Earthquake experts aghast by court ruling against Italian scientists

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Italian earthquake verdict

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There is tremendous blacklash today following the conviction of six scientists in Italy. Yesterday, an Italian court convicted them on manslaughter charges for failing to predict the deadly earthquake that devastated the city of L’Aquila. Today, earthquake experts around the world are saying they’re appalled by the ruling. Many also say it could severely harm future scientific research.

The court in L’Aquila sentenced the scientists and a government official Monday to six years in prison — ruling that they didn’t accurately communicate the risk of the earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people.

Much of the trial focused on a meeting that took place one week before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck. At the meeting, the experts determined that it was “unlikely” but not impossible that a major quake would take place, despite concern among the city’s residents over recent seismic activity.

Prosecutors reportedly said the defendants provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers” facing L’Aquila.

The six scientists convicted are from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and also the Civil Protection Agency.

CNN reports that seismologists around the world are aghast at the court’s decision, noting that earthquakes remain impossible to forecast with any kind of accuracy.

“To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes, and to advise the local population to flee” would constitute “both bad science and bad public policy,” said David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside, in a statement to CNN. “If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don’t pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future.”

Meanwhile, CNN notes that Roger Musson, the head of seismic hazard and archives at the British Geological Survey, echoed that feeling in a comment published on the organization’s Twitter feed.

“It’s chilling that people can be jailed for giving a scientific opinion in the line of their work,” he said.

Comments from one of the defendants — Enzo Boschi, the former president of the INGV — suggested the scientists were shell-shocked by their conviction.

“I’m dejected, despairing. I still don’t understand what I’m accused of,” Boschi said after the ruling, according to ANSA, Italy’s official news agency.

Boschi and the six others convicted Monday will reportedly remain free during the appeal process.

Immediately after the verdict, the Italian geophysics institute expressed “regret and concern”. It said the ruling “threatens to undermine one of the cornerstones of scientific research: that of freedom of investigation, of open and transparent discussion and sharing of results.”

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