Six Italian seismologists and a civil servant were sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for manslaughter. For failing to predict an earthquake. The L'Aquila quake in April of 2009 killed three hundred and nine people. Could the deaths have been prevented by totally evacuating the city? Probably, but that's not something happens often, even when seismologists advise it.
There was some confusion over governmental announcements in the lead up to the disaster. I wrote about this last year. The team established to assess the risk to the city felt that while there was a threat, the on-going series of smaller seismological events meant there was a smaller chance of a large earthquake. The public announcement of these findings was carried out by a non-geologist - a public official - who interpreted the findings as relatively positive, suggesting a big quake wasn't probable. The city was not evacuated. The earthquake happened and a lot of people died.
That does not mean the geologists were wrong. Just because it happened does not mean the earthquake was statistically likely to happen. So I found it both bizarre and horrifying that the team were charged with manslaughter. All the way along I presumed the international condemnation and ridicule would make someone, somewhere along the line see sense and ensure the matter was dropped. But no. The case went to trial, in a makeshift court beside the ruined city centre (for added dramatic effect?), and geologists were given six years for manslaughter. The unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought. Because their findings were not accurate they were judged to have killed 309 people. It's ridiculous and disgraceful. Who is likely to want to offer their opinion on the likelihood of seismic activity now?