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Scientists on trial for not being alarmists

I noticed this news story the other day:


"Italian government officials have accused the country's top seismologist of manslaughter, after failing to predict a natural disaster that struck Italy in 2009, a massive devastating earthquake that killed 308 people.

A shocked spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) likened the accusations to a witch hunt.

"It has a medieval flavor to it -- like witches are being put on trial," the stunned spokesman told

Enzo Boschi, the president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), will face trial along with six other scientists and technicians, after failing to predict the future and the impending disaster.

Earthquakes are, of course, nearly impossible to predict, seismologists say. In fact, according to the website for the USGS, no major quake has ever been predicted successfully.

"Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake," reads a statement posted on the USGS website. "They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.""

I think the Italian government officials have got an unrealistic expectation of what seismology can currently do. They may be being influenced by all the amateur scientist earthquake predictors that you get on Usenet and other internet message boards. Recently Piers Corbyn, the British AGW sceptic and long range weather forecaster, has thrown his hat into the ring and started making earthquake activity predictions. Add to this the strong tendency for today's scientists in many fields to be alarmist and even doomsters, and you could get government officials making the assumption that seismologists are capable of providing realistic major earthquake warnings but are just dragging their feet.

Seismologists are an interesting bunch of scientists. Their attitude is that they just collect data, and slowly advance the state of knowledge with a long-term aim of eventually being able to predict that an earthquake will occur at some location. They're on the opposite end of the alarmism and attention-seeking scale to climate scientists.

I remember back in October 2002 there was a series of about a hundred small earthquakes under the city of Manchester in England. The advice from the British Geological Survey (BGS) to the UK Government was basically 'don't worry, it'll just go away', and that advice turned out to be correct. Any other bunch of scientists might have exploited the incident to increase their funding and influence.

Another story I've heard about BGS is that in the late 1980s there was an exercise to cut UK government spending where John Major (who became prime minister a few years later) was looking for quango-type organisations to get rid of. BGS had such a low profile that when Major asked civil servants what BGS did, nobody knew, and it was lined up as a candidate for the axe, but eventually it was retained.

Re: Scientists on trial for not being alarmists

Too bad he didn't predict every day that there would be an earthquake. Then he would be off the hook!

Re: Scientists on trial for not being alarmists

I looked for more details of the background to the forthcoming trial of the Italian seismologists. It looks like the whole situation has been precipitated by an amateur earthquake investigator called Giampaolo Giuliani, a lab technician at the nearby Gran Sasso particle physics laboratory. This Wikipedia page about the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake gives details, the relevant bit being the section on "Prior Warning Controversy":'Aquila_earthquake

"Italian laboratory technician Giampaolo Giuliani predicted a major earthquake on Italian television a month before, after measuring increased levels of radon emitted from the ground. He was accused of being alarmist by the Director of the Civil Defence, Guido Bertolaso, and forced to remove his findings from the Internet (old data and descriptions are still on line). He was also reported to police a week before the main quake for "causing fear" among the local population when he predicted an earthquake was imminent in Sulmona, about 50 km (31 mi) from L'Aquila, on 30 March, after a 4° quake happened, (later Sulmona only suffered minor damages by the 6 April earthquake). Enzo Boschi, the head of the Italian National Geophysics Institute declared: "Every time there is an earthquake there are people who claim to have predicted it. As far as I know nobody predicted this earthquake with precision. It is not possible to predict earthquakes." Predicting earthquakes based on radon emissions has been studied by scientists since the 1970s, but enthusiasm for it had faded due to inconsistent results. In December 2009, Giuliani presented his research, without many important details, to the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco; the union subsequently invited him to take part in developing a worldwide seismic early warning system. On his return home, the Italian authorities lifted the gagging injunctions against his predictions.

More recently, Italian geologists and officials have been indicted for manslaughter for not predicting the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake."

It looks like Giuliani has detected a supposed earthquake precursor signal (increased amounts of radon gas coming out of the ground), raised the alarm and caused something of a panic, and the professional seismologists have then played his prediction down and advised people not to evacuate the area, but have been subsequently caught out by Giuliani's prediction turning out to be more successful than these sort of predictions usually are (though Giuliani did forecast the earthquake to occur a week earlier than the actual event and at a different location 30 miles away). Another complication is that Giuliani was often described in media reports as being a seismologist, making it look as though rival factions of seismologists were at loggerheads.

There are quite a few of these precursor signals which have been observed to occur before some earthquakes but not all, like radon gas coming out of the ground, strange lights in the sky, strange animal behaviour, a series of small earthquakes (foreshocks), ground water levels suddenly changing, and some other atmospheric effects noticed by satellites. The signals are generally regarded as too unreliable and inconsistent for use in advising people to evacuate an area.

Seismology is almost the exact opposite of climate science. In seismology, amateur citizen-scientists are shouting "Fire!" with the professionals trying to calm things down, whereas in climate science it's the so-called professionals who are shouting "Fire!" and the amateur citizen-scientists who are tring to calm things down.

An interesting exercise is to try to apply the Green idea of the precautionary principle to seismology, which I think might be the direction that the Italian prosecutors in the forthcoming trial may be coming from. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit definition of the precautionary principle is: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." Seismologists suffer from lack of scientific certainty in regard to predicting earthquakes, but if you slap the precautionary principle idea on their subject the lack of certainty would not be a valid excuse for not taking some sort of action. Arguably they would have to take account of the supposed precursor signals to issue warnings even if this leads to loads of false alarms. So one of the effects of this trial might be to turn seismology in Italy into junk science.

Re: Scientists on trial for not being alarmists

Here are my earthquake predictions, in case anyone plans to sue me (for tangential interest, I experienced the entire Manchester swarm first-hand as I lived very close to the cluster epicentre and spent most of my postdoctoral career in Italy.)

- In the next year there will be, globally, at least one event with a median global return period of 1 year.

- California is gonna get a big one some time in the next 100 years, which might kill about a dozen people.

- Italy or Turkey is going to lose at least one more historic city in the next decade. Who knows when.

- Within the next 200 years there is a 50/50 probability of seeing at least one earthquake with a magnitude greater than any recorded anywhere before.

- Sometime in the next 2 years, somewhere that doesn't usually get earthquakes at all will get a Magnitude >5.0.

- Over the next 100 years, somewhere that is used to lots of big earthquakes (like Japan) will experience fewer and smaller than average earthquakes.

- With time, the economic cost of earthquakes (as with hurricanes) will rise, as the value of stuff that could be damaged or destroyed by earthquakes (as with hurricanes) rises.

- Lots of greenies will shout that something has to be done about Man Made Earthquake Behaviour, because of the economic costs imposed (don't laugh, we are already told that shale gas fracking is bad because it increases earthquake risk). Their proposed solution will be to consciously reduce the economic value of everything, thus reducing the economic cost of earthquakes.

- Every single major earthquake will have been predicted by at least one seer, shaman, religious nutter, psychic octopus, or crank in a shed with a new earthquake detection device. The 10,000 failed predictions for each correct prediction will not be reported.

Re: Scientists convicted for not being alarmists

It's worth updating this thread as the trial is now over, and the seven Italian scientists from the "National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks" have all been found guilty. They've been sentenced to six years in prison (the prosecution actually only asked for four years), given lifetime bans from holding public office and ordered to pay compensation of £6.4 million.


Various reactions to the verdict include:

"But the sentences are expected to cause uproar among scientists worldwide. Several international bodies had warned that a guilty verdict could deter scientists from advising governments in future.

Enzo Boschi, the former president of Italy's National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology, said he was "dejected and in despair". He said he had been convinced that he would be acquitted, "because I have never reassured anyone. I defy anyone to find in writing or speech, on television or elsewhere a reassurance by me concerning the Aquila earthquake."

Luciano Maiani, the incumbent president of the Major Risks Commission, said the verdict marked "the death of the services provided to the state by professors and professionals. It is impossible to supply the state with advice in a professional and composed way under this crazy judicial and media pressure. This does not happen in any other country in the world.""

Re: Scientists convicted for not being alarmists

I was shocked by the verdict and the sentances.
This is a "****ed if they do and ****ed if they don't" scenario.
It presumes that earthquake prediction is far more advanced and reliable than is the case (and we can say the same for volcanic eruptions maybe).
AT best scientists can present statistical evidence that an earthquake is due or not within a period but whether it occurs or not in that period is in the lap of the gods.

To be of any value when predicting earthquakes or volcanic eruptions it is necessary to be able to advise pretty precisely the time at which it will occur and some reasonable forecast of the magnitude. It is also necessary for such predictions to demonstrate a degree of confidence entirely lacking in today's state of play.
It is tempting to refer to the failure to predict the event as a sort of "Jaws" scenario but in that case the Great white did exist and was eating tourists.
With earthquakes and volcanoes there is no such certainty.

Imagine that the scientists had predicted the event and given an assessment of the magnitude and time.
The authorities could then evacuate everyone, set up an exclusion zone to prevent looters etc moving in.
They then have to accomodate these people and feed them.
But the time arrives and there is no earthquake. Do they now continue to maintain the evacuees in their camps indefinitely?
And what if instead of a 6.1 they get a mere tremble? No damage to property. Maybe a chimney pot falling.
AT what point do they decide to let everyone return home?
Who will compensate all the shop keepers for spoiled stock and loss of income?

I'm pretty sure a failed prediction or a prediction which misses both the magnitude and the timing by any significant amount would find themselves equally held to blame.

But this action ensures that no one will want to indulge in earthquake prediction in Italy ever again even wif the ability to make such predictions improves radically. Not even the amateur "seismologist" with his radon gas based prediction would want to continue making such predictions if he could face a significant period in jail.

I am rather surprised that this case was brought at all.
I would not expect any official or scientist (apart from warmers) who would be so prepared to stake their professional standing on making any sort of hard and fast predictions at all and the more circumspect the prediction the less value it is.

On the other hand, I wouldn't advise Michael Mann or STeve Jones to plan on visiting Italy since the damage they are causing is far and above the damage and loss of life in this case. Actually, let me rephrase that. I recommend to them that Italy is the only place to live.

Re: Scientists convicted for not being alarmists

We actually once had an evacuation of a city in Britain due to earthquake scare - London in 1750. The incident is described on this link:


The link is from the now defunct children's comic "Look and Learn", which was a comic effectively for school swots but it folded up soon after the grammar schools were phased out.

Basically there were two small earthquakes exactly four weeks apart felt in London in 1750, and some religious alarmist predicted London would be destroyed by a big earthquake in another four weeks, which resulted in a mass evacuation. The predictor was later imprisoned for "spreading false rumours".

It does strike me that if you're going to imprison anybody in this sort of situation, it makes more sense to lock up an alarmist than a non-alarmist. If you lock up non-alarmists, that tends to encourage more alarmist behaviour. Also the legislation which was used against the inaccurate predictor might still possibly exist in some form today.