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L'Aquila Verdict

TedPhoneBoxResized.bmpI never thought I would ever see people being locked up for poor science communication – hardly, surely, a life-or-death matter, such as may face a doctor or policeman any working day.  Well, sometimes, it is.  And, as a result of some spectacularly poor science communication, so the indictment read, 309 people died - victims of collapsing buildings during the l’Aquila earthquake of 7 April 2009.

The guilty verdicts against six scientists and one civil defence official, which brought sentences of six years’ imprisonment for manslaughter, have stimulated widespread – and mostly knee-jerk – condemnation.  The shroud of Galileo has rarely seen quite so much action, as it has been waved furiously by outraged pro-science groups worldwide.  Yet the trial was never a witch-hunt against science, as many have sought to portray it. 

Of course, the sentences are absurd and disproportionate.  Of course the fact that the Italian system chose to deal with this matter through criminal proceedings was inappropriate and primitive.  Clearly – deservedly - Italy is now a public laughingstock.  With luck, the sentences will be overturned on appeal.  But the trial was never about the failure of senior seismologists to do the impossible and predict the unpredictable - even though the Italian people have been duped into believing it.  This trial was about a failure to give adequate warnings based on what the authorities, and their advisory group, knew. 

In disaster movies, false reassurance and playing down imminent danger is the role traditionally reserved for officials and small businessmen, fearful for their wallets or public order; while scientists urge precautionary action.  But l’Aquila 2009 was no movie, and life is both stranger and nastier than fiction.  In a cruel twist, the survivors blamed scientists for failures rooted in Italy’s civil protection agency, which claimed scientific support for its dangerously complacent pronouncements. 

Scientists were in the dock in this trial; but the issue from the start was not science.  It was, explicitly, poor risk communication.  And make no mistake – here there was a real case to answer.  In the lead-up to April 7, the risk communication was lamentable, incompetent, disgraceful.  But this was not the scientists’ fault.  It was the fault of the system, which has now decided to scapegoat them for its failures.

The sentences handed down express the degree to which the Italian public feel betrayed by those very people they thought they could most trust.  That trust was not, in fact, misdirected.  Unfortunately, their vengeance is.