What Can We Learn from the Italian Earthquake Trial?

L'Aquila aftermath
Devastation from the magnitude 6.3 earthquake of April 6, 2009 in L'Aquila, Italy, is recalled on a banner in front of buildings under repair. (Carlo Polisini/CC-BY-NC-ND 2)

Five and a half years after a devastating earthquake in Italy, a notorious verdict holding seven scientists liable for manslaughter has been overturned on appeal. With the benefit of a little perspective, we can look at some of the lessons learned now.

In the early spring of 2009, the area around the city of L'Aquila, in central Italy, was in a nervous uproar. A swarm of small earthquakes had been going on for months, an amateur with some radon detectors was appearing on TV and driving around in a sound truck predicting a major earthquake, and the authorities couldn't quell the panic. The civil defense agency called up a special committee of seven scientists, who held a meeting and then a press conference, where they stated what seismologists all know: earthquake swarms happen and we can't make much of them, we can't depend on them as a sign of a large quake to come, and the area is always prone to large earthquakes at any time—people need to stay prepared.

But the previous day, unbeknownst to them, the committee's chief had told a reporter a widely believed falsehood about earthquake faults: "The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy." When the reporter suggested that people should sit back and have a glass of vino rosso, he cheerfully agreed. That little clip, with a responsible official endorsing an urban legend, got on the news the same day as the committee's briefing.

A week later on April 6, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck L'Aquila and over 300 people died. Some of the survivors sued the committee members for causing the deaths of 29 of their loved ones. Their claim was that the official reassurances had misled the victims into staying indoors in their unsafe stone buildings instead of camping outside, as was the longtime local practice. In 2012 when the court found the L'Aquila seven guilty of 29 manslaughter counts and sentenced them to six years in prison, geoscientists around the world erupted in consternation.

This week a higher court threw out the convictions of six of the scientists and reduced the sentence for Bernardo De Bernardinis, the committee chief who made the video remarks, to two years. (The best summary I've found is by Arielle Duhaime-Ross at The Verge.)

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But aftershocks of the trial continue. Could American scientists run afoul of the same laws? One analog of earthquake forecasts is weather forecasts: Can you sue a meteorologist if, for example, your wedding is ruined by a hailstorm? We accept that you would—and should—lose in court. The science policy analyst Roger Pielke Jr. argues that the same court precedents backing up meteorologists look strong for scientific forecasting in general.

But the Italian scientists still face civil lawsuits, baseless or not. And seismologists everywhere would rather not risk any sort of court action, or even public misunderstandings that hurt people. As one of the L'Aquila seven, Giulio Selvaggi, said to Nature after his acquittal, "There is nothing to celebrate—because the pain of the people of L'Aquila remains." And even the remaining conviction of De Bernardinis sets a troubling precedent.

California seismologist Lucy Jones, who advises the city of Los Angeles, put her finger on the problem: "A technically correct prediction that is not used correctly is not a good prediction." Scientists must keep speaking up, because their advice belongs to the public. It's up to the rest of the information chain, from the press to the audience, to handle that advice with care.

News people have to double-check scientists even when time is short. They need to understand the basics of earthquake risk. Seismologists know this stuff like baseball fans know the infield-fly rule, but they have to remember that many people know nothing at all of baseball. News producers have to issue corrections promptly and repeatedly. The Italian case showed us that even one snippet of "good TV" can spread a fatally misleading error.

The court system is designed to single out one villain. The L'Aquila fiasco came about from a cascade of errors that several different parties could have interrupted. For instance, De Bernardinis could have kept his mouth shut (although a phone recording shows that his supervisor had pretty much ordered him to damp down the public panic by whatever means). The news editor could have gone with what the scientists said the next day and spiked the contradictory earlier interview.

Beyond the obvious faults that could have been fixed, there are other steps to work on. Reporters can question scientists more aggressively until they fully understand them. Scientists can rehearse and refine their remarks more thoroughly beforehand. The authorities and press can issue more emphatic corrections afterward. So there are lessons for lots of people, not just scientists who are thrust into the public eye at a time of high stress.

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In California, we have good relationships between scientists and the press. News outlets like KQED know who to call and what to ask. We're a civilized place . . . but so is Italy. And who can say how we might act after months of steady earthquakes near a major city? We need to keep our heads—experts, journalists and the general public alike—when those around us are losing theirs.

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