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Scientists go on trial next week for failure to predict earthquake

Next week six scientists and an official go on trial in Italy for manslaughter over the earthquake in L'Aquila that killed 309 people two years ago.

This extraordinary case has attracted international attention because science itself seemed to be on trial, with the seven defendants apparently charged for failing to predict the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck on the night of 6 April 2009.

Scientists cannot yet say when an earthquake is going to happen with any precision, even in a seismically active zone. And over 5,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter supporting those on trial.

Yet the lawyer for one of the scientists, in an interview with Newsnight, said it is possible his client will be convicted:

"I'm afraid that like an earthquake, nothing in this case is predictable. Let's not forget, this trial is happening in L'Aquila, where the entire population has been personally affected, and awaiting a sentence that should not happen, but could happen," Marcello Milandri said.

Seismologists can assess only the probability that a quake may happen, and then with a large degree of uncertainty about its properties.

In some circumstances, they may be able to say that the likelihood of an event has gone up, to help authorities prepare for an emergency, perhaps by concentrating on particularly vulnerable buildings or sectors of the population, such as school-children.

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TAGGED: IRRATIONALITY


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