A failure to predict is not the same as a false assurance

May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fox: Italian Seismologists Charged With Manslaughter for Not Predicting 2009 Quake

Nature:

More specifically, the accusation focuses on a statement made at a press conference on 31 March 2009 by Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency and is now president of the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome. “The scientific community tells me there is no danger,” he said, “because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable”.

That statement does not appear in the minutes of the meeting that preceded the press conference, and it was later criticized as scientifically unfounded by seismologists – including Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, who is also one of the accused. Much of the trial is likely to revolve around the origin and impact of De Bernardinis’s statement.

The defendants’ lawyers have tried to differentiate between their clients’ respective positions, in some cases implicitly blaming each other’s clients. Boschi and the other scientists stated that informing the public was the sole responsibility of civil-protection officials, and that they cannot be charged over what was said in their absence. De Bernardinis’s advocate, on the other hand, said that his client merely summarized what the scientists had told him, and that the evaluation of the situation as “favourable” had come from them. According to the prosecutor, the fact that none of the other committee members felt the need to immediately correct De Bernardinis’s statement makes them all equally culpable.

The “no danger” statement was careless, though not criminally negligent. Unless there was some mitigating context not presented here, I would have no problem with De Bernardinis losing his job over it, though manslaughter is ridiculous. Unless the seismologists said similar things — and it’s hard to believe they would — there’s no reasonable basis for any action against them.

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