Error and Trial - Scientific American article

In summary, the six scientists and government official being charged with manslaughter for contributing to the deaths of 300 people in an earthquake in Italy are angry because they claim they are being criminally charged for failing to predict an earthquake. Internationally, scientists are outraged because they claim the scientists are being criminally charged for failing to predict an earthquake when there was ample evidence that they could have done so.
  • #1
BobG
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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:

In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

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.

Maurizio Cora, a lawyer who lived not far from Vittorini, told prosecutors that after the 30 March shock, he and his family retreated to the grounds of L'Aquila's sixteenth-century castle; after the 11 p.m. foreshock on 5 April, he said his family "rationally" discussed the situation and, recalling the reassurances of government officials that the tremors would not exceed those already experienced, decided to remain at home, "changing our usual habit of leaving the house when we felt a shock". Cora's wife and two daughters died when their house collapsed.

"That night, all the old people in L'Aquila, after the first shock, went outside and stayed outside for the rest of the night," Vittorini says. "Those of us who are used to using the Internet, television, science — we stayed inside."

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.
 
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  • #2
this and the Knox fiasco have convinced me that i don't want to go anywhere near Italy
 
  • #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.
 
  • #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.
 
  • #5
Proton Soup said:
this and the Knox fiasco have convinced me that i don't want to go anywhere near Italy
The mentality of the prosecution is certainly odd in those cases.
 
  • #6
In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

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
 
Last edited by a moderator:
  • #7
Proton Soup said:
this and the Knox fiasco have convinced me that i don't want to go anywhere near Italy

+1. The Peter principio seems to be alive and well there.
 

Related to Error and Trial - Scientific American article

1. What is the concept of "Error and Trial" in science?

"Error and Trial" refers to the process of experimentation and testing that scientists use to discover and understand new concepts and phenomena. It involves making educated guesses, or hypotheses, and then testing them through experiments and observations. Errors and failures are expected and are seen as opportunities for learning and refining hypotheses.

2. How does the "Error and Trial" method contribute to scientific progress?

The "Error and Trial" approach allows scientists to systematically test and refine their ideas and hypotheses. By learning from mistakes and failures, scientists are able to make new discoveries and advance the understanding of a particular topic or field. It also helps to prevent biased or incorrect conclusions by continuously testing and reevaluating hypotheses.

3. Are there any risks associated with using the "Error and Trial" method in science?

As with any scientific method, there are potential risks and limitations to using the "Error and Trial" approach. It may be time-consuming and costly, and there is always a possibility of making incorrect conclusions. However, these risks can be minimized by using rigorous experimental design and statistical analysis, and continuously seeking feedback and peer review from other scientists.

4. How does the "Error and Trial" method differ from the scientific method?

The "Error and Trial" method is often seen as a more iterative and flexible version of the traditional scientific method. While the scientific method follows a linear process of making observations, forming a hypothesis, conducting experiments, and drawing conclusions, the "Error and Trial" method allows for more experimentation and refinement of ideas along the way. It also acknowledges the possibility of errors and failures, rather than assuming that all hypotheses will be proven correct.

5. Can the "Error and Trial" method be applied to all areas of science?

Yes, the "Error and Trial" method can be applied to all areas of science, from biology and chemistry to physics and psychology. It is a fundamental approach to scientific inquiry and discovery, and is used by scientists in all disciplines to explore and understand the natural world.

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