In March 2009 the deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department and six scientists who were members of a scientific advisory body to the Department held a meeting and then a press conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. Six days later an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 killed 308 people in L’Aquila, a city central Italy. Yesterday, the seven men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for failing to give adequate warning to the residents about the deadly disaster.
The news reports imply that the scientists were sentenced because of their failure to predict the earthquake. But Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, says “one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.”
Whether it was because of their predictions or because of the authority with which they made their claims, the scientists were sent to prison for making an erroneous prediction about how nature would act. Such a judicial ruling would strike most of us Americans as absurd. We’d rightly assume that it might provide scientists with an incentive to not make any predictions at all. As Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California, says, “I’m afraid it’s going to teach scientists to keep their mouths shut.”