Published online 1 June 2011 | Nature 474, 15 (2011) | doi:10.1038/474015a

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Scientists on trial over L'Aquila deaths

Seismologists charged for giving apparent reassurances on Italian earthquake risks.

Rome

The perils of communicating scientific uncertainty when under the media spotlight are set to be probed in an Italian court later this year. The case, which was given the go-ahead by a judge last week, involves six Italian seismologists and one government official. They will be tried this autumn for the manslaughter of some of the 309 people who died in the earthquake that struck the city of L'Aquila on 6 April 2009. If convicted, they could face jail sentences of up to 12 years.

The seven were on a committee tasked with assessing the risks of increased seismic activity in the area. At a press conference following a committee meeting a week before the earthquake, some members assured the public that they were in no danger. After the quake, many of the victims' relatives said that because of these reassurances they did not take precautionary measures, such as leaving their homes.

L'Aquila's public prosecutor, Fabio Picuti, argued last week that although the committee members could not have predicted the earthquake, they had translated their scientific uncertainty into an overly optimistic message. The prosecution has focused on a statement made at the press conference by accused committee member Bernardo De Bernardinis, who was then deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency. "The scientific community tells me there is no danger," he said at the time, "because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable."

Many seismologists — including one of the accused, Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology in Rome — have since criticized the statement as scientifically unfounded. The statement does not appear in the minutes of the committee meeting itself, and the accused seismologists say they cannot be blamed for it. De Bernardinis's advocate insists that his client merely summarized what the scientists had told him. The prosecutor claims that because none of the other committee members immediately corrected De Bernardinis, they are all equally culpable.

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Boschi says that he is "devastated" by the ruling. He notes that there are hundreds of seismic shocks every year in Italy: "If we were to alert the population every time, we would probably be indicted for unjustified alarm," he said, adding that poor building standards were the main cause of the tragedy.

Vincenzo Vittorini, a physician in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were killed in the earthquake and who is president of the local victims' association, hopes the trial will lead to a thorough investigation into what went wrong. "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices". 

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  • #61939

    I think if you look at the role of psychiatrists in particular as assessors of risk, the case raises some very interesting questions regarding responsibility and culpability, especially in the context of forensic mental health.

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