Oct 26, 2012

Why scientists should, sometimes, be on trial

The jailing of six scientists over a deadly Italian earthquake sent shock waves through the science community -- but maybe that community should accept greater responsibility for how they communicate, argue science writers Upulie Divisekera and Will Grant.

On the April 6, 2009, following months of minor tremors and seismic swarms, an earthquake of magnitude 5.8 on the Richter scale hit the Abruzzo region of central Italy. More than 300 people perished in the early hours of that terrible morning, as medieval buildings in the town of L’Aquila collapsed. At least 40,000 were made homeless. Three years later, the town still has not recovered.

This week, another seismic shock passed around the world. Six Italian scientists were sentenced -- for six years jail, each -- for failing to adequately warn the residents of L’Aquila of the dangers they faced.

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7 thoughts on “Why scientists should, sometimes, be on trial

  1. ianjohnno1

    Contadict the Boss and lose your job.
    Don’t contradict the Boss and go to jail.

    That’s how it reads to me.

  2. Gerry Hatrick, OAP

    So he failed to point out a 2% chance? Yay

  3. Tim H

    Thanks Upulie and Will for a great article that gives me a bit more info than the “aren’t these italian judges crazy” articles that have come out. There’s always more to these stories than meets the eye and props to Crikey for digging behind the headlines and the visuals.

    “I’m not crazy,” said chief prosecutor Picuti. Of course he isn’t.

    Before scientists in Australia get too worried, it would be good to know a bit more about the law behind the case. Picuti said “As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law” and it could be that these duties are more onerous than those applied to Aussie functionaries.

    There also may be particular facts that show negligence in this case, eg evidence that the chief knew the risk was greater than stated but knowingly hid the risks.

    Can we get a follow up from an Italian law expert (on condition they won’t be jailed for giving incorrect advice!)

  4. Robert Brown

    Do we know why the Vice Director was motivated to undersell the risk? I mean, why not just advise people to take their usual precautions at least?

    Or did he truly believe there was no danger? But this seems unlikely, unless he believed his team was incompetent. In that case, he is culpable (IMO).

    This seems to be a systemic or administrative failure, rather than a scientific one…

  5. icer

    What breathtaking clarity these authors have in hindsight. What they don’t mention was that the Italian authorities were trying to downplay the prediction of a big earthquake by an amateur based on a method with no scientific evidence:


  6. Hamis Hill

    Isn’t there an axiom about authority and responsibility?
    So if scientists, including engineers who study science as part of their higher degrees, are to be held responsible and jailed, then when are these people, (whom former Labor Science Minister Barry Jones accurately described as wimps), going to take their rightful authority under the law?
    Instead of giving it away to politico-religious dementoids and sh-t for brains journalists who couldn’t tell their arses from their elbows?
    Now how about some balancing legal rights like allowing those scientists upon whose authority public safety depends to charge the pea- brained f-ckwits of the press and religion with wilfull obstruction whenever they push their dangerous anti-science nonsense on a gullible public?
    And how about some personal responsibility on the part of the poor, put-upon public?
    Pick up a book or an article on earthquakes, get informed at their own cost, and use some commonsense in their personal decision making?
    This politically induced, infantile dependency upon authority is a medieval hangover from the totalitarian church.
    Personal authority and personal responsibility is what is missing in this case and necessary for modern democracy.
    This Italian decision is just part of a greater anti-democratic persecution of “Knowledge” or science which goes directly against Christ’s statement “that you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” and the New Testament Parable of the Talents where people are engouraged to get the best from what they are given.
    Science and democracy and freedom and the lessons of the great teacher go hand in hand.
    Ignorance dependency and slavery are the alternatives.
    And three hundred avoidable deaths.
    But to “persecute” and crucify the scientists, (in his name?) seems to be the ugly agenda of the forces of darkness and oppression.
    As it has been for the last two thousand years.

  7. fredex

    Should journslists, sometimes, go on trial, for ‘false or misleading’ communications?

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