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Seismologists Tried For Manslaughter For Not Predicting Earthquake

Roblimo posted more than 3 years ago | from the next-time-the-scientists-might-not-say-anything-at-all dept.

Crime 154

mcgrew writes "From LiveScience: 'Earthquake prediction can be a grave, and faulty science, and in the case of Italian seismologists who are being tried for the manslaughter of the people who died in the 2009 L'Aquila quake, it can have legal consequences.' A group of seven, including six seismologists and a government official, reportedly didn't alert the public ahead of time of the risk of the L'Aquila earthquake, which occurred on April 6 of that year, killing around 300 people, according to the US Geological Survey."

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More Details (5, Informative)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264236)

Details from the LiveScience article [livescience.com] were lacking, to be nice, and fairly one sided. So I dug up a slightly more reputable article [nature.com] that has these facts:

Following a committee meeting just a week before the quake, some members of the group assured the public that they were in no danger.

If this is true, this is decidedly different from telling the public that they don't know whether there is any danger. Saying "I can't predict earthquakes" is fine. Saying "You are in no danger" would probably be interpreted differently than "We have no indications that you are at an elevated risk."

In the aftermath of the quake, which killed 309 people, many citizens said that these reassurances were the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as leaving their homes.

More specifically, the accusation focuses on a statement made at a press conference on 31 March 2009 by Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency and is now president of the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Rome. "The scientific community tells me there is no danger," he said, "because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable".

Hasn't it been established that movement of GPS ground stations (slippage) indicates increased risk of earthquakes [slashdot.org] ? That was the basis for claims that the New Madrid fault line is overestimated ... and the above quote employs the exact opposite logic.

It appears that the crux of this case rests upon "he told me to say" versus "it's not our job to tell the public." But the civil servant who "summed" up the scientist's summary appears to have fallen victim to treating this like a forecasting of the weather. He will probably regret maintaining a neutral report and should have just said "inconclusive" instead of "looks good."

Vincenzo Vittorini, a physician in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were killed in the earthquake and who is now president of the local victims' association '309 Martiri' (309 Martyrs), hopes the trial will lead to a thorough investigation into what went wrong in those days. "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".

He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level.

Indeed, this sounds to me more like a case against Italy's Civil Protection Agency instead of scientists and seismologists. Not that they couldn't predict the quake but general failure to provide earthquake plans and proper materials/handouts/PSAs to the public.

"I Thought They Were Suing SCIENTOLOGISTS" (3, Funny)

Jeremiah Cornelius (137) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264300)

Oh, well... Never mind.

Re:"I Thought They Were Suing SCIENTOLOGISTS" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264332)

Oh, well... Never mind.

Well, they will be the first to tell you that they "are the only ones that can help." And yet they did not help.

Re:"I Thought They Were Suing SCIENTOLOGISTS" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264496)

I too read it this way twice and got a little excited.

Re:"I Thought They Were Suing SCIENTOLOGISTS" (1)

suomynonAyletamitlU (1618513) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265528)

That's what it was. I immediately thought seismology was a harebrained cult, but I couldn't remember what I was confusing it with.

Re:More Details (1)

shawn(at)fsu (447153) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264390)

Thanks for digging up more information. The headline made is VERY misleading. Telling people these is no danger is worlds away from not saying/predicting anything. This situtation is more like a MD telling you there is no risk for the surgery.

Re:More Details (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264546)

It completely depends on context.

Re:More Details (1)

hairyfeet (841228) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265140)

How is that? Saying "Go back to your homes, everything is fine" is a whole hell of a lot different than saying 'At this point in time we simply don't know" and these folks were depending on these guys to give them SOME sort of heads up!

That would be like me saying "Yeah that PC is supposed to release little balls of white smoke like that, its an effect!" and then being surprised when the person who is listening to me because of my knowledge and experience takes the PC home and it burns the house to the ground and kills their family. I doubt very seriously any court would allow me to say :"Oops, my bad" and walk away. At the very least one should err on the side of caution and from looking at TFA it seems they didn't do that.

So while I don't know if they should be looking at manslaughter, criminal negligence? That I could easily believe.

Re:More Details (1)

onepoint (301486) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265230)

If I was given to think about the 2 choices you offered : "Go back to your homes, everything is fine" vrs. "At this point in time we simply don't know"

I would have to think that statement 1 is factual and certain, while the second statement tells me that nobody knows anything and I am at my own risk.

it comes down to the lack of common sense from the announcer.

Re:More Details (1)

Maxo-Texas (864189) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265292)

It's really a choice between constant warnings and people coming to ignore them and assurances of no danger to prevent panics.

There is not a winning option until earthquake prediction is reliable.

I really salute that scientist who took his own time to try to warn people and was suppressed. However, if you allow it, then nutcases would be driving around with loudspeakers 24/7. Difficult situation. Difficult call.

Re:More Details (1)

Coren22 (1625475) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265590)

Sounds like the movie Dante's Peak.

Re:More Details (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265332)

The government said there would be no recession. They were wrong. People acted on this and were screwed. Any liability here? Nope, apparently not.

The NAR said house prices would only go up. They were wrong. People acted on this and were screwed. Any liability here? Nope, apparently not.

Re:More Details (1)

Scragglykat (1185337) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264572)

I thought you said it was clear!? How's it look now? ...looks clear.

Re:More Details (1)

Dhalka226 (559740) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264596)

So the very person filing this lawsuit has publicly acknowledged that the earthquake could not have been predicted and that the people could not have been evacuated?

I don't know how Italy's legal system works, but it would be laughed out of court at this point in the US. They've already admitted that even if the scientists and politicians did something horribly wrong, that their doing so was not the proximate cause of the damages. Case dismissed.

Re:More Details (5, Insightful)

Savantissimo (893682) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265026)

Actually the earthquake was predicted and the warnings were ignored. Italy 'Dismissed Expert's Quake Warning [sky.com] Sky News / 9:06pm UK, Monday April 06, 2009 / Nick Pisa in Rome :

Seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani had warned "a big one" was on the way and even toured the region in a van with loudspeakers warning people, as late as last week.

But he was reported to the police by authorities for "needlessly spreading panic" and also dismissed by L'Aquila's mayor and other civic officials.

Dr Giuliani based his theory on increasingly high levels of radon gas that had been noted in the area and even posted his findings on his website.

However, he was forced to take them down and the site has not been working.

Dr Giuliani, who works at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at nearby Gran Sasso, said: "There are people who need to apologise to me. These people will have these deaths on their conscience."

Re:More Details (2)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265592)

If a seismologist states categorically that an earthquake is not going to happen, they are stating categorically that they CAN predict earthquakes (or at least their absence).

In the US, I seriously doubt that this would be laughed out of court. I doubt manslaughter would hold up, but judges would probably rule that the complainant had a right to their day in court precisely because the experts grievously abused their position of trust by telling a falsehood to placate them.

(FWIW, I'll link this in with TEPCO's communications. It is not that the reactor content in Japan went AWOL that upsets people, it is that TEPCO abused their position of trust by telling falsehoods to placate the public that upsets people. Placating, versus being honest, is NOT acceptable policy. Ever.)

Re:More Details (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264636)

Saying "You are in no danger" would probably be interpreted differently than "We have no indications that you are at an elevated risk."

Not by me, but then I know that earthquakes do occur from time to time and we can't as yet predict when.

So I'd interpret them to mean exactly the same thing.

Re:More Details (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265622)

How about: "We don't know how to predict earthquakes, the science doesn't exist, so to make predictions would be to lie."

Re:More Details (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264878)

"Hasn't it been established that movement of GPS ground stations (slippage) indicates increased risk of earthquakes [slashdot.org]?"

No. Not really. Deformation is ongoing and varies over time and location in tectonically-active areas. Figuring out that a particular motion is a precursor to a major earthquake versus ordinary, smaller-scale earthquakes that happen all the time is extraordinarily difficult, and can usually only be done after the fact. You can notice that there might be an increase in small earthquake frequency and intensity before big ones, but there are many more such increases that peak and nothing happens at all. If this was a reliable way to predict large earthquakes we'd already be doing it. There's a long history of failures in attempts (both big earthquakes not predicted and ones that were but didn't come to pass).

"[from the article] He says that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake. Vittorini thinks that those charged are not the only ones to blame, and that further investigations might eventually place greater responsibilities on politicians at the local and national level."

THIS is the problem: an engineering problem. The geologists/seismologists can you what the potential for an earthquake is (a percentage chance per year for a particular magnitude), it's going to be a rough estimate with wide uncertainties depending upon how well instrumented and historically studied the area is, and the geologists/seismologists are going to be able to give the engineers a probabilistic envelope for the typical frequency, amplitude, and duration of ground motion acceleration based on past events. A geologist can also survey ground materials to determine which will amplify, attenuate, or otherwise filter the ground acceleration signal, which will affect any structure built on top. A geologist/seismologist will NOT be able to tell you how the building will respond in those circumstances. That's the job of a structural engineer. If an event is well outside the norm of previously-experienced events in an area, that's what the confidence intervals and engineering safety factors are for. The uncertainty is supposed to be built into the quake model and the structures.

If this case is about geologists/seismologists not being able to predict an earthquake, then this case is stupid, because as the article and any other geologist/seismologist will tell you, they can't do that for individual events. If this case is about improper seismic risk assessments and a failure of the usual partnership with engineers evaluating the implications of earthquakes for pre-existing and new structures, then it would make some sense. If this case is about PR people not understanding how it works, and misleading the public by statements along the lines of "There is no risk", then that isn't really the fault of the scientists.

Look, it's Italy. It's a tectonically-active part of the world. There is NO place in Italy without a significant earthquake risk. NONE. To say something like "There is no earthquake risk" would be ridiculous. What I suspect happened is that the scientists said the recent increase in smaller events is no cause for alarm (which is true -- small earthquakes vary up and down in rates all the time with no "big" one following), and then it was presented the wrong way, or people took away the wrong message. It's like telling someone with a beach cottage in Florida that "Just because it was raining and stormy all last week doesn't mean there's any reason to expect you're more likely to be hit by a hurricane this year", and then people suing because their cottage gets flattened the following month -- except that hurricanes are one hell of a lot more predictable than major earthquakes. Furthermore, building a cottage on the beach anywhere in Florida is already putting yourself in harms way. I can't say this often enough: it's the same basic situation in Italy for earthquakes -- if you're in Italy, you have significant earthquake risk. Period. It varies quantitatively across the country, but is significant everywhere. If you live there in old buildings not built to handle earthquakes, you are living in a dangerous structure. If anyone suggested otherwise, yes, they were misleading the public, but if they said that the increase in smaller quakes was no particular reason to think the risk was any greater at that time, they would be correct. The signature of impending large earthquakes isn't that obvious.

Re:More Details (1)

jd (1658) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265778)

I believe that telescopes observing Japan detected some abnormalities immediately prior to the earthquake, but one observation isn't enough to tell you much about how often those abnormalities occur without earthquakes, how many earthquakes occur without those specific abormalities or whether in the Italian case even if a suitable telescope had made the observation whether there'd be enough time from it being detected, confirmed and relayed over there to make any difference in evacuation. Or, for that matter, if anyone would have paid attention.

(It took half an hour to evacuate a small shopping mall in Manchester when a 1,000 lb bomb was discovered at the Arndale Center in the mid 90s that was due to go off. People wanted to finish shopping or eating first. That was an immediate threat to life and limb. What do you think the response would be to "we expect an earthquake sometime, possibly very soon"?)

Having said that, to say that there was zero risk (when there was no possible way of knowing that) was a blatant falsehood and the person saying it knew that. I have no problem with keelhauling a guy for professional misconduct. It might deter politically-appointed scientists saying what their masters want rather than what the evidence shows. We could have done with more keelhauling in the US regarding Bush's suppression of global warming data and the very disappointing saga of inaccurate claims by Obama appointees over the BP spill, not to mention the FDA's attrocious record of approving drugs that are not clinically proven.

Re:More Details (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264948)

"We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option."

So why are we here then? What is this discussion about? $$$ sorry I meant ??? Indeed it does not. If this was about "a case against Italy's Civil Protection Agency instead of scientists and seismologists" then they would be after "Italy's Civil Protection Agency", no?

Re:More Details (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264990)

Not that they couldn't predict the quake but general failure to provide earthquake plans and proper materials/handouts/PSAs to the public.

Even so, I don't see how that constitutes the level of negligence to be considered criminal. The prosecutors are going to have to prove that the statements and actions/inactions of the people involved were so reckless that they should have anticipated the resulting consequences of the earthquake, a natural disaster which is considered to be an "act of God". It's absurd, and unfortunately it's part of a legal philosophy gaining hold in Western countries that posits that people should be held responsible for any negative consequence of their actions no matter how flimsy the causality chain between the action and the supposed consequence, even if the consequence is the most outlier case of all possible outcomes.

Who can we sue? (0)

yog (19073) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264238)

Maybe the professors who taught the seismologists back in university should be tried for manslaughter, too, for not properly training their students to properly detect and report earthquakes.

Maybe the public safety authorities should all be fired for failing to regularly consult the seismologists regarding possible upcoming earthquakes.

Maybe all psychics in the country should be arrested and arraigned for murder, for not predicting the deadly temblor.

Or, maybe the Italians should just accept that natural disasters happen. Geeze, Louise.

It's worth noting that according to Wikipedia, there were several thousand foreshocks and aftershocks since December 2008" [wikipedia.org] in that area. Doesn't that suggest that there was adequate warning that a quake could strike at any minute?

Re:Who can we sue? (3, Interesting)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264416)

Yes but members of the committee specifically said that the people were "in no danger". That's a rather bold statement to make and I see no reason why they shouldn't be held accountable for it. It's no different from a drug company telling people a drug is safe that isn't or a bridge inspector telling people a bridge is safe and it collapses days later.

Re:Who can we sue? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264594)

they shouldn't be held accountable for killing people because ... hold on, they DID NOT KILL ANYONE. words are just words. this is ridiculous.

Re:Who can we sue? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264668)

And neither did the bridge inspector who told you that an unsafe bridge is safe to drive on, but they should still be held accountable for misleading people when the bridge collapses and kills people. Whether or not they should have gotten this particular charge against them I would be open to debate on but they should definitely be held accountable in some way for making a statement to the public that was not true.

Re:Who can we sue? (2)

darkshadow88 (776678) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264912)

Your analogy doesn't work here. It's not like the seismologists actually caused the earthquake. They merely examined the evidence and concluded that there should not have been any danger. Occasionally they get it wrong (besides, the circumstances may well have changed after they said there was no danger).

In other news, yesterday a severe thunderstorm hit nearby, and the criminals at the National Weather Service didn't even issue a severe thunderstorm watch! I could have gotten struck by lightning! Why don't we prosecute the NWS for putting everyone's lives in grave danger?

Re:Who can we sue? (1)

darkshadow88 (776678) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264932)

Also, a bridge is a man-made structure where deficiencies in the structure can be readily identified. Earthquakes don't work that way.

Re:Who can we sue? (2)

NoSig (1919688) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265280)

The bridge inspector should only be held accountable if he failed to carry out his work according to minimum standards of bridge inspecting, which I'm sure are laid out in detail somewhere. The same should be true for earthquake predictors, but since earthquake prediction is much less of a sure thing than bridge inspection, the minimum standards are much lower as well. It's not relevant if the statement they made was true, it is relevant if the statement they made was reasonably justified based on minimum standards of earthquake prediction. If a bridge fails in a way that a bridge inspector is not tasked to inspect, then the bridge inspector is not at fault. The difference is that we have a very good idea about the things that make bridges fail, while we don't know how to predict earthquakes with certainty.

Re:Who can we sue? (2)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264854)

There is a difference between being held accountable for a wrong statement, and being held for manslaughter. I'd much rather have no charges than levy a manslaughter charge.

I'm not sure if they should be held accountable at all. While they should have worded it better, everyone was safe as far as they could tell. If they had stated the risk properly, it wouldn't have mattered, I really doubt it would have saved lives to properly state the risks.

All I really see is a possible chilling effect which will have the opposite of the desired effect, you'll see students enter other fields than risk a charge that doesn't fit the actual error.

Re:Who can we sue? (1)

eth1 (94901) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265570)

All I really see is a possible chilling effect which will have the opposite of the desired effect, you'll see students enter other fields than risk a charge that doesn't fit the actual error.

Actually, what will probably happen is that all future forecasts will be useless, because they'll all just say some variation of, "yes it's possible, but we're not sure; take precautions." People will stop taking them seriously, and be just as unprepared.

Re:Who can we sue? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265244)

Yes but members of the committee specifically said that the people were "in no danger". That's a rather bold statement to make and I see no reason why they shouldn't be held accountable for it. It's no different from a drug company telling people a drug is safe that isn't or a bridge inspector telling people a bridge is safe and it collapses days later.

The fallacy here is that the seismologists aren't in the business of creating earthquakes to make money. Drug companies are. The seismologists also aren't in real-estate. From a scientific perspective they could have worded it differently, but that wouldn't have changed anyone's behaviour. Do I know this for a fact? No. But people do and believe as the please, and if the scientists had said "we can't see the danger" people would still have heard "there isn't any danger". Hell, for so long now people have been ignoring scientists crying wolf it's no wonder there's some reluctance to say there is danger. Besides, maybe their data did indicate that things looked safe? Are they to be held at fault because they simply relayed what their data was indicating?

Re:Who can we sue? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265276)

It is different. The drugs and bridges are man-made and largely predictable. If there is a known flaw in them, it is the makers' fault. The Earth is not man-made and we can only make educated guesses about its day to day behavior. Predicting what it will or won't do with any reasonable certainty is practically impossible. We have a phrase for events like this: Acts of God. Because God only knows when they'll happen. If an astronomer says that you are at no danger of being hit by a meteorite tomorrow, and you in fact do get hit, would you seriously hold them liable?

Re:Who can we sue? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265304)

It's no different from a drug company telling people a drug is safe that isn't

It's insanely different. One is selling drugs and the other is not selling earthquakes.

bridge inspector telling people a bridge is safe

In that case, you'd better have some kind of contract that details what happens if the inspector is wrong. If the inspector won't put his money where his mouth is, find a different one.

In either case, nothing criminal is happening unless you have some sort of contract.

Re:Who can we sue? (1)

RightSaidFred99 (874576) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265510)

We keep seeing this argument over and over, and it's nonsense. A drug maker sells you a product and is responsible for verifying the safety of the product, you enter into an implicit contract. A seismologist is like a weather man, they can give pretty good estimates close to an event, but even then not always. Any longer period of time and you might as well use a magic 8 ball.

A seismologist has no responsibility to you, implicit or explicit. At worst these guys should be fired for inappropriately opening their big mouths.

Manslaughter? What fucking next, sue the weather man because he didn't warn you about a tornado or said a Hurricane wouldn't be as bad as it turned out to be? Bullshit.

Re:Who can we sue? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264470)

Or, maybe the Italians should just accept that natural disasters happen. Geeze, Louise.

Italians are the dumbest most self-righteous overbearing and bullying people on earth. And they're fucking morons. The world as a whole and Jersey would be a better place without them.

Re:Who can we sue? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264556)

The guidos & guidettes of Jersey Shore have as much italian in them as I have martian. They are good ole' fashion american douchebags, no more, no less. That's why they're self-righteous overbearing bullies, and fucking morons to boot -- hey're just typical, middle of the road, god fearing, true blue americans.

Re:Who can we sue? (5, Funny)

LostAlaska (760330) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264552)

Aren't earthquakes often referred to as "acts of god". So if they want to hold someone accountable, I mean the Vatican is like just down the road...

Re:Who can we sue? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264790)

+1 Funny

Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (3, Insightful)

killfixx (148785) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264256)

Shenanigans!! Double shenanigans!

This is why I hate gambling!

What is the penalty if they had erred on the side of caution and had been wrong? Loss of job? Loss of reputation?

It would have cost millions to plan, evacuate, etc...

Holding people liable for an act of nature is a dangerous precedent.

Yikes!

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (0)

pnewhook (788591) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264434)

Holding people liable for an act of nature is a dangerous precedent.

If you stood in an intersection and waved people through a red light telling them it was safe, then those people were subsequently killed by an oncoming truck, are you liable?

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264616)

What if you ran a red light and then claimed someone else said it was safe even though there is no evidence that anyone ever said it was safe?

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264676)

How is that analogous though? In this situation there is record of members of the committee specifically saying that the citizens were "in no danger". Your situation doesn't even fit at all.

What if (1)

M. Baranczak (726671) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264682)

What if someone made a car analogy that made no sense?

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (2)

Just Brew It! (636086) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264876)

Terrible analogy. The situation was more like telling someone "If you run this red light today, you're in no more danger than you would've been if you'd run it yesterday".

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264750)

Because predicting earthquakes is just like identifying on-coming traffic. If we're going to make faulty analogies, how about if you predict that there won't be any traffic on the I-90 at 7 p.m. tomorrow, and someone ends up walking into traffic and getting hit, are you liable?

Reserving judgement on the case, but taking the article on face value, they spelled out pretty clearly that they couldn't accurately predict earthquakes. If a group says, "There won't be an earthquake. Also, we can't accurately predict earthquakes" and you follow that advice that's your fault.

According to the commission's memo — issued one week before the big quake — the experts concluded that it was "improbable" that there would be a major quake though it added that one couldn't be excluded.
Afterward, members of the commission gave reassuring interviews to local media stressing the impossibility of predicting quakes and that even six months worth of low-magnitude temblors was not unusual in the highly seismic region and didn't mean a big one was coming.

The only way I could see the lawsuit as being ethically justifiable is if they had actual evidence that an earthquake was likely. The article doesn't actually mention anything like that.

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

Stripe7 (571267) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264444)

What about Harold Camping and his failed prediction of the rapture? Are they going to sue for that? Predicting earthquakes is still an infant science. What is next? How about suing astronomers for not predicting the next extinction level event because of a GRB or Asteroid impact? Or suing Oceanographers for the rising tides or depleted fish stocks?

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264488)

Umm, how would one predict a GRB? By the time the light reaches Earth and gets detected ... well, it has reached Earth, and is causing the damage.

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

Just Brew It! (636086) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264824)

Bad analogy. Camping personally profited, from people donating money to his cause. As much as I dislike the litigious nature of our society here in the US, I figure he's a valid target.

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

M. Baranczak (726671) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264722)

Persecution of stock brokers would be a feature, not a bug.

Re:Who's next, meteorologists? Stock brokers? (1)

PReDiToR (687141) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265396)

Execution of stock brokers would be a feature, not a bug.

There. FTFY.

And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (1)

Kenja (541830) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264272)

Its not like earth quake predictions are accurate. If they cried "wolf" every time they thought there MIGHT be a big earth quake, it would be useless information.

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (3, Interesting)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264386)

Except if you actually found out what really happened:

Following a committee meeting just a week before the quake, some members of the group assured the public that they were in no danger.

Providing such a strong affirmative statement that they were in no danger, despite the fact that it was probably a sincere statement, was not a correct thing to say and they should have realized that if something did happen it was going to open them up to issues. It's like the inspector for a bridge telling people that they are in no danger driving over it yet it collapses days later. Shouldn't they be held responsible for their statements turning out to be untrue?

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (1)

Culture20 (968837) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264510)

Providing such a strong affirmative statement that they were in no danger, despite the fact that it was probably a sincere statement, was not a correct thing to say and they should have realized that if something did happen it was going to open them up to issues. It's like the inspector for a bridge telling people that they are in no danger driving over it yet it collapses days later. Shouldn't they be held responsible for their statements turning out to be untrue?

The results would have been the same either way. If the seismologists had chosen the third option and told people that 309 people would die, then there could have been a panic, and they get arrested for inciting a riot. If they chose the fourth option ("we know what will happen, but we're not telling you"), then they get arrested for some conspiracy with earthquake makers.

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (3, Insightful)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264712)

Or we could skip all of your crappy options and picked the one that a proper scientist would say in a case where they don't know for sure either way: "we don't know" but told people to be alert in case something did happen.

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265200)

Or we could skip all of your crappy options and picked the one that a proper scientist would say in a case where they don't know for sure either way: "we don't know" but told people to be alert in case something did happen.

Which they did according to TFA:

"According to the commission's memo — issued one week before the big quake — the experts concluded that it was "improbable" that there would be a major quake though it added that one couldn't be excluded."

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264628)

The is no evidence that anyone ever said the public was in no danger.

The actually comment was based on the current release of energy.

Re:And yet, false predictions would also be bad. (1)

UnknowingFool (672806) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264432)

Indeed haven't some seismologists gotten in trouble for crying wolf about earthquakes that didn't happen. The way I remember it a seismologist warned that increasing seismic activity was warning an earthquake was likely. Then it didn't happen or happened later than predicted. Seismologist gets in trouble for doing his/her job.

A good first step (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264288)

Naturally, as a Slashdot reader, I haven't read the article for the operational details. Nonetheless, a big defect in the human animal is the omission bias [wikipedia.org] , and an obvious way around this seems to be to actually punish those who don't fulfill things which may, or should be, their responsibility. The second step is to get this to finance.

Lesson Learned: I don't know (1)

commodore64_love (1445365) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264316)

Better to CYA and say, "I don't know if ____ will happen," then to guess and say, "Oh you're safe. Don't worry." The latter will come back to bite you if you're later proved wrong.

Slashdot editorial garbage (1)

seasunset (469481) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264370)

Somethings are completely below acceptable standard. Like poor Slashdot editorial care.

It is completely different to "not predict a earthquake" to "predict that it will not happen".

These specialists PREDICTED that there would be no problem.

Can we get basic logic right, please?

This is a case of scientific hubris (belief in self-ability to predict things) that cost many lives. Now it has been joined by lack of basic logic and linguistics here in Slashdot.

What a dis-service to science.

Talking about proper science, may I suggest reading say, The Black Swan?

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (1)

Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264592)

This is a case of scientific hubris (belief in self-ability to predict things) that cost many lives. Now it has been joined by lack of basic logic and linguistics here in Slashdot. What a dis-service to science. Talking about proper science, may I suggest reading say, The Black Swan?
Many? 300 dead on a planet of over 6 billion is a rounding error. As for the Black Swan you should warn your fellow readers to prepare for many chapters of self important pseudo erudite wanking by the author. Unless you meant the book that movie w/ Natalie Portman, not petrified and lacking hot grits was based on.

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264816)

You are talking about "rounding error" because among these 300 you don't have a son, a mother or sister or whatever. It's too easy to play the "shit happens" card when shit happens to someone else or someone else's family.

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (1)

geminidomino (614729) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265496)

No shit, Sherlock. Considering that the alternative is to wangst on, all day, every day for all of the Thousands upon thousands of people who die in any given 24 hour period, yeah, you kind of have to choose a cutoff that makes sense.

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (1)

Culture20 (968837) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264604)

It is completely different to "not predict a earthquake" to "predict that it will not happen". These specialists PREDICTED that there would be no problem. This is a case of scientific hubris (belief in self-ability to predict things) that cost many lives.

How? Did the victims take especially risky actions that day, believing earthquakes were impossible? In what way did the scientists make the damage of the earthquake worse than if they made no prediction?

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264928)

How? Did the victims take especially risky actions that day, believing earthquakes were impossible? In what way did the scientists make the damage of the earthquake worse than if they made no prediction?

There had been already small earthquakes in the area for some weeks. Many were afraid the small earthquakes were going to be followed by a big one, but Civil protection assured everyone multiple times in TV and on the newspapers that there was no risk at all. Thanks to their groundless and misleading assurances many people decided to stay in their homes in the city instead of going in safer places.

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (1)

Just Brew It! (636086) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265180)

Bingo. Given that the next "big one" could've been the next day, the next year, or never, what exactly would've been different? You can't very well evacuate a town indefinitely on the basis of "there might be an increased risk of earthquakes, we're not sure". The town is in an earthquake zone, and has been leveled by quakes in the past. You'd think that people would've already taken the proper precautions.

Re:Slashdot editorial garbage (2)

Just Brew It! (636086) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265106)

Please provide the quote where they explicitly stated that there would *not* be a quake.

The closest it gets is:

In one now-infamous interview included in the prosecutors' case, commission member Bernardo De Bernardis of the national civil protection department responded to a question about whether residents should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine. "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc," he responded, referring to a high-end red. "This seems important."

The odds of an earthquake, and the timing thereof, can't be predicted with any degree of accuracy. I interpret this as the guy telling people "Just go on with your lives as usual". What else are you supposed to do, when you don't know whether it will happen tomorrow, in 6 months, or in 5 years? If you were going to take precautions against earthquakes (e.g. making sure your home was structurally sound), you should've already done so, since you live in a f**king earthquake zone! (The place was apparently leveled by earthquakes *twice* in the 1700s, and had a pretty strong one in the 1950s as well.)

People really need to take a little more personal responsibility, and not react to anything bad with "Who can we sue?"

For all the "Who next?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264402)

Up next will be people that only read sensational articles and don't try to find out what really happened before posting outraged comments.

Two points (1)

erroneus (253617) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264494)

1. Did they know the earthquake was coming?
2. If they knew it was coming, did they tell people they would be safe?

All indications are that they knew the earthquake was coming and that they told the people they were safe. If this is true, then they should be charged. Now, if they were suppressed by someone "above them" then they need to say so. But for these people to say "We think there is an earthquake coming but it will be mild, so you can just go about your business" is irresponsible.

This is why we have tornado watches and tornado warnings. Most often, a "watch" condition is all you will ever hear or see as tornadoes can form and dissipate before reporting a warning can ever occur. A watch, of course, indicates that conditions for a tornado to occur are favorable.

I think that if they believed the conditions for an earthquake were favorable, they should have warned the people accordingly even if they stated something like "potential for damage is uncertain." Of course, the legality of statements like that in Italy are unknown to me, but in the US, I'm pretty sure one's ass would be covered well enough.

Fun with summaries (3, Funny)

Ironchew (1069966) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264500)

Earthquake prediction can be a faulty science

I see what you did there...

Re:Fun with summaries (1)

drb226 (1938360) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264936)

More fun, in true Slashdot style of taking quotes out of context:

Earthquake prediction can be a grave

At least 2 puns there ;)

Did not properly consider the indications (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264522)

As I understood the initial reports, the issue is that the committee did not consider the relevant data with sufficient attention, ie. lack of due care. Had they taken sufficient care and predicted "no problem" then they would have had a valid defense in the unpredictability of earthquakes. Not even trying to interpret the available data makes open to accusations of negligence.

If you outlaw incorrectly predicting earthquakes.. (1)

dmomo (256005) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264524)

Only outlaws will incorrectly predict earthquakes.

Re:If you outlaw incorrectly predicting earthquake (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265282)

Only outlaws will incorrectly predict earthquakes.

More importantly, if you artificially create a liability for scientists in a certain field, there will be less scientists willing to work in said field and be held liable, and thus less research and advancements in that field. Do they want less accurate predictions of earthquakes?

Also note: sometimes mass hysteria + earthquake is less dangerous than just the earthquake... Perhaps they wanted to warn everyone, but were secretly advised not to.

Great way to increase false warnings to 99.99% (2)

tazan (652775) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264590)

If it were me I'd start releasing automated warnings every morning.

Re:Great way to increase false warnings to 99.99% (1)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264720)

Every morning? Hell, I'd never let the siren take a break! Sure, after a day or two nobody would care about it anymore or even try to sabotage it to get a bit of sleep again, but they can't sue me for that.

so what if they predicted it wrong? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264602)

If an expert gives you advice based on the best of their knowledge, they are not liable. I mean, if a driving instructor tells you not to swerve, and you hit an old lady as a result, does the old lady's family sue the driving instructor?? No... Similarly, people shouldn't sue scientists that work with uncertainty. I hate this politically correct BS which forces experts to put disclaimers in front of everything they say. If you listen to an earthquake expert and die, it's your fault. Don't go blaming anyone else. Obviously the expert is liable if they were negligent, but as far as I can tell they weren't in this case.

Re:so what if they predicted it wrong? (1)

Lunix Nutcase (1092239) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264734)

If an expert gives you advice based on the best of their knowledge, they are not liable.

And is this statement actually based on statutory or case law or just your opinion on the subject? Because there are numerous cases in numerous countries to show the opposite.

Seismology can be a faulty science (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36264614)

Seismology can be a faulty science, and the science of predicting when the ground shakes is not completely understood. Groundbreaking research needs to be done before it can be done with any accuracy. Its not the scientists fault! Seismology is rock hard science to crack!

Re:Seismology can be a faulty science (1)

Mindcontrolled (1388007) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265564)

Agreed. It does stand on shaky ground.

April 1? (0)

Kamiza Ikioi (893310) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264620)

April Fools is over 10 months away... But this has to be a joke. I know Europe often have kangaroo courts, but this is ridiculous! Are we going to charge The Weather Channel for hurricane and tornado deaths now?

There needs to be a disclaimer on every weather and planetary report, "Warning, you could die of an 'act of god' today for no other reason that you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. This broadcast makes no guarantees of safety. Consult a doctor before taking action. No batteries included. See store for details."

After all the scandals in France and Italy over these past few years, this lowers my view of Italy to a new low, like some back water country performing witch trials.

Re:April 1? (1)

h4rr4r (612664) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264694)

The USA has plenty of bad courts as well.

There is a major difference between staying you don't know if there will be a quake and stating there will not be a quake. The Weather Channel never says "There will be no tornadoes in Joliet today."

See the difference?

Re:April 1? (2)

Kamiza Ikioi (893310) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264960)

The USA has plenty of bad courts as well.

Didn't say the USA didn't.

There is a major difference between staying you don't know if there will be a quake and stating there will not be a quake. The Weather Channel never says "There will be no tornadoes in Joliet today."

Actually, no. If the Weather channel predicts a path for a storm on a line, and the storm changes direction unexpectedly (which does happen), it would be the same situation. There is a common sense presumption that mother nature is, by nature, unpredictable. Tornadoes can form out of clear skies and strike any time of year, even in winter. The chance of surviving a tornado on any given day might be 0.999... [wikipedia.org] , but there are no guarantees, ever.

Trusting anyone, ESPECIALLY a seismologist to have an infallible prediction is quite possibly a symptom of insanity. Anyone living in San Fransisco would know that.

Re:April 1? (1)

geminidomino (614729) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265616)

The chance of surviving a tornado on any given day might be 0.999..., but there are no guarantees, ever.

Assuming you meant "probability" when you used "chance," you're contradicting yourself. What I don't get is that, since you knew enough to link the wiki page for 0.999..., you know of the "special properties" of it. a probability of 1 = a guarantee.

Another inherent contradiction, too, in the second part. By speaking in absolutes, you are essentially guaranteeing that there are no guarantees.

Have I just been whooshed?

Re:April 1? (1)

darkshadow88 (776678) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265032)

But sometimes they predict "partly cloudy" and a tornado ends up striking. While they didn't explicitly say "no tornadoes", a forecast of "partly cloudy" (maybe even with a "0% chance of precipitation") pretty clearly says there's going to be no tornadoes.

Psychics (5, Interesting)

pitchpipe (708843) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264642)

This is my idea for Psychics: whenever some sort of disaster happens and a Psychic comes along claiming to have predicted it, unless he can produce any evidence showing that he tried to warn people beforehand with specific warnings, he should be thrown into prison as responsible for those lives.

Re:Psychics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265780)

What if someone actually warns people with specific warnings? But does it every day, predicting that it will hit the next day, until he gets it right eventually?

Opps there goes science (2)

StillNeedMoreCoffee (123989) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264690)

Talk about a chilling effect on scientific research.. The next thing you will be doing is suing Doctors if they get a diagnosis wrong, oh wait we are doing that.

Oh please don't let this win (1)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264714)

For the love of $deity, please let the judge hand out some sensible judgment. Else the only thing you'll ever get to hear from geologists is scaremongering lest they be liable should the earth tremble somewhere. How do you expect to get sensible predictions if you sue if they happen to be wrong?

Imagine you're a weatherman and get sued if it rains after you predict sunshine. So what are you going to predict? Exactly. Rain. All year long. No matter what your data says.

Stupid (1)

sshirley (518356) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264748)

That is seriously stupid! It's an inexact science. How can they possibly be held responsible?

great. (2)

spongman (182339) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264792)

I'm not a qualified slashdot commenter, and in no way should this comment be taken to convey any meaning, opinion, or suggestion that could in any way harm the reader. The poster is not to be held liable for any damages incurred by, or after reading this comment. By reading this comment, the reader hereby relinquishes any right to sue, or in any other way claim damages from the poster, and any such legal proceeding shall be brought in a location of the posters choosing. The content of this post is copyright (c) 2011 the poster, all rights reserved. Any reproduction of the comment must contain this paragraph.

What a load of fucking bullshit.

I love my country (1)

Jack Malmostoso (899729) | more than 3 years ago | (#36264890)

Idiocracy? No, Italy.

Re:I love my country (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265486)

Bankruptcy? Yes, Italy.

End Result (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36265172)

"Sesmologists predict a major quake tomorrow. Also, the day after tomorrow. The day after that as well. In fact, they predict major quakes every single goddamn day from now until for ever and ever."

and the consequences are... (1)

Registered Coward v2 (447531) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265192)

in the future, seismologists will be unwilling to say people aren't in danger, and causation them to take precautions. When people leave, disrupting routine activity, and nothing happens they will yell at the seismologists and eventually ignore warnings. then, when it really happens, the seismologists can say "we warned you." Of course, some legal wiz will decide it's the seismologists fault that the event didn't happen and hold them responsible for the losses caused by people leaving or panicking.

Re:and the consequences are... (1)

robot256 (1635039) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265540)

If there's a fault line sitting right there, I think reasonable precautions are entirely necessary. If you know there's going to be an earthquake within the next fifty to one hundred years, why not prepare? Especially if lots of your buildings are old and not earthquake-ready, it seems disingenuous to tell people not to worry about them.

But the intent of this trial is not to punish scientists for their results, it is to determine who told lies to the public and whether the truth would have saved lives. A large part of the problem appears to be in translation, where the scientists said "it might not happen", and the politicians said "it will not happen".

Well, this is the same country that is home to... (1)

dicobalt (1536225) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265198)

the original Christian version of the Taliban. One would have to expect occasional insanity. Here's hoping there are more sane people than crazies.

*Sigh* Italy... (1)

Caerdwyn (829058) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265266)

I guess nothing has changed since the days of Gallileo.

Italian government remains corrupt top-to-bottom, its judiciary remains primitive banging-rocks-together screwheads. This isn't just one knuckle-dragging "judge"; this so-called "investigation" has been going on for over a year. Hundreds of people have had an opportunity to say "Questo è stupido, e si ferma subito." None have. Any scientists left in that pit of willful ignorance should get out, and get out now, because the tort lawyers are coming. High-tech companies should abandon Italy before they too are targeted my the government extortion machine and--

Oh wait. Too late. [stanford.edu] Skilled Italian scientists and engineers, the rest of the world will happily take you in. I'm sure there are many of you, and we need you. Your own country doesn't want you, though. The rest of us? We should stay the hell out of Italy lest we be similarly targeted.

Silliness. (2)

jkeelsnc (1102563) | more than 3 years ago | (#36265508)

What? This sounds like something that would happen here in America. Somehow, its all the seismologists' fault. What? What kind of a whiney, victimized brain does it take to come up with a reason to charge someone with manslaughter in this case. Earthquakes are not easily predicted and certainly not accurately. The statements from the Seismologists should be listened to but with understanding that they are likely off (at least to some extent). Somehow, these cases should be thrown right out the door and not one penny should go to the "victim" families. As for the charges, the judge in this case should drop them and dismiss everyone and throw this case right out the door. Of course, I am sure the lawyers are licking their chops at the chance to make a fast buck off the "victims" like scavengers picking dead bones in the desert somewhere. As usual. Apparently, Itlalians and Italian politicians and lawyers are just as dumb and greedy as they sometimes are in America.
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