Almost 400 years after Galileo was jailed for his groundbreaking observations of a heliocentric universe, the Italian courts seem to be up to their old tricks again, now persecuting nationally recognized scientists for something completely out of their control.
Late last month, an Italian court convicted six scientists and one ex-government official of manslaughter for giving what the court described as a “falsely reassuring statement” in advance of an earthquake that killed 309 people in the ancient town of L’Aquila, Italy. The conviction holds a six-year jail term and requires the payment of $10.2 million in court costs and damages.
One of the scientists convicted, Claudio Eva, called the ruling “medieval”—and he was right on target. Not since the 1500s has there been such an obvious, disappointing, anti-science proclamation that holds such far-reaching implications.
The most concerning effect of the ruling lies in the possible—no probable—“chilling effect” it can have on researchers. In fact, it has already begun. Four top Italian disaster experts quit their posts a day after the ruling, saying the convictions mean they can’t effectively perform their duties. And who’s to say more won’t follow suit? The trial, conviction and sentence are so absurd that it puts us in danger of living in a world where even the most intelligent experts are afraid to speak up for fear of punishment. You can’t get much more medieval than that.
As the story goes, the town of L’Aquila, which sits on a major fault line, had been struck by a series of small-magnitude earthquakes. Because of this, the Italian government organized a risk-assessment committee, in which the earlier-mentioned scientists concluded that it was “unlikely” for a major earthquake to hit, although none of them completely dismissed the possibility of a big quake, according to minutes from the meeting obtained by the journal Nature. A week later, a 6.3 magnitude quake hit the town, killing 309 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
It is the “unlikely” statement that prosecutors latched on to in an attempt to validate their point. The prosecutors alleged the scientists gave “inexact and incomplete” information to falsely assure the villagers of their safety. But how could information relating to the prediction of an earthquake be anything but inexact? It’s impossible for researchers to give “exact and complete” information about risk if the science is inconclusive at best. The technology just does not exist yet. Alan Leshner, the CEO and executive publisher of the journal Science wrote in a letter to the Italian President, “Years of research have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can reliably warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable.”
Additionally, many have noted that the court case failed to address one, if not the, most major cause of fatalities: building collapses. In the reporting after the quake, many questions were raised about the failure of building codes and the prior willingness to erect structures on earthquake-prone land without proper tools, techniques or materials. Many experts estimate the damage would not have been so bad if the buildings were constructed or retrofitted to meet current standards. Thomas Braun, a German scientist at Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, said “homes built according to the regulations should have been able to withstand [the quake],” even though the intensity surprised everyone.
The next step is to wait for the judge’s explanation of the sentencing—a sentencing in which prosecutors asked for four years, but the judge, a local L’Aquila resident, bumped up to six. The explanation is expected 90 days from conviction.
In the meantime, I’m sure Galileo is rolling over in his grave, grieving the death of the revolution he helped bring about four centuries ago.