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#1 Oct 23 2012 at 4:21 AM Rating: Excellent
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What.
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Scientists aghast after colleagues convicted of manslaughter over Italy quake

Earthquake experts around the world say they are appalled by an Italian court's decision to convict six scientists on manslaughter charges for failing to predict the deadly quake that devastated the city of L'Aquila. They warned the ruling could severely harm future scientific research.

The court in L'Aquila sentenced the scientists and a government official Monday to six years in prison, ruling that they didn't accurately communicate the risk of the earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people.

The trial centered on a meeting a week before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck. At the meeting, the experts determined that it was "unlikely" but not impossible that a major quake would take place, despite concern among the city's residents over recent seismic activity.

Prosecutors said the defendants provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers" facing L'Aquila.

The court agreed, convicting the six scientists from the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and a member of the Civil Protection Agency. It also ordered the Italian authorities to pay 7.8 million euros ($10 million) in damages.

Seismologists were aghast at the court's decision, noting that earthquakes remain impossible to forecast with any kind of accuracy.

"To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes, and to advise the local population to flee" would constitute "both bad science and bad public policy," said David Oglesby, an associate professor at the earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside.
There's more story in the link. I still can't quite wrap my head around this. Perhaps I'll edit in some thoughts later.
#2 Oct 23 2012 at 5:24 AM Rating: Decent
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On the surface, it seems apalling and ludicrous. However...

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The trial centered on a meeting a week before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck. At the meeting, the experts determined that it was "unlikely" but not impossible that a major quake would take place, despite concern among the city's residents over recent seismic activity.


It seems the content of this meeting was a centerpiece of the trial. Was there political or commercial motivation in denouncing the possibility of an earthquake? Was it really all just about science? I'm guessing there's more to the story here...

Edited, Oct 23rd 2012 6:25am by BrownDuck
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#3 Oct 23 2012 at 6:28 AM Rating: Excellent
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BrownDuck wrote:
Was there political or commercial motivation in denouncing the possibility of an earthquake?
After finally having a moment to read the full thing, it doesn't sound like it. As noted in the article, earthquakes are really hard to truly predict with any real accuracy. Either way, barring something that proves they willfully mislead with their statements, I worry about the precedent this sets.
#4 Oct 23 2012 at 6:45 AM Rating: Excellent
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The only thing I want to know is if we can sue weathermen who don't predict the weather correctly now. If so, this ruling might turn out to do some good!

... but honestly, it seems terrifying for scientists.
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#5 Oct 23 2012 at 6:46 AM Rating: Decent
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The One and Only Poldaran wrote:
BrownDuck wrote:
Was there political or commercial motivation in denouncing the possibility of an earthquake?
After finally having a moment to read the full thing, it doesn't sound like it. As noted in the article, earthquakes are really hard to truly predict with any real accuracy. Either way, barring something that proves they willfully mislead with their statements, I worry about the precedent this sets.

You're right. In the absense of outside motivation, this sets a nasty precedent. In no way should scientists ever be held accountable for the variability of mother nature. This is not the same as predicting a levy will hold, for example. I just can't help but wonder that the same sentiment surely had to be shared among the court members and that something truly negative had to come to light to allow such a verdict to pass. I guess this is a case of "it's so ridiculous, I can't believe it at face value" cases.
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#6 Oct 23 2012 at 6:51 AM Rating: Excellent
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From Nature:
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The view from L'Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L'Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

"I'm not crazy," Picuti says. "I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila." Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. "They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors," he says, "and they did not."

I won't even pretend to know anything about this case, much less Italian criminal law, but it seems that the criminal negligence stems from inadequately assessing the risks of an earthquake hitting the city, not predicting if an earthquake will hit the city.
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#7 Oct 23 2012 at 7:01 AM Rating: Decent
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Jophiel wrote:
I won't even pretend to know anything about this case, much less Italian criminal law, but it seems that the criminal negligence stems from inadequately assessing the risks of an earthquake hitting the city, not predicting if an earthquake will hit the city.


The article you quoted illustrates what I was getting at. It shouldn't take another disaster like the Sumatra earthquake to convince government entities of the need to prepare against risk. If there's a failure there, it absolutely should be dealt with. Is it criminal? Maybe, I don't know. Allowing the whole thing to slip under the rug is detrimental in any case.
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#8 Oct 23 2012 at 7:39 AM Rating: Good
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BrownDuck wrote:
Is it criminal? Maybe, I don't know.
Well, they're paid to do one thing, and if the article is accurate, then providing "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information about the dangers" is certainly criminally negligent.
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#9 Oct 23 2012 at 8:25 AM Rating: Excellent
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LockeColeMA wrote:
... but honestly, it seems terrifying for scientists.


Given that there's virtually always some degree of contradicting evidence in science it is a bit scary. On the other hand there's something to be said for telling people to prepare for the worst, and hoping for the best.

Shifts the blame onto the lazy populace and off your shoulders. Smiley: nod
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#10 Oct 23 2012 at 8:32 AM Rating: Excellent
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I got the impression (from what little I read on it) that the issue wasn't just that they were wrong but that the evidence indicated that they sort of half-assed the whole thing, thus the negligence.

Of course, if I had all the details I might disagree with the verdict anyway. It just doesn't sound like "You didn't say there'd be an earthquake! Jail for you!"
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#11 Oct 23 2012 at 8:44 AM Rating: Excellent
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Reading the article Joph linked, I'm highly inclined to side with the scientists here.

For one, they were a National council, NOT some commission convened by L'Aquila for risk evaluation. L'Aquila is a high-risk area, which should have been reviewing this for DECADES. Expecting one 6 person national panel to do it in a couple of months is absurd.

Two, the scientists arrived at the commission meeting without being warned that it would be open. They hadn't prepared public statements, because they hadn't intended to be engaging the public at that time. They convened to assess the risk of an imminent earthquake, not to give detailed instructions on what to do during one.

Third, they had to spend the bulk of their time telling the public not to worry. They were holding a special commission in L'Aquila for two reasons. 1, because there had been months of persistent quakes. 2, because an amateur seismologist had been spreading his theory of a massive, imminent quake. Step one absolutely had to be to assuage public fear. Panic doesn't help anyone, regardless of whether that's during a disaster or not. They calmed the population, and unfortunately a quake hit. But would the quake have been better if it happened in a town predisposed to panic? I'm guessing not, because a lot of the people still alive are so because of rescue efforts.

This is a town where earthquakes are the norm. They know what to do during quakes--they have them all the time. Procedure doesn't change according to the intensity of a quake. All they would have told the townspeople are things all of them already knew.

The problem is that people assumed "low risk of a high-magnitude quake" meant "stop following procedure." And I don't think that's the scientists' fault.

I don't think you can reduce the blame down to this commission. The town should have been conducting surveys on their buildings for a long time, the local systems should have been spreading info on earthquake procedure (I'm betting evacuation routes aren't decided on by the commission), the commission should have been warned they'd be addressing the public so they could issue a statement (and have had a closed door meeting before hand for the scientific review), etc.

This seems like a desire to blame someone to me.
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#12 Oct 23 2012 at 8:49 AM Rating: Decent
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Now they should just call to evacuate entire cities whenever somebody farts loudly.
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#13 Oct 23 2012 at 9:09 AM Rating: Excellent
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Wait...so now people are being prosecuted for natural disasters occurring?

What the **** is wrong with people?
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#14 Oct 23 2012 at 9:15 AM Rating: Excellent
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cidbahamut wrote:
What the **** is wrong with people?


Might want to have a seat, it could take a while to read the whole list.
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#15 Oct 23 2012 at 9:17 AM Rating: Decent
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someproteinguy wrote:
cidbahamut wrote:
What the **** is wrong with people?


Might want to have a seat, it could take a while to read the whole list.

Is there at least a cliff notes version or a table of contents I could look over in the meantime?
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#16 Oct 23 2012 at 9:22 AM Rating: Excellent
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cidbahamut wrote:
someproteinguy wrote:
cidbahamut wrote:
What the **** is wrong with people?


Might want to have a seat, it could take a while to read the whole list.

Is there at least a cliff notes version or a table of contents I could look over in the meantime?


Well apparently first on the list is that they tend to die in earthquakes. There's also a whole chapter dealing with rage and pointing their fingers at things.

Many of them also smell funny.
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#17 Oct 23 2012 at 9:23 AM Rating: Good
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cidbahamut wrote:
Wait...so now people are being prosecuted for natural disasters occurring?
No, they're being prosecuted because the people doing the suing believe the deaths would have been easily preventable. Whether or not that is true is beyond me since I'm not going to go digging into more than the articles linked here.
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#18 Oct 23 2012 at 9:32 AM Rating: Excellent
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cidbahamut wrote:
Wait...so now people are being prosecuted for natural disasters occurring?

No.
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#19 Oct 23 2012 at 10:22 AM Rating: Excellent
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So much is left out of the articles. Aside from the recent swarm of small quakes, is there a seismic history in the area? Was the depth and attitude of the known faults understood?

Italy is a pretty active seismic area overall. I'd be interested to know whether the scientists answered a question like, "Should we be concerned about a major quake?" with something like, "No more so than anywhere in Italy."

California is probably one of the best-studied earthquake zones in the world, and the most you'll get out of a seismologist here is, "Be ready for anything." If you really push, they'll say something like, "A major quake WILL happen, but we can't predict exactly where or when."

The seismologists should probably have hedged their replies better at the very least. Without knowing what they did say, I can't tell why they were punished. But nearly all Italians live in seismically active areas. And retrofitting buildings and infrastructure is expensive and time consuming and no one wants to do it; but maybe they should.
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#20 Oct 23 2012 at 10:28 AM Rating: Excellent
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My take-away was that they were tasked with evaluating the risk if an earthquake hit and very much under-estimated the impact which led to complacency among the population. They didn't account for population density or antiquated buildings without protection. Maybe other things as well.

An exaggerated analogy being be me saying "Well, by my best judgement, if a nuclear bomb went off in downtown LA, it would just damage a few cars" so everyone reacts to a nuclear bomb threat by staying off the streets but makes no attempt to flee the city, seek shelter, head to Vault 13 or whatever.
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#21 Oct 23 2012 at 10:33 AM Rating: Good
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The area is a seismic hot spot. Earthquakes are a way of life there. But the last major earthquake was in the 1700s, and most of the buildings haven'tn designed to stand up to seismic waves at higher magnitudes.

The overall message of the meeting seemed to have been "We can't guarantee against a major quake, but many smaller quakes statistically tend to alleviate the stress that can cause a major quake."

I'm not seeing much anger over what they actually said, it largely seems to be about what they did say. Some people are ****** that they spent most of the meeting trying to quell fears, but I'm not sure that's fair. I'd need to see a video of the meeting to decide. I mean, were they answering questions? Were those questions such that they had to keep repeating assurances?

What's really bothering me, though, is that the scientists apparently didn't know they'd be meeting with the public. You can't hold them negligent for not delivering information if they weren't warned they'd need to. I also worry about the precedent of a national 6-person commission being held responsible for a single town.

Was this a trial by jury? I don't remember any article saying.
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#22 Oct 23 2012 at 11:01 AM Rating: Excellent
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A swarm of small quakes can presage a larger quake. Or they can relieve stress on the faults. It really depends on what kind(s) of fault(s) we're talking about.

Any seismologist should have a glib statement to make to the public at any time. How hard is it to say, "Don't panic, but be prepared for the worst just in case"?

I have to wonder whether the scientists were under some pressure to understate the danger because money is tight and no one wanted to have to deal with retrofitting discussions.
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#23 Oct 23 2012 at 11:19 AM Rating: Excellent
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Samira wrote:
Any seismologist should have a glib statement to make to the public at any time. How hard is it to say, "Don't panic, but be prepared for the worst just in case"?


Smiley: nod

I guess I don't know, we're the people told this at anytime? I'm assuming not? Seems odd if it wasn't said for whatever reason.

We've been told to prepare for 'the big one,' it's heard on a regular basis, people make movies about it, blah blah blah. 80% chance in the next 50 years or whatever the line is these days; and we're not a bunch of raving panicked loons.

Well at least not any more than the rest of the country... Smiley: um
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#24 Oct 23 2012 at 11:28 AM Rating: Excellent
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I'll be happy if this decision can somehow be used to prosecute the Extenze people for the commercial where they say "It's real science!" and show guys in white lab coats stirring a flask of blue liquid.


Edited, Oct 23rd 2012 12:29pm by trickybeck
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#26 Oct 23 2012 at 12:17 PM Rating: Excellent
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trickybeck wrote:
I'll be happy if this decision can somehow be used to prosecute the Extenze people for the commercial where they say "It's real science!" and show guys in white lab coats stirring a flask of blue liquid.

If sanitary pad commercials have taught me anything, it's that that blue liquid came out of a ******.
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