On 22 October, 2012, an Italian court convicted six internationally respected scientists of manslaughter. The scientists Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Franco Barberi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Gian Michele Calvi have been sentenced to prison terms, barred from public office, and ordered to pay court costs and damages.
Their offense could have been avoided by precisely predicting the timing and nature of the tragic 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. However, such precise, short-term earthquake prediction of the type evidently sought by L’Aquila is currently impossible. Because of the ungainly complexity of earthquake systems, knowledge of physical details is incomplete; the diverse expressions of earthquake processes deliver contradictory messages; and measurements of earthquake phenomena can be inaccurate. Glaringly, the indictment accused the scientists of having provided “incomplete”, “contradictory”, and “inaccurate” information.
The Geological Society of America objects in the strongest terms to bringing scientists to court for doing their job and decries this judgment as detrimental to future positive public communication and discourse. Even if an appeal to a higher court reverses the judgment, damage has been done. The very fact of the trial, and now the verdict rendered, has had a chilling effect on the geoscience community.
The actions of this court will harm interdisciplinary efforts to mitigate loss of life and property from earthquakes or any other natural phenomena. There is now NO incentive for Italian geoscientists to participate in national efforts to ‘forecast and prevent’ major risks. The task before us now is mitigating, in Italy and other nations and regions, the impact of this ‘court-rendered seismic shock.’ Through concerted repairing of institutional and professional damage, scientists must continue to engage in efforts to better understand potential damage from natural hazards and to better communicate the uncertainties associated with “prediction.”
About the GSA
The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 25,000 members from academia, government, and industry in 103 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind. Headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, USA, GSA encourages cooperative research among earth, life, planetary, and social scientists, fosters public dialogue on geoscience issues, and supports all levels of earth science education.