Skeptic News: Guilty of failing to predict the future?

From: Nature News and BBC News

Today a group of Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila. Twitter and the media are aflame about the decision not only to prosecute the scientists but also that they have been convicted, as many see it, of failing to predict the future.

But is that the whole story? An article from Nature News relays the concerns and grievances of the townspeople of L’Aquila.

The view from L’Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

“I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.”

It would be easy to paint this as a suit brought out of ignorance against the six scientists who failed to predict the earthquake and attempted to pacify the population. However the truth seems to be rather more complex. The people of L’Aquila aren’t seeking reparations for a failure of prediction but rather because of a failure of information provision.

There are also numerous other issues that affect this judgement. The Commissione Grandi Rischi (CGR) (major hazards commission) on L’Aqulia was followed by a press conference during which it was stated that there was no risk for the population because:

“the small earthquakes that were happening since weeks were actually releasing the energy, thus they were making a big earthquake less likely”

This statement had no scientific basis and some feel it may have inadvertently caused the death of a lot of people. Although an earthquake swarm is not a precursor to a major seismic event. In fact, there are no precursors to any major EQs that can be reliably used as predictors only events that can be correlated after the fact. There are also claims that the committee had precious information that was not passed on to citizens, for example on which buildings were most likely to collapse in the event of a strong earthquake.

Further complicating the issue is the Italian scientist who predicted a major earthquake near L’Aquila a few weeks before the quake and was alledgedly forced to remove warnings from the internet after being reported to the police. Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher at the National Physical Laboratory of Gran Sasso, based his forecast on emissions of radon gas coming from the ground in seismically active areas. Vans with loudspeakers had driven around the town a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses after Giuliani predicted the quake was about to strike.

Giuliani’s predictions were dismissed by Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy’s National Geophysics Institute:

“Every time there is an earthquake there are people who claim to have predicted it, as far as I know nobody predicted this earthquake with precision. It is not possible to predict earthquakes.”

Indeed it would seem more like “luck” that Guilianis predictions were right in this case. He was previously prosecuted for causing undue alarm by predicting a major earthquake near the town of Sulmona. He predicted the quake would occur on March 29th which it did not and was out by 68K.

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