Science Behind Bars

In Italy, failing to accurately predict an earthquake apparently is a crime.

Six scientists and a government official were convicted in an Italian court of multiple counts of manslaughter for giving a falsely reassuring statement about a possible earthquake and were sentenced to six years in prison.  The scientists were consulted after tremors were felt in L’Aquila.  At a meeting, they told officials that a major earthquake was not impossible, but it was not likely.  Unfortunately for the scientists, a few days later a massive earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people and leaving the area in ruins.  Prosecutors alleged that many of the casualties stayed in their homes due to the scientists’ advice and died when the buildings collapsed, whereas people who stayed outside survived the upheaval.

The astonishing verdict and sentence have been greeted with richly deserved outrage.  It also is an embarrassment for Italy, the home of the Renaissance and scientific pioneers like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s hard to imagine any modern, enlightened country concluding that scientists can be criminally punished for expressing their scientific opinion — particularly when it involves predicting something as obviously unpredictable as earthquakes.  What’s next for Italian prosecutors?  Criminal charges for inaccurate weather forecasters?