance of a major earthquacke. As opposed to saying that there is very little chance of an earthquake. As a result people who were preparing stopped. The public trusted those 6 scientists.

    Overall i’m torn on this case. If we want people to trust the science than shouldn’t there be a punishment people violate that trust?

  6. Charley Horse

    While I doubt the convictions will hold up on appeal, the
    real motives and thoughts of the judge are a mystery.
    Imagine such a thing happening in this country. The first
    thing that comes to my mind are weather predictions. So much is
    known and so much is still to be learned. Such as predicting the
    course of a hurricane. Neil Frank’s dramatic announcements of
    impending hurricane destruction that he repeated it seemed like every
    time a thunder storm appeared, that many just ignored his warnings.

    My prediction….those verdicts will not serve to promote better
    predictions or prevent any deaths. My prediction is the verdicts will
    have a chilling effect on scientists all across Italy and in many other
    places across the globe. Look for copycat prosecutions. What a great
    dodge/ distraction for unscrupulous builders and governments.
    Yeah, I know, that is just recognizing the obvious….

  7. Follow up to Tomato’s link and Spector – both appear to be wrong. The scientists DID communicate their findings clearly and accurately, and did NOT say ‘no chance,’ imply ‘no chance,’ or anything similar. See this article. The money quote:

    According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.”

    Obviously they gave the wrong predcition. But they said what they thought very clearly and they gave the standard scientific caveats. If they go to jail for making such statements, other Italian scientists have to credibly wonder if they will end up in jail for making analogous “X is unlikely, but cannot be ruled out” statements. Which, basically, excludes any useful scientific statement on natural disasters.

  8. This could easily have been averted had the seismologists cut open a sheep for offering and read the entrails, which clearly would, of course, have indicated the sheep died at the hands of the seismologists.

  9. I’ve been thinking on this. I am now part of a data safety monitoring committee (DSMC) at my work. Our task is to monitor clinical trials in progress and to advise or call a halt to a trial if we find unreasonable risk of harm. If an investigator came to us with report(s) of an adverse event*, and we failed to evaluate it properly, or failed to act properly on our findings, that would be a problem. If we decided the trial should continue and THEN another adverse event occurred, we would be wrong even though we acted properly.

    These is a difference in my situation, a degree of control, because if the DSMC says “halt” the trial will end. If the Italian scientists had called “earthquake”, would that have made any difference at all? What power did they have, if any, to make a difference?

    Communicating risk is hard. Getting people to act on it is harder still. Just what does the court suppose these scientists should have done, that they didn’t do?

    So now that this verdict is in, should Harold Camping go to jail?

    * an adverse event can be a lot of things, anywhere from a minor rash, to death.

  10. Your right after reading the article the politician basically said no chance all is well. While the scientists did release proper findings but left town before they were released.

    That being said there is a level of negligence that is involved here. At least on the politicians part.

  11. Spector567 says: “That being said there is a level of negligence that is involved here. At least on the politicians part.”

    The only safe thing for a scientist to say, at least in Italy, is that no one should live in or travel through any place subject to any risk whatsoever of earthquake, volcano, flood, tsunami, landslide, etc.

  12. … earthquake, volcano, flood, tsunami, landslide, …
    … intelligent design …

  13. To be extra safe, better add the risk of tornado, sinkhole, dust storm, hurricane, and lightning strikes. All the world should move to North Dakota.

  14. Could this precedent be applied in a reverse context? For example, a scenario in which people claiming to have authority in some area, insist that a global catastrophe is going to occur on a set date. The Intelligent Disaster believers in Italy must be quaking in their boots. ;=)

  15. @Curmudgeon
    “The only safe thing for a scientist to say, at least in Italy, is that no one should live in or travel through any place subject to any risk whatsoever of earthquake, volcano, flood, tsunami, landslide, etc.”

    I think you are taking too much of the worset case scenario and using the reverse example than what occured. They didn’t get in trouble for failing to predict the event. They got in trouble because the politician predicted the event wasn’t going to happen.

    It’s like standing in a wooden structure and saying it was absolutly fire proof. If people listen to you and trusted that the building was safe from fire during a fire than you’d be negligent. (if you had the authority that would lead people to trust you.)

    As opposed to someon pulling the fire alarm because the saw smoke in a building.

    In engineering there is the concept of due dilligence and proceedure that I suspect is the same for science. There is the test of the resonable person.

    That being said I think that does open up a bunch of legal precisidents that could lead to danger for many profession. truthfully i’d like to see more about the courts arguments.

  16. That being said there is a level of negligence that is involved here. At least on the politicians part.

    I am not sure why. I suspect most of us would interpret the scientists’ conclusions the same way he did. “These guys never give a straight answer and always hedge. “Probably not” to a scientist essentially means “no chance” to a laymen. So that’s what I’m going to tell my constituents.”

    The more I consider what was said and done, the more I think this isn’t about whether they communicated their opinions clearly. I think it really is about them being wrong. I do not think the verdict would’ve changed if, for example, both the scientific group and the politician had reported ‘there is a 1% chance of a major earthquake following.’ Because the people are not upset about how the low estimate of risk was communicated, they are upset that it was low and yet an earthquake occurred. (And, just to be clear myself, this makes the verdict much more troubling and problematic than it would be if it were about them doing their risk communication job.)

    To be extra safe, better add the risk of tornado, sinkhole, dust storm, hurricane, and lightning strikes. All the world should move to North Dakota.

    No, don’t go there. One state away is Yellowstone; the world’s biggest supervolcano. It ever goes, it’ll make a large swath of North America uninhabitable, including probably ND. But hey, at least you’ll die quick.

  17. Charley Horse

    North Dakota might work….unless you suffer from chipperphobia…

  18. Seriously??

    The judge should be removed from office.

    I thought America was the only country that hellbent on returning to the dark ages.

  19. ahh …

    1/2% chance of italy being anything but ****s trying to lower their national intelligence to that of the jersey shore cast

  20. retiredsciguy

    If you were a meteorologist in Italy, would you be looking for a position in another country? Their entire job is nothing but making predictions, every day of the year. Italian seismologists can get by for a while by just keeping their mouths shut, but that strategy won’t work for meteorologists. If they don’t predict, they don’t get paid.

  21. An while we are speaking of the IDiots, they will have fun dancing around this one: Blount, Z.D., Barrick, J.E., Davidson, C.J. and Lenski, R.E. (2012). Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population. Nature 489; 513- 518. Even BioLogos is putting the heat on ID about what would certainly be characterized as a gain of new function.

    http://biologos.org/blog/behe-lenski-and-the-edge-of-evolution-part-2

  22. Riccardo Carugati (ateo)

    Communication was not seismologist’s job. It was in charge of the Civil Protection Board. A major newspaper reports a phone conversation made a few days before the eathquake, in which Guido Bertolaso, at the time chief of Civil Protection, calls for the scientists’ meeting describing it as “just a mediatic event” and urges for a reassuring final statement.
    But Bertolaso himself did not attend at the meeting, so was not charged of anything at the trial.
    I think the seismologist in good faith subscribed a statement which the didn’t intend as a denial of the risk. But we wil see more.

  23. Douglas E says: “what would certainly be characterized as a gain of new function.”

    Already blogged about it: ICR: Full Blown Reality Denial.

  24. Indeed. That was an ICR response, eh, but has there been a DI response yet??

  25. Wait wait, let me guess what the DI will say: front loading, more front loading, it’s still just E. Coli (“Pay no attention to the goal-posts behind the curtain”).

  26. Not to make light of this, however, in defense of the judge, one must consider that he had a three Chianti lunch the day he ruled . Also he missed having an afternoon tryst with his mistress Gianna, the court recorder, which ticked him off. The defense counselor had to race the Ducati to grandmother’s olive grove near Bologna for the harvesting and Pinot Grigio festival and he rested the defense Friday at 11 AM , ten minutes after court convened. His closing argument might have been; “Does this earthquake mean earth has fallen off its pillars”? A fitting tale of intrigue and cranial malfunction related to us by our Curmudgeon.

  27. Well, in Italy they can’t convict mafioso, but they can convict scientists.

    Nobody in Italy has the courage to testify against the mafia. But testify against a scientist? Sure, they have enough courage for that. After all, when they got Galileo, nobody put a bomb in their Vespa.

    Hey, what happens to all the preachers who preach that the world will end next Wednesday– sell all your possessions, stop taking chemotherapy. When the world doesn’t end, why don’t they get arrested?

    What about all the creationists who said scientists would never discover the Higgs boson? Are they still out of jail?

    This reminds me of a story at UCLA a while back. Some scientist was training an undergrad to do experiments in the lab, next to the building where I used to work. Once during the weekend, when no one was in the lab, she was extracting flammable chemicals from a test tube with a hypodermic. You’re ALWAYS supposed to deal with flammables under a fume hood. She did it at the bench. The chemicals met oxygen, exploded, the lab caught fire and she died.

    So they arrested her PI. I don’t know what happened to that guy, but it didn’t look good.