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Italian Scientists Convicted of Manslaughter -- but for What?

Isn't all earthquake prediction going to be incomplete and inexact, if not always contradictory? Weather forecasting is also inexact, incomplete, and contradictory, but we don't jail forecasters when a hurricane veers of its predicted path.
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The conviction of seven people -- six Italian scientists and a government official -- on criminal charges has provoked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

The seven, all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were sentenced to six years in prison "for failing to give adequate warning to the residents of a seismically active area in the months preceding an earthquake that killed more than 300 people," Elisabetta Povoledo and Henry Fountain reported in the New York Times.

Despite being on the road, Andrew C. Revkin compiled all the links you need to get started on this story in a post at his Dot Earth blog at the Times. For background on the trial, he links to a long piece written last year by Stephen S. Hall at Nature, which thoroughly explored the positions of the major players in this story. Hall leads with an anecdote about a resident of L'Aquila, Vincenzo Vittorini, who persuaded his wife and daughter, who were fearful of a big quake, to remain in their apartment on April 5, 2009. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city that night, and the apartment building collapsed. Vittorini was pulled from the rubble after six hours. His wife and daughter were killed.

Hall pointed out that while scientists protested that the seven faced charges for failing to predict the earthquake, the issue is more complicated than that. In L'Aquila, Hall reported, "Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population." (I can't help but wonder whether this story was initially written for the Times Magazine, where Hall once worked. If so, the Times editors missed a bet by not running it.)

In a story published in the Times last October, during the trial, Henry Fountain made the same distinction between earthquake prediction and risk communication. The trial, he wrote, "focused attention on a vexing problem in earthquake-prone regions around the world: how to effectively communicate the risk of potential disaster. Whatever the merits of the L’Aquila case, scientists and government officials have difficulty conveying what they know about the risk of earthquakes in ways that help prepare the public without sowing panic."

Revkin raised a different question when the trial began, and he repeated it in his most recent post. In the reporting after the quake, much was made of the failure of building codes -- and possibly corrupt inspectors -- to protect the population of L'Aquila. "How many inspectors or builders or officials who approved inadequate building codes were prosecuted?" he asks.

The coverage is confusing, however, on whether the seven individuals were charged for failing to predict the earthquake or failing to properly communicate the risk.

The story by The Telegraph says they were convicted for failing to provide a proper assessment of the risks -- not for failing to communicate them. But is "assessment" the newspaper's word, or the language in the indictment? The story by Barbie Latza Nadeau at The Daily Beast puts the word "assessment" in quotes, writing that the seven were found "guilty of multiple manslaughter and abetting grave injury for 'providing an assessment of the risks that was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken.'” That suggests that the conviction was for failing to predict the earthquake -- not for failing to communicate the risks.

The BBC's report suggests that the truth was muddied by the prosecution and the defense. "Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defense maintained there was no way to predict major quakes," the BBC wrote. Prosecutors were pointing at poor risk communication, in other words, and the defense at the difficulty of earthquake prediction.

Annalisa Camilli and Frances D'Emilio of the Associated Press led with this: "Defying assertions that earthquakes cannot be predicted, an Italian court on Monday convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter for failing to adequately warn residents before a temblor struck central Italy in 2009 and killed more than 300 people."

That commingles earthquake prediction and communication of risk.

David Ropeik at the Scientific American blog network gives us a good analysis of the distinction between predicting earthquakes and communicating the risk -- and concludes that this was about risk communication, a topic that Ropeik has written widely about. The defendants were accused, he writes, of giving "inexact, incomplete, and contradictory information" about "whether small tremors prior to the April 6 quake should have constituted grounds for a warning."

That seems to me to, once again, commingle the two. It's difficult to ask researchers to give "exact and complete" information about risk if the science is inconclusive about whether small quakes can lead to a big one. Isn't all earthquake prediction going to be incomplete and inexact, if not always contradictory? Weather forecasting is also inexact, incomplete, and contradictory, but we don't jail forecasters when a hurricane veers of its predicted path.

I haven't seen the indictment, and my Italian isn't what it should be, but the coverage was unclear on the distinction between earthquake prediction and risk communication. Maybe that's because the coverage was imprecise; or maybe it's because the lawyers were.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

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