Jail terms rock seismology

Published in Physics World, 1 Dec 2012

Seven earthquake experts have been jailed for making apparently misleading statements before a devastating earthquake hit the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009. Jon Cartwright reports

The earthquake that struck L’Aquila in the early hours of 6 April 2009 left hundreds dead and the Italian city in ruins. Yet the jailing in October of six scientists and a government official for manslaughter, owing to their apparently misleading statements on the prospect of the catastrophe, could have an equally huge impact on the world of science.

The conviction, which concluded a trial that lasted over a year, has stunned seismologists worldwide. Last month the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth Interior (IASPEI) expressed “deepest concern” about the outcome, which had condemned “some of IASPEI’s most brilliant scientists”. The trial, the association added, had set “a disturbing and unprecedented case” in linking earthquake casualties to “the free expression of scientific opinions”.

But while the scientific community has widely denounced the verdict, some believe those convicted were at least guilty of professional foolishness. “Many of my colleagues have had a knee-jerk reaction – that it’s crazy to bring science into the criminal arena,” says Tom Heaton, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology and member of the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council. “That may well be, but I saw some of the statements that were made, that everything was fine. And all I can say is, I would attempt not to make similar statements in California.” […]

For the rest of this article, please contact Jon Cartwright for a pdf.