July 6, 2010
Earthquakes are scary for many reasons. They can be devastating, leveling whole cities and killing millions. They can cause massive tsunamis. And though scientists can make predictions of where earthquakes are likely to occur, we never know when the Big One will happen.
That last bit, however, hasn’t stopped a prosecutor in L’Aquila, Italy from indicting six earthquake scientists on charges of manslaughter for not alerting the public that a particularly bad (magnitude-6.3) earthquake would occur on April 6, 2009 in the Abruzzo region.
Before the April 6 earthquake, the region had been experiencing smaller earthquakes for some months. Following a magnitude-4.0 quake on March 30, the six scientists now under indictment met with Bernardo De Bernardinis, the deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Agency, to discuss the risk of a larger event. After the meeting, De Bernardinis told reporters at a press conference that “the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.”
The minutes of that meeting, however, show that the scientists were cautious in their evaluation of the situation, Nature reports, saying that a major quake in the region was “unlikely” but could not be ruled out.
That statement, though frustrating, would be typical for science. Scientists rarely make predictions with 100 percent certainty, especially about natural events like earthquakes, tornadoes and even hurricanes. Instead, they often focus on disaster mitigation—predicting where an event is most likely and then working with local officials to create building codes and/or evacuation plans appropriate for the risk. With earthquakes, there is also the question of how useful a prediction would really be. If scientists were able to predict California’s Big One for sometime in August, would everyone leave Los Angeles for an entire month?
Scientists worldwide have objected to the charges against the Italian seismologists and signed letters to the president of Italy. Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote:
Years of research…have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.
Reading through the results of the recent Smithsonian/Pew poll of Americans’ opinions on the future, I can see that we have a lot of faith in science. I find that heartening because I believe that science is one of the most important tools for improving our society. But science has its limits, and we need to recognize that. Science isn’t going to cure cancer by next week or clean up the gulf oil spill overnight. We shouldn’t punish scientists for not doing the impossible.
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