A year-long trial came to an end yesterday for seven Italian scientists, engineers, and officials, all accused of not reacting strongly enough in the aftermath of a series of tremors that struck the L’Aquila region of Italy in early 2009, killing over 300 people. These men were arguably doing their jobs haphazardly by not creating a countrywide panic to alert citizens of any future deadly earthquakes in an area that is already frequented by seismic activity. But that’s because no one wants their country to be in a panic, and because no one can assuredly predict the chances of a future earthquake with smaller quakes as the only form of evidence. Facts like these did not stop Judge Marco Bill from reaching a guilty verdict in just four hours. The charge was “multiple manslaughter,” and the sentence was six years in prison.
These men, all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, did not force everyone in the area to stay in their homes and bury their heads.The men did not gain access to dire information regarding an impending earthquake, only to shield it all from becoming public knowledge, thus endangering the population. I’m not sure what kind of evidence was available that qualified a manslaughter charge in the first place, but without any proof of malicious intent, how does “guilt” even come into it?
As stated in the Commission’s memo issued after a March 31, 2009 meeting discussing the frequent seismic activity in the area, it was “improbable” a major quake was on the horizon, in much the same way a local meteorologist would say it might not rain that day. But if it does, and someone happens to get in an accident on the wet highways, is it the meteorologist’s fault?
The Daily Mail has an informative sidebar that supposes the verdict as the outcome of a witchhunt. While I think this was more pointed than the randomness of witchhunting, the statement it makes to others reads the same. If these mostly innocent people are punished for not predicting something unforeseeable, then why would any scientist risk their own job in a similar circumstance?
It’s said best in that sidebar by Prof Malcolm Sperrin, director of Medical Physics in the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. “If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.”
In other words, if I think combining two chemicals will help cure a disease, but I can’t say with exactness what will happen, then it isn’t worth it for me to try, as the risk of criminal punishment is too strong. I’m thankful this is a singular case at the moment, but it now becomes precedence for any future cases, and is an ugly eyesore in the battered landscape of litigation. I certainly hope an appeals process is already underway, but I can’t predict it with any amount of certainty.