Are Seismologists Responsible for People's Deaths in an Earthquake?

By Veronique Greenwood | May 27, 2011 10:08 am

quake
Destruction in L’Aquila, in the seismically active area of Abruzzi.

What’s the News: No one can predict earthquakes. But six seismologists and a government official are being tried for manslaughter in the deaths of more than 300 people in the 2009 tremblor in L’Aquila, Italy. The city’s public prosecutor says the scientists downplayed the possibility of a quake to an extent that townsfolk did not take precautions that could have saved their lives. A judge has just set the trial to begin on September 20.

What’s the Context:

  • The case, which was brought in 2010, hinges on the statements of Bernardo De Bernardinis of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency at a press conference a week before the quake. His agency had asked the scientists to convene and discuss whether the increasing seismic activity in the area might indicate a risk of a major quake.
  • At the subsequent press conference, De Bernardinis, who is being tried along with the scientists, told the crowd, “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” (via Nature News) People say that as a result of this reassurance, they didn’t leave their homes or take other precautions against the quake struck.
  • However, in the minutes of the meeting, the scientists do not say that there was “no danger,” though they say that a swarm of mini-quakes is no certain indicator that a major one is on the way. Additionally, “the idea that minor earthquakes release energy and thus make things better is a common misperception,” Susan Hough, a geophysicist at the USGS, comments (via Nature News). “But seismologists know it’s not true. I doubt any scientist could have said that.” The scientists have since said the statement misrepresented their opinions.
  • Nearly 4,000 scientists have signed a letter of support for the seismologists, saying that the government should focus its efforts on enforcing building codes—the area is a very high-risk quake zone—rather than trying the scientists. “The proven and effective way of protecting populations is by enforcing strict building codes,” says Barry Parsons of Oxford University, a signer of the letter (via Nature News). “Scientists are often asked the wrong question, which is ‘when will the next earthquake hit?’ The right question is ‘how do we make sure it won’t kill so many people when it hits?’”

The Future Holds:

  • The trial begins on September 20. If convicted, the scientists and De Bernardinis could serve up to 12 years in prison.
  • The president of a L’Aquila association of the earthquake’s victims hopes that the trial will lead to a more thorough investigation of what happened, particularly with regard to information the committee may have had about which buildings were more likely to crumble. “Nobody here wants to put science in the dock,” he says (via Nature News). “We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.”

Image credit: wolfango/flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Monique

    Still insane. I read an article about this yesterday and it truly amazes me that the Italian government (any part of it) is so foolish as to put these men and women on trial. Bottom line, an earthquake can happen almost anywhere at any time and damage buildings thought invincible.

    The fact of the matter is that this alone will make a lot of people reconsider becoming seismologists and those who are consider changing jobs. After all, if they are wrong, and they will be, they will be indicted for manslaughter. Who wants that kind of job? So what’s next? Trying the scientists who didn’t know the exact trajectory of a tornado because they didn’t tell you which homes were going to be destroyed?

  • dirk

    When in doubt, say everyone’s in grave danger. It’ll keep things like this from happening and will help ensure that your work continues to get funding.

  • JMW

    Given the cited quote from the president of L’Aquila association of the earthquake’s victims…
    “Nobody here wants to put science in the dock,” he says (via
    Nature News). “We all know that the earthquake could not be
    predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted
    was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.”
    …then maybe the scientists could sue for malicious prosecution.

  • Jody

    This brings up some interesting dilemmas, however. At what point is a science considered mature enough to be sued for an error in preventative diagnosis? Clearly that line exists, as doctors are sued all the time for not properly diagnosing a disease. What if a meteorologist failed to issued a tornado warning in a timely fashion, could he be sued for damages if a tornado spawned? And on the flip side, if your diagnosis does not meet the threshold where you would be held accountable for your predictions, why would anyone listen to you in the first place? Why should anyone listen to these seismologists regarding earthquake prediction at all?

    Obviously I’m with the other posters here in thinking these seismologists are being used as scapegoats, but it’s an interesting situation that could have wider-reaching consequences.

  • Scotty D.

    This is rediculous and sets a dangerous precident. To use Jody’s example of doctors being sued as much as they are, one result is that many talented people who would have become doctors have decided not to, and others have left the practice. This in turn leads to a smaller pool of well-qualified doctors. If this trend occurs in seismology, that would be a tragedy. Considering the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and millions made homeless in just the last decade from earthquakes and their resultant tsunamis, we need to understand this field all the more. Especially since we still know so little.

  • http://www.alifelessordinary.com/ Thomas J. Brown

    dirk said:

    When in doubt, say everyone’s in grave danger. It’ll keep things like this from happening and will help ensure that your work continues to get funding.

    I would argue that you’d be wrong on both counts. There’s no way to prevent an earthquake or its resulting damage. False alarms would inconvenience everyone and possibly cause a lack of faith in your work, thereby reducing funding.

  • Patrick

    Absolutely ridiculous, earthquakes cannot be predicted, so, that immediately says that anything that the scientist say is guesswork and one should take the precautions that make them feel comfortable. If these people spend time in jail its just further down the hole that we make our scientist who work on this sort of thing hide further, or simply quit working on it all together, get out of the field and start studying something that will not put them in jail if they are wrong!

  • http://clevertitania.com CleverTitania

    To further Thomas’ point….

    In my area the tornado siren goes off if there’s a tornado warning anywhere in about a 5-10 mile radius of our town. Now, out in the rural parts of the state that’s good enough reason to go into your basement.

    But we live in the Quad Cities, which spans the IA & IL sides of the Mississippi River, involves several towns nestled together, and all this sits in a valley. As a result, tornadoes almost never come into town, and when they do, then never touch normal neighborhoods. The most they’ll touch is stuff in the small towns surrounding us, or some of the houses on the outer edges of the metro area. They also never jump the river, so those of us on the IL side have never had a tornado in town, at least not in a hundred years or so.

    The result becomes: most people ignore the siren. In fact, hearing the siren in my house means the storm is bad enough to check the weather really quick and make sure something insane isn’t happening (like Day After Tomorrow insane), and if it isn’t you close the windows and go back to whatever you were doing.

    Warnings lose purpose if they aren’t genuinely warning of impeding disaster and only warn you MIGHT need to get mildly worried.

  • Jordan

    The real problem with this idea is that it does no good, and in fact does harm. When you sue a company for not doing what it is supposed to do, the real aim is to make other companies do what should be done, and to get compensation to repair damages caused by the companies negligence. If you do this to scientists it is jut going to make them lie on the side of caution, and not say what their data is telling them. In this case, we have no model for real prediction at all, so they had nothing to say. If I ask someone on the side of the road if a quake is coming, and they say no, they have just as much chance of being right…so can I sue them?

    Sorry tangent…we get nothing out of prosecuting them, all we do is make scientists cscared of giving their true ideas.

  • Jody

    @8. What would happen if the tornado siren wasn’t sounded, but a tornado spawned and destroyed your house? Could you sue. The science around tornados is more advanced than around earthquakes, but tornados can’t be ‘predicted’, per se. Still, if a meteorological center didn’t issue an alert when conditions were met, I’d argue they could be found negligent.

  • http://Crumblingsanctuary.blogspot.com Vogie

    The same people who sued Google for not properly vetting the 48 hrs of footage uploaded to Youtube every hour. They’re not the brightest bulbs in the orange patch.

    “When in doubt, say everyone’s in grave danger. It’ll keep things like this from happening and will help ensure that your work continues to get funding.”

    I agree. All you need is one incident, somewhere in the world, and you can say “see?”. There’s always ways to prevent signal the damage against a natural disaster. Tornado deal virtually no damage to things underground, earthquakes can be combated with base isolation and distance from other buildings, Hurricanes can be combated with dome shapes, distance from trees, and being well above sea level, floods with stilts, high ground, and waterproofing.
    We just have a Culturally definied definition of what a building should look like, then we herp-a-derp over heels and are shocked when buildings that groan when hit by a stiff breeze get flattened by something stronger. Sure, you can’t account for every variable – Hurricanes, flash floods and tornados have a nasty habit of picking up trees, cars, and houses to use as seige weapons – But we should be at least trying.

  • zeke

    @8 Clever Titania

    You write a litany of ‘facts’ about tornado behavior that I am almost inclined to think you wrote your post while your tongue was firmly planted in your cheek.

    Tornadoes are indifferent to what’s going on in the lowest, few hundred feet. After all, the tornado is not merely an appendage to a cloud base. Strong tornadoes originate in the mid-levels of a thunderstorm — which is why they can be ‘seen’ by doppler radars — more than 100km away.

    This link is to a movie showing a long-tracked tornado descending into a valley.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEr2lCnQcow

    Same tornado, different perspective:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ulMsPSQwIA&feature=related

    Quad Cities time has not come….yet.

    Back on topic, I am surprised the judge hasn’t dismissed the case already. Based on the litigant’s statement, they admit they have no standing.

    Apparently Italian courts are different.

  • Ronald Stepp

    Is this an Onion article? I sincerely hope it is, since otherwise my faith in the intelligence of the humn race just dropped several notches.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    If this goes through, does it set a precedence for people suing religious advisors over bad advice?

  • Jay Fox

    Scientifically ignorant people prefer to remain so. Rather than address the scientific issues at hand, they shoot the messenger, then clap their hands over their ears and holler “La la la la.” The mess over climate change was just the beginning. Now seismologists.

    People want to do what they want, and resent scientists coming along and telling them they should change their ways. Especially if the preferred behavior should cost them money or a change in lifestyle.

    Apparently, it is not enough to predict that something will eventually happen. One must provide a date and time, and accurately predict consequences. Otherwise, anything said will be ignored, made fun of, or outright denied. And should the prediction be wrong, everything said after that will be ignored.

    People seem to prefer warm fuzzy lies over cold, hard scientific truth.

  • http://totellyouthetruth-hi55.blogspot.com/ Holden

    At the time of Ayrton Senna’s death on an Italian racetrack, in 1994, I remember a similar uproar and disbelief at the murder(!) charges that followed, aimed at the team. It was explained at the time in the motoring press that according to Italian law this was legally mandatory; to paraphrase, if there’s a death an investigation *will* follow. I don’t remember the nuances that surely exist.
    I think we’re on the outside looking in, once again, at a surprising legal and cultural difference. It’s absurd to us, but there’s more to the story than what’s written in this article.

  • GuruOfChem

    European courts do tend to work differently than American ones – they serve a more investigatory function in and of themselves, rather than simply weighing the (frequently slanted) evidence presented by attorneys. Nonetheless, this particular “trial” is an absurdity, but unfortunately I suspect it won’t be the last attempt to pin blame on scientists who provide comments couched in scientific language. When a scientist says, “I don’t know,” it is often presented in terms that the scientifically illiterate, sound-bite driven media do not comprehend and context gets lost, words get twisted and misrepresented. The non-scientific population wants science to give them an “answer” in absolute terms, which all readers of this site should understand is simply not possible. We have to do a better job educating individuals about what science can and cannot tell us, and how to interpret what scientists do actually say in a way that helps people make informed decisions.

  • Jennifer Angela

    These scientists were aware of increasing seismic activities and minor earth quakes. As we all know, it is better to be safe than sorry. It was expected of the scientists to stick to that rule and they didn´t. They did NOT advise people to take precautions, even though they were aware of increasing seismic activities and minor earth quakes. It was their obligation to provide people with reasonable advice. And not to merely diagnose seismic activities and minor earth quakes and do nothing about it. However, I agree that these particular seismologists were in a tricky situation. On the one hand, they wanted to avoid causing mass hysteria, but on the other hand, they were obliged to warn citizens rather than to wait for a disaster. But what if they only kept their concerns to themselves, because they were afraid that might ridicule them as scientists? Cowardly motives never justify putting peoples´ lives at risk. And truly brilliant scientists should never be afraid of ridiculing themselves when human lives are at stake. WHAT EVENTUALLY CONVINCED ME OF THE CORRECTNESS OF THE LEGAL RESPONSE TO THIS EVENT is, that according to the geophysicist Susan Hough, seismologists ARE aware of the fact, that is a common misperception to assume, that minor earthquakes discharge the energy of earthquakes and thus no major ones will follow. Or in other words: Seismologists are aware, that small earthquakes lead to bigger ones. Knowing that, and being aware, that minor earthquakes had taken place, these scientists decided against warning citizens about the risks of major earthquakes occurring right after minor ones. Therefore, I honestly believe these scientists are partially responsible for what happened. And I don´t feel good about realising that. It´s always easier to be in favour of people. Yet I wonder whether sentencing these seismologists to 12 years imprisonment is the right way of motivating these and other seismologists to bear responsibility for what they do, when they are being irresponsible? What if they were sentenced to do charity work for that particular town instead of using up peoples´ taxes, so they can be kept in jail?

    When it comes to doctors being sued, I consider that a necessity, so those doctors who had become power-obsessed, realise that they are not almighty and that every patient´s life is valuable. Doctors can´t be sued, if patients were warned about risks of a potential operation or other medical treatment and provided with a contract to sign in reference to that matter. Doctors unlike patients are perfectly aware of these risks. Therefore it is their obligation to inform patients about them. But if doctors don´t even bother to warn patients about potential risks of a specific operation or medical treatment – well of course they are being sued. Patients have to defend their human rights somehow

  • Geack

    Jennifer Angela -

    You’re drawing some false conclusions about the simple facts of the case here. Apparently (based solely on what’s in the article) the seismologists didn’t make any public statements – they advised the Civil Protection Agency, whose spokesman then made the public statements which are the source of the trouble. “The scientists have since said the statement misrepresented their opinions”.

    So a govt agency requested information from the scientists; their information was apparently complicated and inconclusive, as earthquake science tends to be; and then the govt agency made a statement that “The scientific community tells me there is no danger…” And now the scientists are on trial. The “misperception” you consider so damning was on the part of the govt official, not the scientists. In what way did the scientists not fulfill their “obligations?”

    And how on earth can you feel the scientist are even partially responsible for what happened? It was an EARTHQUAKE. The people who were harmed live in a seismic zone – it’s not like they were completely unaware of that. They have chosen for generations not to improve their buildings or strengthen their building codes. What would they really have done differently if that govt official had said “The scientists tell me there is a small chance of a large earthquake”? And look at it the opposite way – what if the seismologists and the govt had come out and said “Run for your lives – there might be an earthquake!” And then the earthquake didn’t happen. Would they be responsible for the lost wages and travel costs of the people who fled due to their “failed obligation” in creating an unnecessary panic?

    Despite one’s sypathy for the victims, it’s simply WRONG to hold people legally culpable for the simple act of studying and teaching about unpredictable natural events. There might be a vague case agaisnt the govt agent if he truly misrepresented the scientists’ statements – but even that puts an awful lot of weight on a person for making an educated guess about something outside his control.

  • Thomas Makedon

    This sounds more like the Spanish (in this case Italian) Inquisition to me. The judgement as to whether the people should or shouldn’t be warned and evacuated lies entirely on the State officials and not the scientists. They are the ones that, having listened to the scientists, must evaluate the feasibility and the cost of an evacuation (with the possibility of panic) if such a measure is to be taken. Having said that, any geologist can tell you that the buildings are not the only danger for people in the case of an earthquake. There can be also landslides and mass movements, rock falls, soil ruptures and depressions, road failures etc. Evacuating people from one area might possibly protect them from their own homes (if they indeed get severely damaged), but might send them to other hazardous areas.

  • Jody

    I’ve become increasingly convinced that this trial isn’t a bad thing. It essentially comes down to the prossecution needing to prove that the seismologists provided scientifically unsound advice to the government. This one article makes it sound like they did not, so they should be fine. But if there is evidence or documentation that they did tell the government small earthquakes reduce the chance of a larger earthquake, then they are culpable.

    Scientists who offer advice to citizens or the government no longer work in the protective cocoon of pure research. If they present scientifically unsound information, or fail to present readily available information, there should be consequences. Any other type of consultant would be held accountable if their advice was wrong.

    I would hold a meteorologist working for NOAA partially responsible if he didn’t send out a tornado warning when scientifically established criteria for such a warning had been met. I would hold a doctor accountable if he blantanly misdiagnosed a disease. On the flip side, I complain all the time when the government DOESN’T listen to scientists about global warming. There are real world consequences to what scientists do, and they need to be explicitly clear about what they know and don’t know.

    Hopefully the scientists in this case did not provide unsound advice, and will be found not guilty.

  • scott

    The real problem is an ignorant, superstitious public, the masses that flip around between prayers and science and have little clue to goings on of the planet (does not matter where they live). Also, people need someone to blame, no matter what it is, its a form of closure the ego needs.

    Quake prediction – down to the weeks, days and hours is a dangerous game that I think is futile to win and dangerous to try to predict. Best to keep it like this (to protect your ass, I am sure I am leaving something out) -

    “Sometime in the future, be it next week, the next few years or few decades, there is a possible likelyhood that there will be a large quake that might cause injury and death due to infrastructure failure. At any time there could be small quakes that might or might not relieve stresses and might or might not predict the coming of a larger event, so everyone should be prepared for a quake as they would any possible disaster that can strike at any time”

  • http://www.avasaramda.blogspot.com Ravi

    The only reason for chain earthquakes is at http://www.avasaramda1.blogspot.com
    Thanking you,
    yours Ravi

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