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Error and Trial - Scientific American article

  1. Oct 4, 2011 #1


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    The "Error and Trial" article from Scientific American is rather interesting. It reports on 6 scientists and a government official being charged with manslaughter for contributing to the deaths of 300 people in an earthquake in Italy. Internationally, scientists are outraged, claiming the scientists are being criminally charged for failing to predict an earthquake. The truth is a little more complicated and a different article, "Scientists on Trial" from Nature magazine covers the incident a little more thoroughly.

    In summary:

    1) L'Aquila lies in a region with high earthquake activity, and the activity was especially high for the first few months of 2009 (i.e. an earthqake swarm).

    2) The high activity lured a crackpot technician, Giampaolo Giuliani, that claimed he could predict earthquakes based on emissions of radon gas.

    3) On Mar 30, 2009, Italy's Department of Civil Protection prohibited Giuliani from publicizing any more predictions, claiming he was causing panic among the residents of the L'Aquila area.

    4) On the same day, L'Aquila experienced a 4.1 magnitude earthquake. Not devastating, but definitely bad public relations to have it occur the same day they censured the guy making earthquake predictions.

    5) The response of the Dept of Civil Protection was to convene a meeting of scientists on March 31 mainly to calm the local residents. While the scientists were invited for the supposed purpose of assessing the risk of an earthquake to L'Aquila, the meeting actually involved more government officials than scientists and the gist of one hour meeting was to get the scientists to say that it was impossible to predict earthquakes (i.e. refute Giuliani). The meeting never actually delved into earthquake risks, such as the ability of local structures to withstand earthquakes or the probability of an earthquake in L'Aquila.

    6) Even though the meeting was more PR than substance, there was no immediate report of the results of the meeting, since the meeting really didn't matter. The important parts were the TV interviews before and after the meeting. Interviews where government officials would drag a scientist along with them to provide some credibility, but only the government official would talk. The worst of these were by Bernardo DeBernardinis, Vice Director of the Dept of Civil Protection:

    Given subsequent events, DeBernardinis' comments were almost as good as "Brownie's" performance during Katrina:

    7) At 11 PM on April 5, the city was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.9. Prosecutors say the comments made before and after the meeting contributed to many of the residents deciding they were safe to stay in their homes instead of evacuating to the streets. At 3:32 AM on the 6th, a 6.3 earthquake devastated the town's buildings killing many of the people that stayed in their homes.

    The actual event doesn't really matter. This is a situation that scientists, or other experts, are confronted with all the time. A government agency, or employer, isn't interested in the opinions of the scientists/experts. They just need them to back up what the government agency/employer wants to tell the public. In this case, it was experts on earthquakes being used. In other cases, it has been experts on military intelligence being used with the government only using results that agreed with its own agenda. In the Challenger disaster, it was engineers being used to push through a questionable launch.

    That makes this an interesting professional ethics situation. The manslaughter charge seems a little over the top, even for the government official, but that sort of thing definitely raises the stakes for the experts that find themselves being used.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 4, 2011 #2
    this and the Knox fiasco have convinced me that i don't want to go anywhere near Italy
  4. Oct 4, 2011 #3
    An Italian collegue/friend told me once, discussing a trial following an accident, about the Italian legislation. In principle, he told me, that if somebody dies not from natural causes, then somebody must be guilty of that and should be trialed.

    I have not been able to verify that but it seems just to be the legal culture. So in Italy this is likely just the normal course of action.
  5. Oct 4, 2011 #4
    The Italians elected a porn star to their parliament who often gave political speeches with one breast exposed and continued making hard core porn films while in office. They re-elected her and after her second term she campaigned for another porn star to replace her. Insanity in politics is nothing new and personally I'd prefer electing porn stars to all the professional wrestling trash talk and posturing.
  6. Oct 5, 2011 #5


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    The mentality of the prosecution is certainly odd in those cases.
  7. Oct 5, 2011 #6


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    An error message from De Bernardinis's computer:

    [PLAIN]http://a4.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/s320x320/297481_10150325162883908_564853907_8122514_145792944_n.jpg [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  8. Oct 5, 2011 #7
    +1. The Peter principio seems to be alive and well there.
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