Italian Scientists Convicted

Remarkably, six Italian scientists (and a government official) were convicted of multiple manslaughter and sentenced to six years in jail. The offense? Failing to predict a massive earthquake that leveled the town of L’Aquila in 2009, killing 309 people, injuring about 1,000, and leaving around 40,000 homeless. Additionally, the scientists were ordered to pay approximately $12 million in damages to survivors.

The scientists, some of Italy’s expert seismologists and members of the Major Risks Committee, were called upon to assess seismic activity after a series of small tremors alarmed the community. Ultimately, in a press release, it was announced that the tremors posed no significant threat, in part because the tremors signified a “continuous discharge of energy.” The 6.3 magnitude quake hit just days later.

The charges against the seismologists alone infuriated a significant portion of the scientific community, and over 5,000 members wrote to President Giorgio Napolitano to protest having the scientists stand trial for their inability to predict the natural phenomenon. Those opposed to the verdict liken this debacle to a witch hunt, declaring it to be scape goating akin to that from “medieval criminal law.” The scientists have two opportunities to appeal the decision.

This case raises the question of the role of law within the realm of science. The scientific community is pretty well self-regulated due to high ethical and reputational standards. With that in mind, at what point is it necessary to put science on trial? Does it even make sense to hold scientists responsible for failing to predict an Act of God, which conveys unpredictability by its very name? Further, how do we define what constitutes culpability in cases like this, in which the scientific determination is made from a multitude of variables and is based in theory? To the extent that it may be reasonable to put scientists on trial for this sort of thing, the threshold clearly needs to be set high in order to protect the scientific community from frivolous lawsuits and to encourage members to share their knowledge with the world without fear of legal repercussion.

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