Should we prosecute quake scientists?

Last updated 10:13 19/09/2011

L'Aquila funeral A trial starts in Italy this week to decide if six scientists and bureaucrats ought to be held criminally responsible for the deaths of 309 people in a magnitude-6.3 earthquake in April 2009.

The long version of this tragedy is detailed in the Nature journal and it's well worth reading because of the similarities between Italy in 2009 and Canterbury in 2010-11.
Nature journalist Stephen Hall writes that the mountainous town of L'Aquila had been levelled in 1461 and 1703, and was shaken by hundreds of low-level tremors in early 2009, including a magnitude-4.1 on March 30.

Italian geoscientists were monitoring carefully and several key scientists and bureaucrats attended a meeting on March 31, 2009 in L'Aquila at which risk was discussed.

The message from the meeting, according to a participant, was ''If you live in L'Aquila, you can never say, 'No problem'. You can never say that in a high-risk region.''

Others challenge that version of the meeting, but what happened next was well recorded: two scientists, the mayor and a civil defence official held a press conference. The civil defence official said the seismic situation was ''normal'' and posed ''no danger''.

He continued: ''The scientific community continues to assure me that ... it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.''

The theory was that hundreds of small tremors were releasing energy and so a large quake there was unlikely. A journalist asked, ''So we should have a nice glass of wine?'' and the civil defence official replied, ''Absolutely.''

On April 5, L'Aquila was hit by a 3.9 shortly before 11pm and then the devastating 6.3 about four hours later.

One survivor, Vincenzo Vittorini, lost his wife and only child, and says that if the risks had been better explained, he would have fled his home after the 3.9.

The prosecutor tells Nature that nobody can predict earthquakes, but he's pursuing the scientists and bureaucrats because they failed to effectively communicate the risk.

Critics of the prosecutions believe the defendants are blamed for failing to predict a large earthquake, which is unfair. Most of the international geo-community supports the Italian scientists and bureaucrats.

I don't favour prosecuting New Zealand earthquake scientists and civil defence managers, but there's an important principle that must stand. These officials can't have immunity from prosecution. They must be prosecutable if they fall below an acceptable standard.

Besides, there's another New Zealand group that ought to be lawyering up - the engineers who certified that buildings were safe.

Photo: The state funeral for earthquake victims in the Italian town of L'Aquila in this April 10, 2009.

- Fairfax Media

Post a comment
JessL   #1   10:21 am Sep 19 2011

Absolutely they should be prosecuted. There was a risk, they said it was "no worries".

I agree, those engineers had best have Professional Indemnity insurance.

Alan Wilkinson   #2   10:55 am Sep 19 2011

There is an important principle here. The role of technical experts is to explain clearly to non-experts what is known and not known, not to make value judgements. To say the seismic situation was normal was a valid scientific statement. To say that it posed no danger was an invalid scientific statement and one that went far beyond the role of technical expertise.

Technical experts are always leaned on by politicians who want them to produce value judgements supporting political positions and decisions. Scientists must resist that pressure and make a clear distinction where scientific knowledge ends and value judgements and choices take over.

Exactly the same applies to engineers employed to make political decisions (red/white/green) based on limited information and surveys. Any company doing this work worth its salt will have made absolutely clear in legal contracts that the foundations of these judgements are too weak to expect infallibility.

Sam   #3   10:56 am Sep 19 2011

The headline is clearly clickbait, but no we should not prosecute quake scientists.

Unless they can be predicted with any accuracy (they can't, even by Ken Ring) no one should have to take 'accountability' for mother nature.

Here's a better question: if quake scientists had advised there was a big earthquake risk in Christchurch a year and a half ago would anyone have even done anything?

Marcus   #4   11:20 am Sep 19 2011

Yes, engineers should be held accountable - they deal in the verifiable and measurable and have processes and are professionals. Scientists on the other hand, deal with hypothesis and merely give advice based on their current understanding and never claim to have all the answers. If you start prosecuting them for sharing their knowledge, you will likely be left without any scientists.

Ms Cynical   #5   11:33 am Sep 19 2011

The situation in CHCH I believe is quite similar of L'Aquila. Having talked with several engineers, there was not adequate testing of buildings post September 4th earthquake. Special X-ray machines should have been used to check for structural integrity of buildings that would have for example confirmed beyond reasonable doubt what people working in the CTV Bldg felt after each aftershock yet their first hand observations were completely ignored. On our home front, so far 7 insurance and my own independent engineers have given their verdict that our own home cannot be repaired and has to be rebuilt to ensure our future safety, yet the insurance company is still arguing for repair. Money comes first, safety second it seems. Just like the people in the CTV Bldg, our observations and our future safety is being completely ignored. Literally, we are fighting for our life, ie. ensuring our safety in our own home. Should not be a fight, it should be our right. Had enough from the Mayor of sweet soothing words that say precisely nothing. For me and I believe for many of my fellow citizens, trust in the council and the authorities that our safety and well being is paramount is needed - urgently.

rob   #6   12:05 pm Sep 19 2011

So Ken Ring should be appluaded for trying to keep the community informed !!!

Trevor   #7   01:20 pm Sep 19 2011

We should stop thinking that scientists are some sort of know all gods, they are not.They are merely ordinary people who make mistakes the same as the rest of us.Earthquakes are unpredictable, the scientists only study the results with the hope that someday they may be able to understand them better and predict the probability of future events.

Marino   #8   03:16 pm Sep 19 2011

@ #1 It wasn't the scientists who said there was nothing to worry about - it was the politician talking to the media.

Scientists were saying in January that there was still something like a 25% risk of a 6 magnitude aftershock in Chch. Who was listening then? It's only after a year's worth of experiencing quakes that we're learning what the scientists mean when they forecast (not predict) earthquakes.

JimE   #9   04:23 pm Sep 19 2011

"To say the seismic situation was normal was a valid scientific statement. To say that it posed no danger was an invalid scientific statement and one that went far beyond the role of technical expertise."

Too true. But it wasn't a scientist who made that claim. It was a bureaucrat - at least that's what the article above states. Interestingly apparently the civil defence official went on to say 'The scientific community continues to assure me that ... it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy.' This next statement also seems pretty reasonable. So two valid statements and one invalid one.

So what are we to conclude? Apart from we like to have someone to blame when things go wrong?

Alan Wilkinson   #10   05:22 pm Sep 19 2011

JimE #9, yes, the bureaucrat is the one in the gun unless the scientists were seen to be assenting to and supporting his statement. By appearing beside him at the press conference that may have been the case. The court will presumably decide on that.

Bringing the bureaucrat and the science together created the vulnerability since without the assumed support of science the bureaucrat would have had no more credibility than any other lay person.

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