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US Seismologist Testifies Against Scientists In Quake-Prediction Case

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the perfect-certainty-isn't-an-option dept.

Earth 189

ananyo writes with this snippet from Nature (for which this earlier Nature article is also background): "'The courthouse in L'Aquila, Italy, yesterday hosted a highly anticipated hearing in the trial of six seismologists and one government official indicted for manslaughter over their reassurances to the public ahead of a deadly earthquake in 2009. .... During the hearing, the former head of the Italian Department of Civil Protection turned from key witness into defendant, and a seismologist from California criticized Italy's top earthquake experts.' Lalliana Mualchin, former chief seismologist for the Department of Transportation in California, criticized the Italian analysis, which he says was based on a poor model. If the court agrees with Mualchin, the defendants could face up to 12 years in jail."

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189 comments

Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066481)

This trial is a farce.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066525)

agreed

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066537)

Are you fucking kidding me? They told people there was no danger, no chance of a big earthquake in spite of the rumbling. As a direct result of those improper assurances, over 300 people lost their lives. I say throw 'em all in a cell with the captain of the Costa Concordia and throw away they key...

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (5, Insightful)

jdastrup (1075795) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066643)

300 people did not die because of their improper assurances. If they did "properly" assure them, they would have been called quacks, or they would have been sued for causing a hype if nothing happened and still could have faced fines or jail time. And even if people took precautions, just as many could have died. People died because of a natural disaster, which cannot be predicted or foretold. I don't care who with what authority says it can or cannot happen, no person is at fault for deaths as a result of earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, tornadoes, etc.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066801)

If they did "properly" assure them, they would have been called quacks, or they would have been sued for causing a hype if nothing happened and still could have faced fines or jail time.

1) You can't be put in jail for losing a civil case. Ask O.J.

2) I would rather risk frivolous lawsuits by warning people that Event X may be deadly even though it is not, than for people to die because I was a negligent chicken-shit.

People died because of a natural disaster, which cannot be predicted or foretold.

Then the entire field of seismology is a fraud and they should be indicted anyway.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066877)

No, it's not a fraud, it's just like predicting the weather, only probably less accurate with today's knowledge. You can't expect 100% accuracy, or probably even close. It's a good tool to use (because it's better than nothing), but if you get mad at the forecasters/seismologists when the prediction doesn't pan out, or they fail to predict something bad, then you're using the tool wrong and your expectations are too high.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (4, Insightful)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067077)

Where I live (the Midwest), it's hard to take meteorologists seriously; the weather is just too damn unpredictable.

So really, I guess it all comes down to the specific situation; if the seismologists had data that, as experts, they should have known was indicating that a major event was forthcoming, but decided to withhold said data from the public (or outright lie about it), then they should be held liable. If they had no such data and were caught as unawares as the rest of the populace, then they should be exonerated. Now if only there were some sort of legal setting in which guilt and innocence could be proven through the presentation of supporting evidence... /sarc

My problem is with the folks who claim these men should remain blameless without even going over the evidence.

I surmise those are the same people who vote along party lines.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (4, Informative)

demonbug (309515) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067437)

Where I live (the Midwest), it's hard to take meteorologists seriously; the weather is just too damn unpredictable.

So really, I guess it all comes down to the specific situation; if the seismologists had data that, as experts, they should have known was indicating that a major event was forthcoming, but decided to withhold said data from the public (or outright lie about it), then they should be held liable. If they had no such data and were caught as unawares as the rest of the populace, then they should be exonerated.

It sounds like they are accused of a third possibility; there was no way to know whether a larger event was coming or not, but they reassured the public that there was nothing to worry about. Actually from reading the article, it sounds like the former Director of Public Safety is the one that said that; the guilt or innocence of the scientists depends (or should depend, at any rate) on whether that was their advice to him.

The former Caltrans seismologist has a point, but I'm not sure it really pertains to this case. Earthquake frequency analysis is a great tool for determining something like insurance rates, where you are trying to figure out how likely it is for an earthquake of x magnitude to occur in y period of time. From a public safety standpoint, the primary concern should be the maximum expected earthquake magnitude, because this is what you need to design your infrastructure to. Frequency analysis does come into play here, as it might not make economic sense to design to the largest earthquake ever recorded (or that there is evidence for), but it offers absolutely no guarantees - just because the largest expected quake is a 6.5, you just had a 6.5 three years ago so on average another shouldn't occur for another three thousand years, doesn't mean that another 6.5 won't occur next year.

The only reassurance the scientists should have offered is that the string of minor earthquakes did not necessarily mean a larger event was on the way, which I realize isn't very reassuring. They had absolutely no way of knowing whether something larger was coming, or whether the string of minor earthquakes was it. If they actually claimed otherwise, then they are guilty.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067521)

It sounds like they are accused of a third possibility; there was no way to know whether a larger event was coming or not, but they reassured the public that there was nothing to worry about. Actually from reading the article, it sounds like the former Director of Public Safety is the one that said that; the guilt or innocence of the scientists depends (or should depend, at any rate) on whether that was their advice to him.

Agreed.

The only reassurance the scientists should have offered is that the string of minor earthquakes did not necessarily mean a larger event was on the way, which I realize isn't very reassuring. They had absolutely no way of knowing whether something larger was coming, or whether the string of minor earthquakes was it. If they actually claimed otherwise, then they are guilty.

Precisely.

When in doubt, keep your trap shut.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (3, Informative)

mbkennel (97636) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067115)

"1) You can't be put in jail for losing a civil case. Ask O.J."

In countries with English-style law. In others, not necessarily.

I have an in-law who lives in a South American country. He and his wife are facing (entirely bogus) criminal penalties from a private contract lawsuit. It's been dismissed and laughtd out of court every time it comes up before a non-crony-of-plaintiff judge but it gets revived and reallocated. The system is so corrupt that being sentenced to hard time is a possibility from a business collaboration gone bad.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067169)

"1) You can't be put in jail for losing a civil case. Ask O.J."

In countries with English-style law. In others, not necessarily.

Considering the nation we're discussing is Spain, I think my point is still valid.

I have an in-law who lives in a South American country. He and his wife are facing (entirely bogus) criminal penalties from a private contract lawsuit. It's been dismissed and laughtd out of court every time it comes up before a non-crony-of-plaintiff judge but it gets revived and reallocated. The system is so corrupt that being sentenced to hard time is a possibility from a business collaboration gone bad.

Which nation, if you don't mind? I've been considering visiting (and possibly expatriating to) various South American nations, and I would like to avoid all but the least corrupt of them.

Ecuador seems nice, save their nationalized persecution of homosexuals.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067409)

They're basically all fine as long as you're not going to do business there.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067449)

Spain? Might want to check the article again. ;^)

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Eponymous Hero (2090636) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067481)

italy, not spain. where did you get spain from?

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067619)

italy, not spain. where did you get spain from?

... not re-reading the summary before clicking 'Post'.

same thing anyway, right? :D

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Sulphur (1548251) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067165)

If they did "properly" assure them, they would have been called quacks, or they would have been sued for causing a hype if nothing happened and still could have faced fines or jail time.

1) You can't be put in jail for losing a civil case. Ask O.J.

O.J.'s butler said something about him being in the Yard, and his calls were held.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067519)

2) I would rather risk frivolous lawsuits by warning people that Event X may be deadly even though it is not, than for people to die because I was a negligent chicken-shit.

Assuming you're not just trolling since you didn't go AC, you might want to consider the question of what is more damaging a false negative or a false positive in this case. The simplistic and naive response you gave above seems to indicate that you think one is harmless and the other is massively costly. What happens if warning people leads to supply shortages and riots....or unnecessary evacuations and the related costs and deaths. My point isn't that you got it wrong necessarily but that you're being naive about how it should be judged.

You need to figure out the expected cost of a proper positive or negative prediction (cost being a hazy term but you need a unit in which you can express various outcomes such as deaths, damage, etc.), the expected costs of a false positive, the expected cost of a false negative and the probabilities of each occurring before you can make a rational decision on how valuable a warning would have been or what type of warning should be issued. I don't know enough about the details of what information they had and what assurances they gave so I can't comment on their choice of actions but it's not as simple as you make it.

To be more of a jerk and less rational about it, given your request however I would like to warn you of a few things that may happen tomorrow that could lead to your death: asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, lightning, terrorists, automobiles, the bubonic plague, ebola, drowning, slipping and falling, and so on and so forth...and don't forget the 2 leading causes of accidental and untimely deaths...stupidity and bad luck. That warning isn't particularly useful but you've been warned. Fortunately my version was so extremely silly that it likely won't lead to any real action by you but what if it were believable enough that you took extreme measures to avoid all of these improbably outcomes. The cost to you of my false warning could be extreme and when compared to the probability of their occurrence extremely harmful on the whole.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

wisty (1335733) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067769)

I'm not a seismologist, but I've worked with them.

The general consensus is, predicting earthquakes is impossible. Even if you think a "big one" is coming, you don't know if it's minutes or decades away. The timing is impossible to predict. *Sometimes* they get lucky, but it's just that - luck.

The only thing you can do is predict the risk of quakes, and encourage local planners to enforce earthquake proof buildings. In earthquake-prone areas, wooden houses are a good idea, and unreinforced masonry is a death-trap. In hurricane-prone areas, masonry is better, and living below the flood-lines is a death-trap.

The bad decision was to let people live in unreinforced masonry death traps, in a quake-prone area.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067061)

They weren't asked for absolute predictions, they were asked for a risk assessment. Instead of saying "there is about this much of a risk", or even "we can't be sure", they said "there's no danger".

Specifically, there was a meeting held to discuss the risk, and after the meeting there was a press conference, in which the head of the agency said "The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable". The minutes of that meeting make no mention of such reassurrances actually occurring, however.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (4, Interesting)

tragedy (27079) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067901)

When an empirical scientist makes a statement like "there is no danger", they mean something like "the level of danger is below threshold X to within margin of error Y". No seismologist would ever seriously say that there's no chance of a serious earthquake even five minutes from now, no matter what all their gathered instrument data and statistics tell them. Statements like "there is no danger" are for public consumption because the public, on the whole, doesn't really have a clue what these people actually do.

This court case is like prosecuting sports commentators for manslaughter because they predicted a victory for the local team, but the local team lost and the crowd rioted and people were killed. Predicting earthquakes that acutely simply isn't their job. Whether they did a good job or not, this trial is a farce. It's just a mob lynching taking place in a courthouse. Some of the heavily publicized (internationally publicized anyway) court cases in Italy recently (such as the Amanda Knox case) seem to fall along those lines. All politics and little real concern for justice, the victims, or the accused.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

StikyPad (445176) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067069)

I don't care who with what authority says it can or cannot happen, no person is at fault for deaths as a result of earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, tornadoes, etc.

I agree as far as predictions go, at least with the state of science as it stands today, but negligence can be a contributing factor and convey liability to the negligent party. For example, if I built tornado shelters, and my shoddy construction techniques or materials led to the collapse of the structure during a tornado, I could be liable. Same could apply to avalanches: people are responsible for preventing them in many areas by preemptively triggering smaller, nondestructive avalanches, and failure to perform that duty could be a contributing factor if someone died as a result.

As for this particular case, they seem to be saying that if the scientists didn't know for sure, then they shouldn't have said anything, which is stupid. I'm not sure what's up with the Italian courts (not that the US system is any better), but they seem to be focused more on making someone pay than delivering justice. At least for events that garner international attention...

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Dare nMc (468959) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067071)

>no person is at fault for deaths as a result of earthquakes, hurricanes, avalanches, tornadoes, etc.
I agreed with you up to that point, Certainly no one should be charged with manslaughter, for not predicting a less than a once in a 100 years event like this. But I do think it is the responsibility of a government to set building codes, and emergency services to a reasonable expectation of natural disasters in the area. And it is the responsibility of those to have solid engineering principals behind them. Also I do think if a contractor cut corners, and produced something not up to those designs, I would see them being held to manslaughter charges. Also if they cut corners based on some scientist or engineers advice (that was wrong) again, a charge of manslaughter would then be fair for those professionals even for deaths caused by (more reasonable) natural disasters.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067075)

The whole scenario strikes me as hypocritical. This is just one incident where the scientists failed to "predict" a natural catastrophe, but I'm pretty sure, there were lots of cases where authorities were warned with plenty of time to act, but didn't.

Since this incident gets so much publicity, I think it's pretty safe to assume those people were never put on trial.

Take the US for instance, they get hurricanes all the time, you really think, the authorities always take the right steps for every one of them?

Scientists Charged For not being scientific. (5, Informative)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067153)

Those people broke with their regular routine of sleeping outside in their car after multiple small tremors, based on the assurances of the seismologists on trial. Those seismologist called that open session to discredit a laboratory tech who was claiming the likelihood of a larger earthquake. The seismologists basically told the people that there was no danger, go drink some wine. If they hadn't called that meeting and gave that direction, those people wouldn't have broken routine, and many of them would have had a much better chance at survival.

This has been discussed on slashdot before [slashdot.org], catch-up on some of the details.

What truly scientific mind would say that that it is safe to ignore the tremors that had been happening in the area? Why didn't they say "we have no conclusive evidence of a forthcoming earthquake, but here are some general safety tips". Most likely, they were more interested in discrediting and shaming the laboratory tech who had been warning of a big earthquake. When those who are entrusted with public safety choose ego over public safety, and it causes changes that lead to death, I agree that they should be held accountable.

Read the Nature article [nature.com]. Get the perspective from both sides.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

nonsequitor (893813) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067861)

The case against them is based on negligence. By not considering the worst case scenario and preparing for it, they've been failing the public trust. The expert is testifying that post earthquake 2009, the building codes still are inadequate since they do not consider the worst case scenario if it is an infrequent event. The fact the model they are currently using, was developed in California, and is now recognized by the scientific community as a whole as flawed, to the point where it is no longer taught to students, could be considered negligence.

I am not an Italian lawyer, nor any other type of lawyer for that matter.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

LilGuy (150110) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066671)

The case should be decided upon whether a professional opinion, or even one that is concurrent with a majority of professional opinions, can be held to be liable in the case of non-precaution. In that case it would be prudent to always err on the side of safety and give the population the choice to adhere or ignore the advice, but hold no liability for the warning. But to err on the side of catastrophe because you have to due to liability is not going to help anyone. It will only cause mass panics frequently.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

sjames (1099) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066853)

More specifically, that legally safe strategy will lead to a few panics followed by complete inaction preceding an actual devastating quake.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067287)

The case should be decided upon whether a professional opinion, or even one that is concurrent with a majority of professional opinions, can be held to be liable in the case of non-precaution.

It's much worse then non-precaution. It's the complete opposite of non-precaution. It's a statement of NO CAUTION IS NEEDED. One that was gave to the public by scientists serving on a public advisory board. People changed their behavior based on that "official statement", and that change in behavior led to the loss of life. Many of those dead would have been sleeping in their cars outside of their medieval, seismically weak homes. By and large they would have survived had those scientists not gave a statement of safety. If those scientists hadn't held that meeting and given that statement to discredit a lab tech who was forecasting earthquakes, this wouldn't even be a trial, as most of those people would still be alive.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066997)

They're in a seismically active region that experiences some degree of seismic activity on a regular basis. Seismology is incredibly complex and based on existing models there was no significant increase in the likelihood of a significant seismic event just because there were minor tremors. To put these scientists in the same boat as Captain Schettino is a farce and shows your ignorance on the subject.

These same scientists would still be crucified if they had made a prediction that lead to the abandonment of the city with no seismic payoff.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Desler (1608317) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066571)

No they are being charged for telling people there was no danger when it wasn't true. It's like an auto mechanic telling you your car is safe to drive and then you get into an accident based on a flaw they missed.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

scot4875 (542869) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066649)

So the mechanic should go to jail because they made a mistake? Should mechanics need to have malpractice insurance?

Shit like this is exactly why we have a CYA attitude in every organization, everywhere.

--Jeremy

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066733)

So the mechanic should go to jail because they made a mistake?

If a court can prove that the mechanic was negligent in their actions, then Yes, he should and will [nbcnewyork.com]

Amazing that some folks think certain groups are exempt from certain laws...

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

spidercoz (947220) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066829)

Amazing that some folks think certain groups are exempt from certain laws...

Amazing that some folks think that laws and lawsuits are a suitable replacement for personal accountability.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

dittbub (2425592) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067083)

if other seismologists are saying they would have gave the warning, doesn't that tell you something? perhaps we need competing seismologists, you know, so people can get a second opinion.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067419)

if other seismologists are saying they would have gave the warning, doesn't that tell you something? perhaps we need competing seismologists, you know, so people can get a second opinion.

Interesting that you would raise that thought, seeing as they had a lab tech who was forecasting earthquake based on (IIRC) radon levels. The scientists on trial apparently were convened to refute his warnings. The lab tech had incorrectly predicted earthquakes before, and the advisory panel (of scientists) were allegedly there to calm the public. The official government sanctioned scientists gave an all clear, go drink wine, don't worry about it statement, which in turn led to dead people.

IIRC, some of the scientists in the meeting claim (at least now) to have disagreed with the statement. Either they didn't raise their voices (in which case they should carry some of the responsibility) or they were overruled by the rest of the group. Either way, those in government seem to like suppressing the second or disagreeing opinion, as was being done with this statement of safety.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067885)

Amazing that some folks think that laws and lawsuits are a suitable replacement for personal accountability.

No one would have had to sue the mechanic if he'd taken personal responsibility for his mistake. Lawsuits are required, because people and especially corporations aren't going to hold themselves personally accountable if they can profit by doing otherwise.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

jpapon (1877296) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066861)

So the mechanic should go to jail because they made a mistake?

Depends on the mistake. If a mechanic replaces my pads/rotors, and then a few days later my brakes don't work, causing me to get in a deadly accident, then yes.

If on the other hand, a mechanic services my brakes, and then my steering fails, then no, of course they're not to blame.

Should mechanics need to have malpractice insurance?

Mechanic liability insurance does actually exist, and would be a smart thing to get. Then again, if the mechanics actions are deemed criminal neglect... insurance won't save them from jailtime.

Shit like this is exactly why we have a CYA attitude in every organization, everywhere.

You mean having to take responsibility for your actions? Accept the consequences of your deeds? What do you propose as an alternative? Accept that it was just a "mistake"? Intent can mitigate some of the punishment, but can't remove it completely. The alternative is a world without repercussions for your actions.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067053)

Depends on the mistake. If a mechanic replaces my pads/rotors, and then a few days later my brakes don't work, causing me to get in a deadly accident, then yes.

Do you have proof your brakes failed?
If you have proof your brakes failed, do you have proof that the Mechanic was the cause?

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067315)

Bullshit. If you start charging every negligent mechanic with manslaughter then no one will want the job. You have to understand that everyone makes mistakes and if screwing up 1 in a 100 jobs leads to manslaughter charges then no one will be willing to do the work. Then everyone's car will break down.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067835)

Bullshit. If you start charging every negligent mechanic with manslaughter then no one will want the job. You have to understand that everyone makes mistakes and if screwing up 1 in a 100 jobs leads to manslaughter charges then no one will be willing to do the work. Then everyone's car will break down.

Here's 1 [thepassinglane.ca]
Here's 2 [post-gazette.com]
and here's 3 [cnn.com]

Seems the bullshit you proclaimed is on your face. =D

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

dittbub (2425592) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067029)

if the mechanic said your car is safe when he knew full well it wasn't and then let you drive and kill yourself and others then yes of course the mechanic is responsible.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

Volante3192 (953645) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066667)

The flip side is telling everyone they're in danger and then be charged with inciting a panic!

Catch-22 situation, best as I can see it.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (5, Insightful)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066721)

The flip side is telling everyone they're in danger and then be charged with inciting a panic!

Or being honest - "our models do not currently show a risk of significant earthquake, but our models may be wrong. You should always be prepared."

Sounds to me like they were dumbing it down for people who find science "too hard".

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

spidercoz (947220) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066855)

Especially since they live in an ACTIVE SEISMIC ZONE. It's not like earthquakes are a new thing in Italy.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (2)

houghi (78078) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066949)

"You should always be prepared."

WOLF!

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

RocketRabbit (830691) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067501)

Yes, because crying wolf is exactly the same as saying "there is evidence of a wolf in the area but we can not be sure."

Go ahead with that piss poor attitude. With it you will never understand why this trial is happening, or why people question global warming.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Volante3192 (953645) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067505)

Sounds to me like they were dumbing it down for people who find science "too hard".

Like...the Italian Government?

It doesn't help that this:
http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Scientist_says_he_predicted_Italy_earthquake,_was_ignored [wikinews.org]
happened a month before.

I'm used to this. I have this site bookmarked and amuse myself with all the colored squares:
http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/recenteqscanv/ [usgs.gov]

There's always 3.0s and 4.0s on there. Does that mean CA is getting a 6.3 in a month? Might. I'd never bet on it though and the odds would be against it.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (4, Insightful)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066909)

I think the end result of this is that there won't be anyone willing to work as a seismologist in Italy any more, so any more earthquakes (which do happen, they're in an active seismic zone there) will simply be a big surprise.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067601)

I think the end result of this is that there won't be anyone willing to work as a seismologist in Italy any more, so any more earthquakes (which do happen, they're in an active seismic zone there) will simply be a big surprise.

All we have to do is wait for a really devastating event that could have been predicted by the "poor models" and then sue the current plaintiffs for unexpected damages to that region.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067473)

This exactly. The "prediction" was not a result of science, but of political pressure.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066825)

I thought they were being charged for telling the officials that there was a small chance of something really bad happening, but it was more likely that it would just be more of the same. Those officials then told the public that there was nothing to worry about and people should go drink wine (or something to that effect).

It was my understanding that the scientists came to reasonable conclusions based on their model and the information available. They reported a small chance of something bad happening. Just because the bad thing happened doesn't mean that they were wrong. If I tell you that you have a 5/6 chance of not rolling a 1 on a 6-sided die and then you roll a 1 on your first try, I am still correct.

Using your analogy, the desired response would have been something along the lines of: The mechanic tells you that your car has small chance (let's say it's the same as the national average) of being in a fatal accident within the next five years so he can't let you drive it any more.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

canajin56 (660655) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067525)

No, it's like they got in several small accidents, and asked a mechanic "Do all these little accidents mean a big one is coming?" and then suing him because he said "no, that's crazy" but they DID get in a big accident later. They are on trial for saying that little earthquakes don't indicate a big one is coming. This is totally true, but because little earthquakes ALSO don't mean that a big one ISN'T coming people died that might have fled the city without that reassurance. Similar to how people die in earthquakes due to scientists not giving a similar warning "no earthquakes could mean a big one is coming" so you should stay fled at all times.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066791)

The Italian justice system in general is a farce. See also the Amanda Knox trial.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066945)

Well then it can't be any worse than the American justice system, which is also a farce. See the OJ Simpson trial and the execution of Troy Davis.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

mbkennel (97636) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067145)

the first wasn't a problem from the professionals actually operating it (they were average level of competence).

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067581)

Italy in general is a farce.

See also Amanda Knox's parents being tried for slander for repeating what Amanda told them about police striking her. In America allegations of police misconduct tend to result in an investigation of the police. In Italy allegations of police misconduct apparently get you charged with slander.

See also the Cowardly Captain's wife complaining about how he was portrayed in the media. Didn't hear much complaining when the Italian media was trashing Amanda "Foxxy Knoxy" Knox.

See also Jersey Shore. Several generations removed from Italy and the "mindless moron" genes are still expressing.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067939)

In America allegations of police misconduct tend to result in an investigation of the police.

Only occasionally. Usually police misconduct is investigated by an internal review board and white-washed. It has to be really egregious before there's any action, usually taken by the feds.

Re:Scientists Charged For Not Being Psychic (1)

Asic Eng (193332) | more than 2 years ago | (#39068071)

That's not why they are being charged:

Guido Bertolaso, former head of the Department of Civil Protection [...] a few weeks ago a wiretap revealed that he had apparently set up the meeting to convey a reassuring message, regardless of the scientists' opinion. [...] Mualchin said that seismic hazards were not properly assessed in L'Aquila. [...] "They [the scientists] were conscious of the high risk in the area, and yet did not advise the people to take any precaution whatsoever" he said.

Now those accusations may not be correct, but the charge is not that they were supposed to be psychic, but that they gave knowingly wrong advice.

Sounds Like Infighting (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066531)

The problem is in part a scientific one, Mualchin said. The Italian scientists based their analysis on the frequency of earthquakes in the area. This is known as the probabilistic seismic-hazard analysis (PSHA), a method that is state of the art in many countries, but that, in Mualchin’s view, systematically underestimates seismic hazard because it does not consider extreme and rare events.

"Frequency is not important, what really matters is the largest earthquake we can expect, the strongest one that has happened in the past. Risk prevention should be based on that," he said. This is the philosophy behind deterministic seismic-hazard analysis, a method that Mualchin says has been mostly abandoned by the scientific community, to the point that younger seismologists do not even learn about it.

So they were using what is commonly considered a "state of the art" model? I'm guessing the prosecutors happened to find a guy in the United States that apparently even admits to adhering to models that are less commonly accepted than the model that the scientists used. I wonder if he's got an ax to grind now that his preferred model is no longer taught? I don't know anything about these two models but this sounds like infighting and I'm sure it's really easy for Mualchin to step in after the fact and show that his "abandoned" model would have worked better in this particular case. Any seismologists here that can speak to the current research in earthquake prediction and the actual effectiveness of these two models?

I sure am glad I'm not a seismologist, this would angry up my blood.

Re:Sounds Like Infighting (1)

LilGuy (150110) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066745)

I don't know for sure, but from my listening to NPR and alternative radio seismology and hurricane prediction models are a crapshoot. They're actually worse than chance would give in the same circumstances.

Re:Sounds Like Infighting (1)

Hentes (2461350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067393)

They were using a probabilistic model yet they claimed that there is absolutely no chance of a major quake. In other words, they were lying.

Re:Sounds Like Infighting (5, Informative)

canajin56 (660655) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067745)

According to TFA, the scientists (in their defense) claim to have told the official that there was no increased or decreased risk because they cannot make a definite prediction. The official is the one who turned that into "no risk at all because little quakes release energy and prevent big ones, drink some wine and relax!" Maybe they're lying now to cover their asses. But the big news in TFA is that this official and his boss arranged this press conference to "reassure the public there is no risk" before they even consulted the accused scientists, so I'd tend to believe the scientists that this official twisted their words or outright lied.

Re:Sounds Like Infighting (1)

repapetilto (1219852) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067641)

Ah, the good old fat tail risks rears its ugly head. I bet they assumed normal distribution as well.

Re:Sounds Like Infighting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067651)

scientific community ... adhering to models ... preferred model ... these two models

All this talk of models. I got lost for a minute and had to remind myself that this is about geology and not climate ... which is settled science.

Ob. Moe (5, Funny)

Rik Rohl (1399705) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066535)

Let's burn down the observatory so this can never happen again!

Re:Ob. Moe (2)

Desler (1608317) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066599)

Or don't make broad statements that you can't guarantee are correct and when being wrong can cost lives?

Re:Ob. Moe (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066661)

So... dismantle NOAA?

Re:Ob. Moe (2, Insightful)

WrongSizeGlass (838941) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066679)

Or don't make broad statements that you can't guarantee are correct and when being wrong can cost lives?

There is no way to guarantee that it is safe. Unfortunately the only safe response for the scientists and seismologists would be "Yes, there is always a risk of a deadly earthquake", which would result in no one ever believing them when it was true.

Re:Ob. Moe (1)

Rary (566291) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067095)

There is no way to guarantee that it is safe.

Then they shouldn't be announcing in a press conference that "there is no danger".

Those were the exact words used.

Good Job, Italian Government (2, Insightful)

tmosley (996283) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066591)

Watch now as all your scientists flee to avoid being the next to be targeted for being wrong.

Sure, maybe they should lose their jobs, or government grants even, but PRISON!?

In totally unrelated news... (4, Insightful)

RightSaidFred99 (874576) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066665)

Students pursuing seismology as a profession saw a sharp decline.

Why would anyone pursue a career where it's so easy to make a simple mistake and be liable for penalties like this for something that is out of your control?

Re:In totally unrelated news... (1)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066967)

I predict all Italian seismology students will now leave the country when seeking jobs in their field. With the EU worker laws, this should actually be pretty easy for them.

Re:In totally unrelated news... (1)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067871)

That is exactly waht engineers do every day. They build things, make mistakes and when nature test the building and it fails when within design parameters the engineer is liable. The issue is the enginner stated the building wiuld not fail under certain conditions and if it does the engineer is liable.

Should've become business analysts (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066695)

"We're only giving opinions."

Nobody has even been tried for involvement in the 2008 crash.

Re:Should've become business analysts (5, Insightful)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066827)

Nobody has even been tried for involvement in the 2008 crash.

Only because they're still in power.

Think about it; if Hitler had won WWII, would there have been Nuremberg Trials?

What is important to realize here (5, Informative)

I Read Good (2348294) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066755)

is that saying "We do not have reason to believe that there will be a catastrophic earthquake" or "It is not likely that there will be a catastrophic earthquake" is NOT the same as saying "There is no danger of a catastrophic earthquake".

What happened was the scientists came to the former consensus in the meeting, then the politician interpreted it as the latter, and then the politician relayed his version to the people.

IMHO, blaming the scientists is fucking absurd. I think that of the people indicted in this mess, the only one who is at fault is the politician. The most guilty people in this are the idiots who took action concerning their own safety based on their interpretation of what a politician said and against their better instincts.

Re:What is important to realize here (2)

jklovanc (1603149) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067367)

What got the scientists in hot water was that, upon hearing the politician's interpretation of their findings, they did not correct him. Had they spoken up the misinformation would have been corrected and the people would not have the false sence of security.

Re:What is important to realize here (1)

Lehk228 (705449) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067385)

the largest mistake was made by the scientists for meeting with Italian politicians, Italy is more corrupt than the post soviet states

as usual (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39066777)

Seismologists are just used as scapegoats to distract people from the construction companies that lied bout the quakeproofness of their buildings.

So can we jail CA seismologists next time? (1)

t4ng* (1092951) | more than 2 years ago | (#39066919)

I can not remember a single earthquake in California, whether it killed people or not, that was predicted by California seismologists. Maybe after the next big quake in CA we can have some Italian scientists testify against the California scientists!

Re:So can we jail CA seismologists next time? (1)

PRMan (959735) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067421)

But California scientists always say, "A major earthquake is a definite possibility." Still, I can't believe a Californian would go over to Italy to put people in jail for 12 years over a missed prediction. Is this guy paid? It's hard to come up with any other explanation.

Re:So can we jail CA seismologists next time? (1)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067495)

I can not remember a single earthquake in California, whether it killed people or not, that was predicted by California seismologists. Maybe after the next big quake in CA we can have some Italian scientists testify against the California scientists!

Did California seismologists state that there was "no danger" from an earthquake? Did California seismologists cause people to ignore commonly accepted safety routines by their statements or actions? Maybe the next time you try to draw similarities between two situations, you can read a little and not be so ignorant! We can at least expect you to read the caption under the pictures, can't we?

A panel of seismologists who met just days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy are on trial over their reassurances to the public.

Re:So can we jail CA seismologists next time? (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067877)

Did California seismologists state that there was "no danger" from an earthquake? Did California seismologists cause people to ignore commonly accepted safety routines by their statements or actions? Maybe the next time you try to draw similarities between two situations, you can read a little and not be so ignorant! We can at least expect you to read the caption under the pictures, can't we?

Read, you mean like this quote from one of the accused scientists? "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded."

Its about competency (0)

dittbub (2425592) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067001)

I don't like how people are defending these daft seismologists. Would they be so quick to defend a doctor who misplaced a lung for a liver? but 12 years in prison seems too harsh.

Re:Its about competency (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067167)

I would guess a doctor should have a better then 10% chance of being able to do identify a lung or a liver where as a seismologist probably has a lower than 10% chance of accurately predicting an earthquake.

Essentially what you are saying is that weathermen who fail to predict a hail storm that injures someone should go to jail because they are far more likely to be able to predict the weather accurately than a seismologist can predict a quake.

Re:Its about competency (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067193)

I don't like the idea that you are equating seismologists who study crustal instability with doctors who can actually kill their patient by their direct actions. Your analogy is about as apt as Bush as POTUS.

Weird (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067089)

People died because an earthquake occurred. The scientists were not responsible for the earthquake. And their "prediction" was probably just about as good as any available. Now consider this: had the scientists told people that there is always a risk of earthquakes, what preparations would the victims have made that might have saved their lives? I'll tell you: precisely zero. Jail or charges for these guys is ridiculous. Italy is as full of idiots as the US. Who'd a thunk it!

Re:Weird (1)

Bobfrankly1 (1043848) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067627)

People died because an earthquake occurred. The scientists were not responsible for the earthquake. And their "prediction" was probably just about as good as any available.

Read about their "prediction" from a "Nature" article: [nature.com]

In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

The suggestion that repeated tremors were favourable because they 'unload', or discharge, seismic stress and reduce the probability of a major quake seems to be scientifically incorrect.

It's one thing to fail to predict an earthquake. However, they didn't fail to predict an earthquake, to the contrary, they predicted that there was "no danger". Basically, no earthquake.

Now consider this: had the scientists told people that there is always a risk of earthquakes, what preparations would the victims have made that might have saved their lives? I'll tell you: precisely zero.

Wrong again. The same article [nature.com] points out the routine the residents in the area had of leaving the homes when a small tremor occurred, and sleeping outside. Those residents, pacified by the "no danger" statement of the panel, ignored the tremors and lost their life.

Earthquakes don't kill people (5, Insightful)

helixcode123 (514493) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067351)

Things falling on people kill people. From the photos in TFA it looks like the're using unreinforced masonry. This is deadly in earthquake zones, but this situation has more to do with local building codes and enforcement than seismic potential.

In the current state of earthquake prediction, the actual prediction of *when* an earthquake will occur is not all that reliable. However the prediction of how much ground acceleration can be expected from potential seismic activity is reliable and building codes can be created accordingly.

Two problems (1)

WaffleMonster (969671) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067573)

First problem is suing the weather guy for unnecessarily ruining your plans. Predictions sometimes fail because they are predictions. They are not statements of facts. They are guesses based on best effort analysis of avaliable data. You can make the same case in reverse. The weatherman said it was going to snow yesterday and the day before that and it never did. So today when he said snow again I did not believe him and as a result I did not get up early, got snowed in and lost my job for failing to appear on time. Second problem is allowing the legal system to settle scientific issues. It does not work. Never did never will. What you can get an "expert" to say has no real effect on reality. On the other hand those 5000 scientists signatures should mean something? If these scientists are found guilty then Italy deserves to have no seismologists to ever say anything to the public ever and the public deserves what they get as a result.

Re:Two problems (1)

0123456 (636235) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067945)

First problem is suing the weather guy for unnecessarily ruining your plans. Predictions sometimes fail because they are predictions. They are not statements of facts. They are guesses based on best effort analysis of avaliable data.

Speaking of the 'weather guy', there's the infamous case of Michael Fish announcing on British TV that there wasn't going to be a hurricane that night... followed by not-quite hurricane force winds that caused widespread damage and killed a bunch of people. Even though he was technically correct, the damage might not have been so bad if people hadn't been watching him on the TV news and had been prepared for such a storm.

While I agree that jailing these people in this case seems crazy, no-one should be announcing in public that something can't happen when it's purely the output of a poorly understood model.

the real culprits (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39067717)

Italy was not able to find any form of God nor Mother Nature so the scientists are the scapegoats. Next time the Italians might do better by just throwing acid in the faces of any scientists to prevent this in the future.

But the government told me...! (1)

Xandrax (2451618) | more than 2 years ago | (#39067777)

The most frightening thing about this is the sheeple-ish aspect to it. I live in an earthquake zone and I sure as hell do not count on what the government predicts to determine my actions. It's as bad as people who expect the government to come in after a major disaster and take care of them. Hope you enjoy drinking your own piss. What does it say about the state of humanity that people working for the government say, "Nothing to see here, move along." and people just abandon any sense of personal responsilbity towards their own safety. I can only hope that governments start telling people to go jump off cliffs so we can weed those people out.
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