Thursday, October 25, 2012

L’Aquila verdict - Conviction or Witch-hunt?

Port au Prince Haiti, after 2010 earth quake
Envisaging future incidents were always a fascination for humans. From parrot on the road side, Mayan calendars to modern scientific equipments showcase this basic yearning of humanity.

How far we were successful in this quest is a matter of debate. In many areas, we can successfully forecast future course of events - next eclipse, trail of a hurricane, speed of winds, climate, trajectory of a rocket, meteors etc. In many domains we are still infants.

In such circumstances, recent Italian (City: L’Aquila) court verdict raises certain challenges in front of us. Before going further, let’s take a glimpse at an NYT piece about the verdict,

"Seven prominent Italian earthquake experts were convicted of manslaughter on Monday and sentenced to six years in prison for failing to give adequate warning to the residents of a seismically active area in the months preceding an earthquake that killed more than 300 people"
"....The defendants...will also have to pay court costs and damages of $10.2 million..."
"...The seven, most of them seismologists and geologists, were members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, which met shortly before the quake struck — after weeks of frequent small tremors — but did not issue a safety warning...Lawyers for the defendants were unanimous on Monday in their condemnation of the sentence, which exceeded the prosecution’s request of four years in prison, and vowed to appeal..." - NYT

1. The predominant question here is, is it possible to foresee an earthquake?
As far as I know, we can't.

2. Did scientists failed in doing their duty?
According to the reports, they didn't announce any warnings. But, did they have adequate scientific evidence for issuing a warning? I am not sure about this.

3. Will this verdict advance the quality of scientific predictions?
2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
I don't think so; climate models and other scientific models will definitely progress in the future. But, this verdict may provide little contribution in that. May be scientists will play safe in future; they may start issuing ambiguous warnings.

4. Another question here is about the qualifications of judge to deliver verdict in this particular case without the backing of a technical panel report.

The judgement is not based on any evidence procured by a professional investigation team of experts in the said locale (Please correct me, if I am wrong here).


In the absence of a proper technology to predict realistically about future earthquakes, Tsunamis etc it may not be advisable to give such lengthy sentences to scientists. At the same time, it is interesting to see that, people started believing more in the competence of scientific potential.



1. New York Times

Photocourtesy: Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment