Embattled Seismologists: Italy’s Trial and Error

Italian Scientists on trial (via cnn.com)

[Disclaimer: Since this article was written, it has come to my attention (from Guardian’s Lay Scientist[1] )that some of the information may have been misrepresented vis a vis the actual charges of the L’Aquila Earthquake trial. Which seemed to be that the Scientists predicted that it definitely won’t happen. This clearly has an implication on how you should read the article. However I still maintain that the main theme of the article which is the claim by Giampaolo Guiliani about being able to predict earthquake is a dodgy basis for judging the merits and demerits of this story. Maybe that the matter is not as black and white as my conclusion will have lead you to believe. Still it is a fascinating topic and some of the information below might be useful – flawed though it may be]

Despite what the headline says, this is NOT an ‘Amanda Knox’ article. However it  is- equally if not more – damaging for the Italian Justice system, as it emerged a few weeks ago that Scientists, some of them members of the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” (Commission for High Risks), and civil protection officials, in Italy are being put on trial [2]for manslaughter. The basis for the indictment is that these people did not provide a short-term alarm to the population after a meeting of the Commission held in L’Aquila six days before the Mw 6.3 earthquake that struck that city killing more than 300 people in April of 2009. This is indeed a bizarre and chilling development in the aftermath of a tragedy. Now, obviously, the spirit of this blog is to try to think through these things as opposed to forming a knee-jerk opinion at the outset. Although at the same time, I have to be honest and say, that it does reek of ‘Scape-goatism’.

So why do these Scientists find themselves with the threat of being in the dock? Well, a Mr Gioacchino Giuliani (who is one of the guests on that AJE program I have linked to above)  has had quite an impact on this story. There was an article [3] on Bad Science last year which dealt with his role in all of this.

Gioacchino Giuliani is a laboratory technician who became convinced that he was able to predict earthquakes by measuring the emission of radon from the ground. He ignored the doubts of seismologists – he has never published his theories or evidence in an academic journal – and invested in several measuring devices to let him make his predictions.

Shortly before the earthquake struck, Giuliani became convinced something serious was coming. He began desperately trying to warn the public, even posting a video on YouTube explaining his theory, and warning people to evacuate their houses urgently. Vans loaded with loudspeakers were driven around the town to spread the warning. Giuliani tried in vain to persuade the mayor that he was right.

But they did not heed this warning: instead, the local government reported him to the police for spreading unnecessary panic and alarm, forced him to remove his warnings from the internet, and forbade him from telling anyone anything about the coming earthquake.

In reality, of course, Giuliani made a lucky guess (and he was out by 55km). Nothing has changed, and there is still no reliable or validated way to predict an earthquake. Because of this, seismologists around the world are united in explaining that the best way to protect your population is not through an impossible early warning system, but rather by investing in preparedness, to mitigate against the damage done by one rare,unpredictable, horrific outcome.

The most important thing to remember is that this guy didn’t go to any scientific journals etc to get his methods peer reviewed. He basically didn’t subject his ideas to the Scientific test. He circumvented that scientific infrastructure and went straight to the press. His initial arrest for doing so was indeed unfortunate. But it shouldn’t detract from the fact that what he essentially did is the standard quack thing. Going to the press and whipping up hysteria about how there is a ‘conspiracy’ by the scientists to keep the genuine earthquake detecting mechanism secret (presumably because they have secretly bought stalks in tents and amenities and they will have an absolute boon after the earthquake or something equally ludicrous) This is a tell-tail sign of bullshittery and is the preserve of AIDs denial-ists, Anti Vaxers, Climate-Denialists and others (As hopefully you will no doubt come across in the future). The key thing in all of this is whether his methods on predicting earthquake were accurate or not? And of course – due to his own actions – we are none the wiser.

Giampaolo Guiliani: Earthquake Predictor

Following that, the narrative of the story now became ‘Scientist withhold/or are negligent about information in L’Aquila earthquake’. And so  they must now face the music. They must bare the responsibility for essentially not being able to predict exactly where the earthquake struck. (Never mind the radon-guy who was also off by 50 km) It is absolutely absurd especially in an age where Science in the public domain is often viewed with suspicion and cynicism. Yet at the same time, the margin of error they have to abide by is almost minuscule. Does this rule apply to journalists when they get things wrong? Or Politicians and government officials? There are plenty of holes in this narrative but in post-tragedy hysteria filled environment, critical thinking tends to be  in short supply

One cant help but be frightened by the air of cynicism involved in all of this. It is actually a Planning and Regulations failure on the part of the authorities. How can you prosecute Seismologists when there is no reliable way of predicting earthquakes anywhere in the world. There is however risk-evaluations that can be done and after that its the authorities that have the final responsibility. Besides if you want your scientists to submit over-precautionary findings than you’ve contaminated the process anyways. It is prejudiced and the results of findings will likely be skewed by that prejudice rendering it scientifically unreliable – and that rather defeats the entire purpose

People will say this is  Italy and therefore one must take everything that comes out of that country with a pinch of salt. But actually this a very widespread problem. It will create a chilling effect for not only Italian Scientists (who make great contributions lets not forget) but also scientists elsewhere, who will now think twice about publishing findings pertaining to the public domain/interest because it is too risky for them personally. And that will be to the detriment of everyone as they are the most reliable source of establishing ‘facts’ about that public interest. Big companies are already in the process of contaminating and prejudicing the peer-review system all around the word (Yes the British Libel laws will come in for a kicking on this blog, you can be sure of that). The press – for their part – try to sensationalize stories which – on closer examination – are no more than irresponsible conjecture. The end result of it all, is messy hodge-podge situation where the only casualty (apart from the victims of course) is the Science and our ability to truly tell the hows and the wheres of the forces of nature.

You can join the protest against this case by clicking on this link [4].


This entry was posted in Law, Media & Journalism, Science & Law, Science and Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Embattled Seismologists: Italy’s Trial and Error

  1. I find it hard to be leave that radon gas levels would change before an earthquake, the decay of radon is normally a steady process.

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