In a decision that is sending shockwaves through the earth sciences community, an Italian court has sentenced six scientists to six years in jail for failing to accurately predict an earthquake. This is an absurd and dangerous decision that US officials should rebuke, and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano should overturn.
After a few smaller earthquakes had hit the town of L’Aquila, the scientists stated that a larger earthquake was unlikely but possible, emphasising the uncertainty of their knowledge. After the earthquake hit and the scientists were put on trial, the American Geophysical Union warned that “the charges may also harm international efforts to understand natural disasters and mitigate associated risk, because risk of litigation will discourage scientists and officials from advising their government or even working in the field of seismology and seismic risk assessment.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also weighed in: “Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster… we worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.”
Imagine if the government brought criminal charges against your local meteorologist for not being able to predict the exact path of a tornado. Or took epidemiologists to court for not foreseeing the dangerous effects of a virus that hasn’t emerged. Or put wildlife biologists in jail for failing to predict a grizzly bear attack. Scientists need to be able to share what they know – and admit what they do not know – without the fear of being held criminally responsible should their predictions not hold up.
This, coming from the home country of Galileo. I guess some things never change.
Michael Halpern is program manager, scientific integrity, at the Union of Concerned Scientists