Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Italian Seismologists manslaughter conviction overturned

  1. Nov 14, 2014 #1


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 15, 2014 #2
    I read about this back when the trial started. However, in the article I read, the charge reported was that the seismologists had failed to predict a serious earthquake. That made it sound like there were unwarranted expectations on them as seismologists to be able to accurately forecast and warn about any and all earthquakes, which seismologists obviously can't do. This article you found tells a different story, which is not that they failed to say anything, but that they confidently asserted no one had anything to worry about, which, just as obviously, seismologists can't do. It's impossible to know, exactly, was said, and by whom.
  4. Nov 15, 2014 #3
    I am Italian and a scientist, although I've been living abroad since 2005. I was back in Italy for a visit to my family a few days ago, just when the news you're commenting came out. A geologist who was interviewed about this said something very true and important, and I'd like to share it with you, plus other facts that may help you 'place' these news in the correct frame.
    The people who were at the trial and had lost relatives or their homes in the earthquake were very angry with the acquitted scientists, because they considered them 'responsible' for what happened.
    You can understand their anger only in the context of a State that almost never takes the responsibility for anything (and the psychological 'climate' created by other recent events, e.g. another court acquitted some prison guards who had most likely caused the death of a young guy by beating and starving him).
    However, this anger was most probably misdirected, for two very simple reasons.
    1) seismic activity of the same type and intensity as the one measured around l'Aquila at the time is very frequent in many parts of Italy, and it only very rarely leads to this kind of event, therefore one must decide whether to ring the alarm bell every other week, or be more conservative and only advise caution. Not to mention the fact that Italy is the classic country of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't', i.e. if they had given the evacuation order and no earthquake had happened, I promise you, the next day they would have been equally crucified for damaging the economy, wasting public money etc. It happens regularly with the weather. I think it was the winter of 2012: a heavy snowfall paralysed Rome for one day because the snow ploughs hadn't been organised in time, and some people broke their legs by slipping on the ice that hadn't melted because nobody had strewn salt on the pavements. Well, what do you think the mayor did? Did he take responsibility or even just apologise for not putting in place all the standard measures that any city in Europe should have ready in winter? No: he publicly accused the scientists and meteorologists for not predicting how much snow would fall... Need I say anymore?
    2) there are no 'natural catastrophes', only 'natural events'. We call them catastrophes when people get injured or killed in them. In an earthquake, except for super-violent ones where huge cracks open in the ground engulfing people and everything, most injuries and deaths occur inside buildings that are not properly designed to withstand the event or, outdoors, near buildings that collapse or shed heavy debris. This earthquake happened very late at night, almost morning in fact, so not many people were outdoors, and guess what, many of the people who died were actually asleep in recent buildings (e.g. the students' accommodation facility) that had been cheaply put together, without respecting the anti-seismic regulations. Why? Because the sole obtuse focus of certain 'people' there is to make money out of everything, regardless of the consequences and in spite of even the most elementary principles of common sense and humanity. I don't recall if it was proven in court, yet, but chances are bribes were exchanged with those who issued the permits, and there you go, just go ahead and build any old shed in the most seismic land in Europe, and let people die in it. And it gets even more sinister. Just shortly after the event, two politicians/administrators were caught (by phone tapping) literally chuckling on what had happened as they discussed the money they would make in the reconstruction! I mean, can it get any more sordid than that? It's the image of a society with no values, who doesn't even care about other people's lives, as long as they can buy a more expensive car, have a holiday villa, or who knows what else it is they think makes them happy. And while they more often than not escape punishment from justice, they don't always escape their own conscience. In a previous case of a primary school that collapsed during another earthquake, killing many children and teachers (San Giuliano di Puglia), one person who had been involved in the construction of the school committed suicide after the event. If I'm not mistaken, he had even lost a relative of his own in it.

    This is the context (I think) you need to consider when you see news like this.
    I don't know if these scientists did what they did in good faith or not, so it may even be appropriate to put them through trial. But 'science' itself should never be under trial. Scientists can advise and support decision-makers to the best of their knowledge and ability, but it's the local authorities and politicians that ultimately have the responsibility to make decisions and manage their territory, and bad decision-making or bad management of the territory are THE real causes of catastrophes like this, certainly not nature taking its course or science trying to read and anticipate nature's behaviour. Politics has too long been shielded from responsibility in that country, and when the 'real' culprits are prosecuted it won't be a minute too soon.

    Therefore, while I empathise with the people who just want to see 'someone' finally taking responsibility and paying the price for their losses, I would also advise them not to let themselves be manipulated into blaming 'science' as the source of their grief.
  5. Nov 15, 2014 #4


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    This has been my understanding based on the news. I have certainly seen in parts of the world that construction or infrastructure is not necessarily built to code, or that even if so, the code may fail to address environmental conditions, e.g., seismic activity, flooding or high winds. Resilient housing/buildings would certainly be more costly, and either less affordable and/or less profitable.

    We cannot not know what was in their minds, or what the expectation was.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post and synopsis of the story.
  6. Nov 15, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I'm go to email this thread link to my daughter, as the 2015 Unified International Taekwon-do Federation Open World Championships will be held Rimini, Italy. She will be attending with a couple of her students. Hopefully she doesn't get sued for knocking or not knocking a sparring opponent out.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Italian Seismologists manslaughter conviction overturned
  1. The Italian Job (Replies: 4)