A Dark Ages day in Italy

Editor’s note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe the United States doesn’t need to worry about an impending shortage of scientists. The ones in Italy might be happy to move here after the preposterous conviction this week of six earthquake experts who inaccurately gauged the chances of a major temblor striking a quake-prone area in that country.

In a decision more reminiscent of Dark Ages magical thinking than modern scientific understanding, a three-judge panel sentenced the experts, as well as a former government official, to six years in prison for concluding in 2009 that the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in L’Aquila was small. The region had been plagued by a series of tremors, and less than a week after the panel of scientists delivered its opinion, a 6.3-magnitude quake killed 300 people.

The government had asked the scientists, members of the Major Risks Commission, for an assessment of the risk and they gave it – including a caveat that their prediction might prove incorrect. Tragically, the caveat came true. Maybe the scientists made mistakes in their calculations. Perhaps they could have been better at their jobs and reached a more accurate assessment, or this might have been the best any seismologist could do. But if the responsibility belongs anywhere, it’s with the government for treating earthquake prediction as if it were an exact science – it notably is not – and implying that the public could rely on such predictions.

Meanwhile, if there was a blame-worthy action by the experts, it was committed by one man who made the rather condescending remark that people in the quake zone should relax, preferably with a glass of wine. But flippant comments aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be, criminal offenses.

Had the commission come to a different conclusion and warned of impending peril, residents might have jammed the streets with cars in a frantic attempt to evacuate, which could have resulted in loss of life in collisions. And what if that prediction proved false? Would the scientists have been convicted of unnecessarily causing a panic that resulted in death?

If the Italian government wanted absolute accuracy, it would have needed to find an all-knowing authority. Experts can give their educated opinion on whether geologic events fit a dangerous-looking pattern, but the only utterly true answer that current earthquake science can deliver is: We don’t know. And that’s the only answer Italy will be able to expect from scientists in the future unless an appeals court overturns this case and the government drops its Inquisition-like prosecution of imperfect experts.