In David Spiegelhalter’s excellent programme on risk, Tails You Win: The Science of Chance, we heard about the classic case of Michael Fish failing to predict the 1987 hurricane, and about the difficulty of predicting such events. Another area where precise prediction is extremely difficult is earthquakes.
Today the BBC are reporting that “six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison” in L’Aquila, Italy, having been found “guilty of multiple manslaughter” because of a “falsely reassuring statement” they gave before a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the city in 2009 and killed 309 people.
Detailed background to this case is given in a Nature News article, including the following:
According to an open letter to the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, signed by more than 5,000 members of the scientific community, the seven Italians essentially face criminal charges for failing to predict the earthquake — even though pinpointing the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term remains, by scientific consensus, technically impossible.
The same article also reports the words of Vincenzo Vittorini, L’Aquila resident at the time of the quake:
“This isn’t a trial against science,” insists Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of “Be calm, don’t worry”, and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. “That’s why I feel betrayed by science,” he says. “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”
Source: L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter.
Background: Scientists on trial: At fault?