Yesterday, 6 Italian seismologists and 1 public official were jailed for the actions in lead-up to the L'Aquila earthquake that killed 309 people in 2009.
This is a hugely alarming decision, and one is immediately put in mind of medieval witch-trials, where some old woman could always be blamed for the latest crop failure/flood/natural disaster and punished for it.
The legal implications could also be significant. What scientist would now ever want to make any public pronouncements about anything pertaining to public safety? If I were an Italian volcanologist, epidemiologist, or weather-forecaster, I'd be very worried about the legal precedent that has now been set. As everyone on twitter was quick to point out, Michael Fish must be very glad that he's not Italian.
Of course, in a case as important as this, it's worth going into detail about what actually happened. A week before the earthquake happened, a series of smaller quakes occurred across the area. The 'Committee for Major Risks' was convened to assess the seismic risk. The 6 seismologists themselves did not speak to the public, but the government official on the panel (who was not a seismologist) was interviewed by the press after the meeting, and he said there was little risk of a large earthquake, that the tremors were in fact releasing accumulated strain energy, reducing the probability of a large quake. Rather famously, he said that people should relax with a glass of the local multipulciano.
One week later, the quake struck, the old stone buildings of L'Aquila collapsed, and 309 people were killed by falling masonry.
There is obviously a huge amount of emotional anguish associated with the case: 309 people died and many many more lost their homes and possessions. In such a situation, it is human nature to want to blame someone and to see them punished: medieval witch trials happened for a reason after all. A a species we're not very good at accepting acts of god - somebody must be to blame. And it's very clear when you read the statements of those who lost loved ones in the quake that they are glad that these scientists have received such lengthy custodial sentences.
But lets examine these events from a seismological perspective. It is well established that seismic predictions are pretty much impossible. What the (non-seismologist) official told the public was in essence correct: often small seismic events do release strain energy. If you take the San Andreas fault as an example, there are creeping sections where small-scale seismic activity occurs regularly, and these sections rarely experience the larger quakes, and then there are the 'locked' section, where little seismicity is occurring, where it is most likely that the next 'big one' will occur. Sometimes, large earthquakes are preceded by a swarm of smaller ones.
So, what the official should have said is: the risk of an earthquake is no higher that it usually is (which is still appreciable, because you are living in central Italy, which is a seismically active area). But there is no evidence for an increased risk. This is probably the most scientifically accurate description of the situation. I guess that's where the miscommunication has happened, where no increased risk became 'no risk, have a glass of wine'.
But what where the alternatives for the committee? To suggest an evacuation? Based on the available evidence, this would have been an irresponsible decision to take. Evacuations can be extremely costly, both economically (as everyone leaves their jobs for weeks), as well as to human health as the risks to the old and frail of moving thousands of humans from their homes into temporary shelters for what could end up being weeks. And a key thing to bear in mind with evacuations, is at what point do you allow people back to their homes? With something like a volcano, it's obvious that once the volcano has either erupted or died back down again, then you can let people back.
But with an earthquake, there would be no evidence to say that people could have returned. Bear in mind that the quake happened a week after the committee met. Had they ordered the evacuation that day, do they really think people would still have been happily waiting it out in tents outside town 7 days later with no large event appearing to happen?
What else could they have done? Reminded everyone of what to do in the event of an earthquake (hit the deck, get away from buildings if you can, get under a table or doorway if you can't. Avoid anything glass. Watch out for falling objects/masonry. Sure, that would be helpful, although really this should be happening all the time in an area with high earthquake risk. But would this have helped the 309 people at L'Aquila? These people died because the buildings they were in collapsed. The majority of the buildings were old, stone structures with little or no re-inforcement: they were a disaster waiting to happen. If anyone is to be blamed for the deaths at L'Aquila, it is whoever failed to ensure that building standards were enacted/enforced. It would have been a very expensive operation to retro-fit all these medieval buildings, but this would have been the only way to save the lives of these 309 people.
Instead, blaming and imprisoning these seismologists sends entirely the wrong message. It solves no problem: public understanding of risk is not improved, while the science of risk assessment, or least the likelihood of scientists even attempting to communicate this to the public, may be severely damaged.