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Science on Trial

An Italian judge convicted six scientists and a government official yesterday of manslaughter for their roles in incorrectly assessing the risk of a 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people in the Italian province of L'Aquila.

The judged sentenced the seven to six years in prison, which, as Nature notes, is two years more than the public prosecutor, Fabio Picuti, requested.

The question on most minds, however, isn't why the sentence was so harsh, but how a judge could convict scientists for such a thing in the first place.

As the Nature editorial observes, the seven weren't technically on trial for failing to "predict" the earthquake but rather for, in the words of the court, "providing an assessment of the risks that was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken." Still, this seems to be beside the larger point that earthquake risk assessment remains a far from exact science and that convicting people of manslaughter for getting it wrong might not be the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, there are those defending, if not the verdicts, then at least the notion that the seven were to an extent culpable. Writing at Scientific American, consultant and author David Ropeik argues that the convictions were not about science but "about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have as citizens to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices."

In an article for Forbes, science writer Emily Willingham suggests, however, that if the courts really need someone to blame for the tragedy, they'd perhaps be better off going after the Italian government itself. Citing a post-quake evaluation, she notes that the government "showed little interest in evaluating the post-disaster situation for a better response to future quakes and had a record of repeating past mistakes."

"Scientists can neither predict earthquakes accurately nor prevent them," Willingham writes. "But governments can take steps to shore up infrastructure, particularly in earthquake-prone areas like L'Aquila, to prevent or minimize loss of life in future earthquakes. Along with a government insouciance about post-disaster lessons, that infrastructure reinforcement to reduce quake mortality might have been AWOL in L'Aquila, too."

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