Italian Scientists On Trial Over Deadly Earthquake

The trial of seven Italian scientists began this week. They are charged with manslaughter for failing to adequately warn the residents of L'Aquila, Italy, about the risk of an earthquake in 2009. Host Scott Simon speaks with Rick Aster, president of the Seismological Society of America, about the trial.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The trial of seven Italian scientists began this week. They're charged with manslaughter, for failing to adequately warn the residents of L'Aquila, Italy about the risk of an earthquake in 2009. Now the scientists were members of a provincial disaster risk committee. They met in March 2009 to discuss the earthquake risk posed by recent small tremors.

The scientific community tells me there is no danger, a committee spokesman said at the time, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable. Six days later an earthquake killed more than 300 people in L'Aquila. Now the scientists who sat on that committee could face up to 12 years in prison.

Rick Aster is president of the Seismological Society of America. He and his colleagues around the world sent a petition with more than 5,000 signatures calling for the charges to be dropped. Dr. Aster joins us from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Thanks for being with us.

RICK ASTER: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: What was your first reaction when you first heard about these charges?

ASTER: Well, the initial reaction of the seismological, and I think the broader scientific community, was that this was outrageous, given the fact that earthquakes are unpredictable at this stage in our state of knowledge. Indeed, they're the last great natural disaster for which there is no predictive capacity. And the statement that an ongoing discharge of energy was occurring, so the situation looked favorable was demonstratively scientifically incorrect. Small earthquakes do not function as a safety valve, in a sense, for large earthquakes.

SIMON: Can you see where families of people who've lost loved ones would feel from ? would feel a lot of frustration by being told the situation looks favorable and then just six days later, well, just six days later 300 people die.

ASTER: Indeed. That really was a tragic miscommunication on the part of Italy's Department of Civil Protection.

SIMON: Why then have you organized this petition and why do you feel that geologists shouldn't be held responsible (technical difficulty).

ASTER: Well, I guess again, Scott, one has to realize one's dealing with an inherently unpredictable phenomena. So the ability to inform people and keep the population ready has to be weighed against the cost of false alarms in this situation, which is very high.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

ASTER: Because if in a situation like this, you told people to expect an earthquake then you'd be wrong 99 times out of 100. So you get into both the disruption to society and the crying wolf scenario, where you worry that if, you know, you issue false alarms much, much more frequently than you issue true alarms, that process is also useless, unfortunately.

SIMON: Do you have any concern as a scientist, Dr. Aster, that when even if scientists are right, as you suggest 99 percent of the time, that when a mistake like this is made it tends to undercut the credibility of everybody in the field?

ASTER: Well, I think people have to realize, and the community is very honest about it, that earthquake prediction is an extremely daunting scientific, technical and indeed, a political issue, so I don't think we're misrepresenting our ability to predict earthquakes; everyone would agree is essentially null.

SIMON: Rick Aster is the president of the Seismological Society of America. Thanks very much.

ASTER: Thank you, Scott.

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