This monday six italian seismologists have been convicted to jail, charged of manslaughter of 29 victims of an earthquake that hit L’Aquila, center Italy, in April 2009. Scientists are charged of failing to disclose the risk of the big earthquake, and consequently influencing 29 people to come back at their homes the night of the fatal tremor.
The direct link between what the experts said few days before the earthquake and life loss will be very difficult to justify, but the judger has now 3 months to reason the sentence.
The jailed scientists were all sitting on the High Risk board, a division of Italian Civil Protection constituted to face and evaluate extreme geological disasters. The very same board administrated the latest emergency in Emilia (center-north Italy) where early this year another strong tremor severely damaged buildings and harmed people.
The consequence for such hard sentence are already striking the scientific community: international seismologists are pointing to short-seeing justice, which essentially pretends that experts in this field should be able to predict earthquake [while this is formally impossible, R.N.]. Today, a Nature Editorial clearly spoke in defense of the scientists, saying that “the verdict is perverse and the sentence ludicrous”.
Secondary effects are also upcoming: the Italian Civil Protection declared that “this ruling will negatively influence hundreds of other professions, such as technicians that are daily responsible to go on the field and assess whether buildings are secure or not after an earthquake”.
In these days, heads of the High Risk division are one-by-one resigning from their positions, foreseeing the impossibility of freely work and provide disinterested advices. After Luciano Maiani (physicist at the head of High Risk) the vice-president Mauro Rosi and emeritus president Giuseppe Zamberletti seems to be about to leave, according to Corriere della Sera.
In the filed of geology, there are fears that this ruling will result in the proliferation of “false alarms”, because scientists will be too afraid to omit any possible outcome of the data they have.
A bottom-line question remains: will scientists be charged for their failure to inform people about ANY risk?
The problem goes far beyond geology. Medical doctors are increasingly dealing with sensitive data of patients, for instance those from genome sequencing, that may reveal predisposition to different diseases. Though it is often forgotten that the main risk factor for cancer, for instance, is the environment rather then genetic predispositions, people are often willing to receive a fully disclosed profile of their “DNA-associated-risks” regardless the fact that often experts base such predictions on limited number of studies or that there are still debates in the filed.
Will be doctors be charged twenty years later a missed diagnosis because they failed to informed the patients over all, but really all the very possible outcomes of a genetic tests? Will be patients be more free to make an informed choice about their medications after getting access to such overwhelming and certainly confusing frames of probabilities?
The delicate dialogue between served populations and scientists may be severely affected by sentences like this one, pushing experts to a corner where they may simply through all the numbers they have onto politicians, which then will be let alone to make final decisions.
And gosh, please, don’t let politicians decide. It rarely works well.