It should come as no surprise that I think that this is the right result:
Six seismologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on 10 November. An appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them.
We’ll have to wait for the verdict to be published before we’ll know the reasoning that led the appeals court to overturn the original verdict, which was a little bit unexpected given the somewhat pessimistic accounts of how the appeal was proceeding last month. There is also still the prospect of a further appeal. For the moment, however, the scientific community can breath a sigh of relief: there is no longer a legal precedent for being prosecuted for failing to predict the unpredictable.
However, although the manslaughter charge was always senseless, as David Wolman’s compelling account makes clear, there are still some hard lessons to be learnt from this tragic affair. I’ve argued before that a lot of harm comes from the whole mistaken idea that earthquake risk assessments can be given and adjusted in real-time, but the way this specific situation was handled at the time was also wanting, in ways I may have been slow to appreciate.
A few weeks ago, I discussed the L’Aquila story with my class. After a lively ‘mock trial’, the consensus in the room seemed to settle on the following points:
- It wasn’t manslaughter.
- Bernardo De Bernardinis’ statement about there being “no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” was…not clever.
- The rest of the scientists on the Serious Risk Commission abdicated their responsibilities by not talking to the public in L’Aquila themselves, effectively leaving De Bernardinis’ misguided statement as the official line.
I’ve been contemplating that last point ever since, because there does appear to be a critical mismatch between what was said behind closed doors, and what the public heard. The scientists on the Serious Risk Commission would probably argue that their responsibility began and ended with the former: the government asked for their opinion, and they gave it. The latter – what was ultimately done with that advice – was outside of their area of responsibility. But the very act of meeting in March 2009 – being flown down to L’Aquila to do so – was part of a government PR operation designed to calm a troubled populace. Considering that context, did the members of the Serious Risk Commission not have a further duty to ensure that the ‘be calm’ message did not go too far?
Earthquakes remain unpredictable: the close timing of the Italian authorities’ media blitz and a major earthquake remains a tragic and unforeseeable coincidence. It may not have made much difference, but this disconnect between what was said and what was made known might explain much of the anger still felt by people in the region, particularly by the families of the more than 300 people who were killed.