Science, Society

Unpredictability on Trial

L'Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment's office...

L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment’s office disrupted by the 2009 earthquake (’Aquila_earthquake ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week six scientists and an ex-official were convicted of manslaughter in Italy because, it was said, they had given misleading and falsely reassuring advice to government officials.  Following a tremor in the L’Aquila area in 2009 scientists told officials that a further quake was not impossible but not likely.  In this region people would usually stay outside following a smaller quake but taking the advice as meaning they were safe many went home and when a larger quake occurred many were tragically killed.

Scientists have been trying to find some pattern, some definite precursor effect that will indicate an imminent earthquake for decades but aside from the theory that earthquakes can process along fault lines as movement during one can move the geological stress further along the ability to say when one will occur still eludes them – therefore the best they can say is that one may occur.

The Fortean literature is full of stories of Earthlights – small balls of glowing plasma – floating over fault lines and animals leaving the immediate area in the hours before quakes but again these effects haven’t been documented or proven.

If the authorities had said “there is a possibility that this smaller quake could lead to a massively destructive one” and evacuated every time there was a quake in a seizmologically active area it would cause chaos and cost a fortune, and how long do you tell people to stay away?  A follow-up quake could happen the day everyone returns.

The L’Aquila verdict will have an effect on science, as many are already saying; the journal Nature called the verdict “perverse and the sentence ludicrous” and called for protests, and the head of Italy’s disaster body has resigned stating that the commission could not work under such pressure in the future.  It will make scientists more weary about telling anyone about their discoveries, or offering any advice at all just in case one time something goes wrong.

[BBC News Magazine, BBC News, BBC News]