Why Seven Scientists Were Charged With Manslaughter Over an Earthquake

Matter, an online magazine with convenient time-to-read counters for the fastidious consumer, published a captivating story this morning that details an incident in L'Aquila, Italy involving seven scientists, a major earthquake, and a subsequent manslaughter case. It is worth all 24 of your minutes.

"Aftershocks," which was written by journalist David Wolman, looks at a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit L'Aquila in 2011, and the members of a committee who were charged with warning the town's residents of the forthcoming disaster. Italy's Grand Commission of High Risks is tasked with informing the public of danger to come; in this case, Italian prosecutors argued, the scientists on board shirked their responsibility and acted flippantly, not advising residents to leave their houses. "The scientific community assures me that the situation is good because of the continuous discharge of energy," one scientist was recorded saying.

The meeting, attended by seven experts, including Selvaggi and Boschi, and a handful of local officials, took just an hour and a half. Their conclusion: A major quake in the near term was unlikely. But remember, this is earthquake country: You never know. Boschi's words during the meeting would later prove pivotal. "A large earthquake along the lines of the 1703 event is improbable in the short term," he said, "but the possibility cannot definitively be excluded."

An Abruzzo official pressed the prediction question once more. "We would like to know if we have to believe those people who go around creating alarm." She was referring to the self-proclaimed expert, Giuliani. Such claims have no scientific basis, replied commission chair Franco Barbari. "The seismic sequence doesn't foretell anything, but it surely refocuses attention on the seismogenic zone where, sooner or later, a large earthquake will occur." The only thing you can do to protect people in such a place, he reminded her, is make sure structures are safe. As scientists and engineers repeat almost like a rosary: Earthquakes don't kill people; buildings kill people.

As the story points out, there's no reliable way to predict earthquakes with certainty. After the high-magnitude earthquake killed 308 people in L'Aquila in 2009, a case began to brew among locals who thought the seven scientists on commission should be held accountable for not giving warning of the damage to come, despite the murkiness of that responsibility.

In 2011, they were charged with manslaughter.

Once the shock had subsided, bodies were removed, and rubble cleared, survivors began speaking out against the commission. They insisted that it had been the reassurances of the experts that persuaded people to stay inside the night of April 5, even after the two tremors, rather than head outdoors and away from unsafe buildings.

The rest of the story you should absolutely read for yourself, and it's worth the plunge; Wolman explores not only scientific ethics but also etymology, risk management, and the often shoddy, unsubstantial Italian legal system. Should seven major, influential Italian scientists be held for six years in prison for...not speaking perhaps when they should have? Is "forecast" a more stable term than "prediction"?

[Image via Matter/Chiara Goia]