Seismologists – not poor building standards – blamed for earthquake deaths

Six scientists and an ex-government official have been found guilty of manslaughter in Italy.

The ruling came in the wake of their failure to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. The 6.3 magnitude quake, which killed more than 300 people, had been preceded by a large number of small tremors in the previous few months.

And, according to prosecutors, the seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – provided ‘inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory’ information about whether a bigger quake was coming.

They’ve now been sentenced to six years in prison, barred from public office in future and ordered to pay court costs and damages. The six plan to appeal.

The decision to charge the scientists caused horror amongst the scientific community, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science describing it as unfair and naive. The case, of course, has implications way beyond seismology, from engineering to weather forecasting.

“Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists on your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster,” wrote AAAS CEO Alan Leshner to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano.

“Moreover, we worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.”

The ruling neatly deflects attention from the question of whether some of the deaths, at least, were caused  by substandard building.

Indeed, a year before the quake, a report by geologists and civil protection experts found that the vast majority of buildings didn’t meet modern safety standards.

When the quake hit, indeed, a recently-built hospital was left unusable, and a college dormitory collapsed – both buildings built through public sector contracts. Even the government HQ that should have coordinated rescue work was destroyed.

A report from Italy’s technology research agency, ENEA, reckons the building firm that landed some of these contracts – the country’s largest, Impregilo – was using substandard sand and defective steel girders.

And it just so happens that a civil suit against the scientists is still pending – a civil suit that comes from the local council. And if the scientists are responsible for the earthquake deaths, corrupt officials can’t be, can they?