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'Crime' of failing to predict an earthquake that sets a dangerous precedent for science

A very sad business; a dangerous precedent; a sad end to a tragic series of events. These are just some of the comments today from experienced seismologists in Britain about the verdict in an Italian courtroom that has found six scientists and a former government official guilty of multiple manslaughter for the "crime" of failing to predict the notoriously unpredictable.

A travesty of justice is perhaps an even more apt description of what has now happened in the regional Italian court that sat in judgment on experts who are now condemned for being too relaxed about the possibility of an earthquake in L'Aquila. These scientists are facing lengthy prison sentences for failing, it seems, to warn people about the possibility of an impending natural event that even the best science in the world cannot predict with any meaningful exactitude.

Seismologists can estimate probabilities of an earthquake, but there is no way they can warn people to evacuate their homes, offices and schools at a specific time on a certain day.

Richard Walters of Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences has read the translated minutes of Italy's Grand Commission on High Risks on 31 March 2009, six days before the earthquake hit L'Aquila, and believes the scientific information conveyed there was not inexact, incomplete or contradictory.

"It was clear, measured and scientifically accurate… To be prosecuted for other people's miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty," he said.

It is easy to say with hindsight that these experts could and should have warned the community of L'Aquila. But this judgment would be unfair, unjust and wrong. It would also be counterproductive because the one sure outcome of this verdict is that other scientists in Italy will now be wary of offering any advice on earthquake prediction knowing that they too could be prosecuted if they get it wrong.