Science and Italian justice

Being a scientist in Italy became considerably more dangerous this week, thanks to a judicial decision that seems more like something out of the Dark Ages, not a 21st century judicial system in the country where the Renaissance began.

A court in L’Aquila, Italy, on Monday handed down six-year prison sentences to seven scientists for failing to adequately predict an earthquake that occurred in central Italy in 2009. The quake killed more than 300 people, and the scientists in question were members of a national “Great Risks Commission.” They are blamed for not providing sufficient warning to people in the quake zone.

That’s serious nonsense, of course. While scientists can give a clear explanation for why earthquakes happen, there is no way to predict when and where a quake will occur.

Scientists across the globe denounced the trial of the seven scientists. A spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey last year compared the trial to a witch hunt, one of the few times when that over-used expression was actually appropriate.

The Italian court might just as well have convicted every fortuneteller, crystal-ball glazer and tea-leaf reader who failed to predict the earthquake. They had as much chance of doing so as any scientist in the world.

The sentence against the scientists must be automatically re-examined in an appeals court trial. Here’s hoping others in Italy’s judicial system have a better understanding of how science works than the jurists in L’Aquila.


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