L’Aquila earthquake scientists sentenced to six years in jail

Anyone allowed to sue the Catholic Church because their prayers didn’t work?

A group of scientists are facing six years in jail for manslaughter after providing “an incomplete, inept, unsuitable and criminally mistaken” assessment of risks posed by the devastating L’Aquila earthquake that killed more than 300 people.

The landmark decision on Monday was welcomed by victims and their families but immediately prompted uproar from the scientific community, which contends that there is no reliable way of predicting earthquakes.

The six scientists and a former government official were all members of the Major Risks Committee which met in the central Italian city on March 31, 2009, after several small tremors had been recorded in the region. At the time, they ruled that it was impossible to determine whether the tremors would be followed by a large quake, in a judgment which reassured residents. One of the group famously advised them to relax with a glass of wine. Just six days later, a 6.3 magnitude quake devastated L’Aquila.

On Monday, Judge Marco Billi announced the manslaughter sentence to a packed courtroom in a temporary building erected to hear the case in the still devastated city. He also ruled that the defendants should pay 7.8 million euros in damages, with two million euros to be paid immediately.

The sentencing provoked strong criticism from the scientific community.

Richard Walters of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, said he was “saddened” about the verdict, warning that it set a “dangerous precedent”.

“The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison. This sets a very dangerous precedent and I fear it will discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way…”

Just to illustrate the politics of this jurisprudence, family members of some of those killed said the victims had won the case with “heavenly” intervention. Just as national politics in Italy can’t escape the Pope and the Vatican, parochial law is even worse.

Yes, there are a couple of obvious parallels. You can reach back to the bowels of the Inquisition when the Catholic Church was the ultimate arbiter of public good and evil. You can look around you at a gathering of Tea Party politicians and flinch at listening to proposals equally ignorant, determinedly anachronistic and filled with the same self-righteous bile.

Misrepresenting science in the eyes of the law is another part of anti-science, superstition. Worldwide.

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