Italian Scientists On Trial For Manslaughter After Failing To Predict Earthquake

Seven Italian geologists have been hauled before an Italian judge—whether in chains or no, we are not informed—and charged with the heinous crime of manslaughter. Specifically, these men are being held culpable for the deaths of 309 people following an earthquake. Earthquake!

On 6 April 1990, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook L’Aquila, Italy. A not unusual event. According to the United States Geological Survey, earthquakes in Italy are as common as Italian soccer players crying foul. At this writing, the last was one month ago, a magnitude 3.3 in Central Italy.

Not only Italian geologists, but geologists everywhere are notoriously bad at predicting just where and when the next earthquake will be. True, these scientists are equipped with elaborate computer models which show how one chunk of earth slides under another and how this slip-sliding causes the earth above to shake and rattle.

Problem is, these models, even though they can be and are used to make predictions, are useless for that task. Geologists at least have the benefit of tracking their faulty predictions, information which can be used to improve their models.

In any case, the L’Aquila quake was not predicted. Which is to say, it was not predicted by the Italian version of the USGS. A man named Giampaolo Giuliani did predict a quake, but he said it would be centered at Sulmona, Italy and that it would take place days before the L’Aquila quake.

Giuliani’s model is statistical and accepts as input “readings of radon gas.” He noticed increased radon gas readings near Sulmona and so predicted his quake.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Giuliani wasn’t the first to use to radon:

Using radon gas to predict quakes was popular in California in the late 1970s. Researchers at USC, Cal Tech and elsewhere believed changes in the gas levels were a precursor of quakes. In 1979, researchers found gas irregularities before two significant quakes, in Malibu and Big Bear. But the radon method began to lose steam because it could not reliably predict quakes.

Anyway, Guiliani broadcast his prediction on an Italian website. And it was noticed by the indigenous Italians populants, who believed it to the extent that “Vans with loudspeakers had driven around the town…telling locals to evacuate their houses after Giuliani predicted the quake was about to strike.”

This panic irked the authorities, who forced Giuliani to remove his predictions. Such was the fuss, that Italy’s Major Risks Committee felt it had to issue a statement, to help calm the populace. The statement in part said, “The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence [which is] absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L’Aquila.”

And then the real earthquake hit.

Enzo Boschi was the chief of the Italian National Geophysics Institute and part of the Risks Committee. He is now one of the seven geologists being charged with manslaughter by Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella.

According to the AAAS Science Insider, Judge Garagella said the “seven defendants had supplied ‘imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,’ in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake. In doing so, they “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public.'”

The Judge will have no difficulty proving that Boschi et alia did not predict the quake, because, of course, they did not predict it. In fact, Boschi is on record, before the event, as saying “It is not possible to predict earthquakes.”

It appears that the judge is accusing Boschi of predicting that the earthquake would not happen. But if earthquakes cannot be predicted, it follows that non-earthquakes cannot be predicted either.

That is, both earthquakes and non-earthquakes can be predicted, but neither can be predicted skillfully and accurately (no computer model can be the permanent forecast of “no earthquake”). It is thus not possible to be precise or complete in making any statement about earthquake occurrence.

And there does not appear to be anything contradictory in Boschi’s pre-earthquake statements. His announcement that seismic activity was normal and expected are demonstrably true and do not logically exclude the possibility of an earthquake happening.

Boschi and his brothers are thus in a strange fix, the outcome of which we leave to those better informed about Italian politics and jurisprudence.

The Daily Mail reports that a “spokesman for the U.S. Geological Society (USGS) told ‘It has a medieval flavor to it — like witches are being put on trial.'”

I don’t follow that metaphor, but I can feel this person’s concern. Why, if scientists are put on trial or are made responsible for actions taken (or not taken) based on their predictions, just think what a “chilling” effect this will have on the pronouncements of climate change scientists!


  1. DAV

    Why do you think a typical summer forecast is “sunny with a chance of thunderstorms”. It’s CYA. In some 40 years of flying, I’ve only seen “no chance of thunderstorms” once. Somebody really went out on a limb on that one. Likewise, every winter forecast include the possibility of icing.

    Just the same , why aren’t the “irked the authorities” on trial instead?

    This is a good example why scientists should avoid claiming authority, especially while using public money.

  2. Speed

    Briggs …

    A. You know nothing about earthquakes.
    B. I tell you every morning at 8:00 that there will be no earthquake within 50 miles in the next 24 hours.
    C. I do this for 1,000 consecutive days.
    D. There are no earthquakes within 50 miles on any of those 1,000 consecutive days.

    If A, B, C and D are true, what can a professional statistician say about my ability to predict an earthquake 24 hours in advance?

    If A, B, C and D are true, what can a professional statistician say about my ability to predict “not” earthquake 24 hours in advance?

    Optional for extra credit: What does this tell us about scientists’ ability to predict “global warming?” What about a sceptic’s ability to predict “not global warming?” Was Christopher Columbus foolish thinking he wouldn’t sail off the edge of the earth?

  3. DAV


    You don’t need to go to Italy to find over-the-top prosecution for crimes like stealing a slice of pizza that require Supreme Court rulings to overturn (maybe).

  4. DAV

    Oh, and how about this one? 26 years for “cheating on a driver’s test”. What about using the Mann Act (enacted in an attempt to curb white slavery) on its head by prosecuting across-state-line adultery as a federal crime? Or how about Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946)? The Court decided that a person can be prosecuted under the Mann Act even when married to the woman if the marriage is polygamous. Polygamous marriage equals “immoral purpose.”

    So what is so bizarre about the prosecutors in Italy? They sound a lot like the one’s in the U.S.

  5. DAV

    Sorry, this my be a better link to the pizza thing.

  6. Ray

    I’m all for a return to the ancient Hebrew custom of killing false prophets. Back then you were risking your life to make a prediction.

  7. I’m with Ray on this one.

    The major crimes I see here are Felony Arrogance and Haughty Audacity. If Boschi and the boys had merely posted their opinion[s] as a response to Giuliani they would not now be facing life in the cooler. But they weren’t satisfied with simple telling the populace Giuliani was “naked” and had big feet, he was forced, I say forced to remove the prediction from his website. How unscientific is that? Seems to take peer review to new heights, no?

    Since most ground-breaking [no pun intended] Italian jurisprudence takes decades to run it’s course, these fine fellows will no longer face the question of what to do in their free time. It’s called “preparation”. They will now learn, too late, to be humble.

  8. If I were an Italian vulcanologist, I would either find another line of work now or I’d predict an earthquake Every. Darn. Day.

  9. David

    Climate scientist will adapt (most have already adapted): to avoid prosecution, just make your forecast far enough in the future (when most likely you will be dead or forgotten) so you can’t get prosecuted. So easy!

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