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Italian seismological witch hunt began

In June, this blog has informed about the looming trial against 6 Italian seismologists and one public official who were going to be charged with manslaughter (a less serious version of killing than murder). Some victims also demand a modest fee of $67 million from the 6-7 scientists.

The trial started this week.

They're charged with manslaughter because in 2009, they didn't tell the people in advance that there would be a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that would kill 309 inhabitants of L'Aquila. They told them that such a big earthquake was very unlikely and evacuation wasn't a sensible idea.

By saying this thing, they supposedly killed 309 people, the prosecution argues. Well, the very idea that you kill another person by telling or not telling him something seems extremely bizarre to me. At most, you could say that such an event could be classified as a "lie". But even this description is false because they didn't say invalid things deliberately. Instead, it was a particular prediction that was falsified by the subsequent events.

It is not clear to me whether the people who support the harassment of the scientists actually realize that big earthquakes can't be predicted – and it's pretty likely that there exist very good reasons why it will always be impossible to predict them, regardless of the progress in science. Vibrations and tensions influence each other and randomly add up or compensate others and in some cases, smaller vibrations may help bigger masses to cross a tipping point. While the release of the tension may be predictable, the growth of a quake is a black swan, an unusual event that may be unpredictable for fundamental reasons.

At any rate, no big earthquake has ever been predicted in advance.

The scientists said that there was virtually no danger because the best methods available to them led them to conclude that there was virtually no danger. Some people claim that the scientists should have said that there was some danger, like 5%, that a tragedy was going to occur. Except that this is not what the reality actually was: their methodology clearly indicated that the risk was vastly smaller than 5%. The probability that the previous smaller tremors would be a sign of a coming big earthquake is small enough so that the average number of people who would die during a hypothetical chaotic evacuation would exceed the expectation value of the casualties of the potential big earthquake (which is low because the probability is low). Because of all these considerations, the scientists recommended everyone not to panic.

There is no currently available scientifically solid way to disprove the opinion that the probability of a big earthquake was indeed extremely tiny and that the earthquake only occurred by a chance because unlikely events with a nonzero probability sometimes have to occur. One could even suggest that it's plausible that the bigger earthquake had nothing to do with the previous tremors. It was surely bad luck for the 309 casualties and their families in L'Aquila but to suggest that this bad lack is the scientists' fault is just incredible. Rare natural catastrophes aren't caused by humans. And you can't or shouldn't decimate the seismological community of a nation just because the nation was affected by an earthquake.

Giampaolo Giuliani who "predicted" a big earthquake (by pointing out some "radon activity", a methodology that looks completely crackpotterish) around the same time has been celebrated as an Italian national hero but he was just a fearmonger who turned out to be "lucky" in one particular episode. If the Italian folks believe that Giuliani can actually predict earthquakes, why they don't ask him to predict other earthquakes that are going to happen in the world? Why didn't Giuliani or his Asian colleagues warned the people ahead of the Himalayan earthquake that killed 100 people today? Such things are happening all the time. I think that they actually know that he has no miraculous scientific or supernatural skills: he was just lucky. But they act irrationally, celebrating a man without a good reason and attacking 7 other people without a reason, too. A typical superstitious attitude to the world: people attempt to give an "anthropomorphic" shape to events whose causes they don't understand.

Scientists are no shamans who can predict everything about the future: this is simply not possible, especially not in fields like seismology. Certain "regular enough" things can be predicted, most others cannot. Everyone who claims to be able to do such things (e.g. the members of the IPCC) is a fraudster. Scientists are no Jesuses Christs who can take the responsibility for the life and decisions of everyone else (and absorb all their guilt). The only thing that scientists or scientifically trained public officials may do is to learn a particular technique that's been developed by science and apply it. In some contexts, the technique is reliable; in others, it's not. The latter includes predictions of large earthquakes. Whether our current limitations in predicting large earthquakes is temporary or will stay with us, it's a fact that must be taken into account while making any judgments about the guilt of anyone in recent years.

Those scientists did exactly what they should do: they applied their knowledge of the discipline – and Italy doesn't have too many experts whose knowledge about seismology matches or beats those of the convincted ones – and they deduced the consequences. The conclusion of this procedure was that the danger was negligible. They shared the conclusion with the people. It just happened that a rather big earthquake was coming but it's not the scientists' fault and according to the current seismology, the elevated threat couldn't have been predicted. There could have been other situations in which the science would know that an earthquake was much more likely, but this wasn't one of them.

There are surely many uneducated people in L'Aquila who are sad or angry and who are looking for scapegoats. But earthquakes – much like weather events – don't have an anthropomorphic culprit. They just follow from the laws of Nature. If some people in L'Aquila and the Italian courts are so intellectually challenged that they're not capable to understand how Nature works according to science, I respect that but at least I urge them to replace their superstitions about witches by superstitions about gods of quakes who can't ever be beaten. Pray to those gods and sacrifice your assets to them if you need to believe pre-historic superstitions but please don't try to link these superstitions to people who don't have anything to do with them.

The only systematic way how similar scientists could protect their skin in a similar environment hostile to science (and its basic property that it is not infallible: falsified predictions are actually the main events driving the scientific progress) would be for them to say that there is a danger at all times. A big earthquake may come at any moment, even without previous warning smaller tremors. Earthquakes in Italy are possible so the only possible solution would be to evacuate most of Italy forever. This is clearly unrealistic. Everyone who lives in an area with a nonzero frequency of earthquakes must get used to a nonzero risk that such an earthquake may arrive at an unexpected time.

In 2009, a bigger earthquake followed smaller ones. But be sure that this is not always the case (or at least the delay may be so short that it doesn't give you enough time for any preemptive maneuvers). Trying to generalize this single natural event and promote it to a law of seismology that every scientist is obliged to worship is totally unscientific and irrational. While the single event may have changed some people's lives, it's still just one earthquake and seismology must take it into account together with thousands of other events (and non-events). The science extracted from all these observations says something else than what the blood-thirsty laymen who only thinks about the single 2009 L'Aquila earthquake seem to have concluded.

Imbeciles vs Galileo in a court room.

So please stop this inhuman theater that resembles the trials against Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno. You are helping to create the image of Italy as a nation of vengeful and irrational savages: the image of Italy as a country of Galileo Galilei seems much more flattering.

While Italian prosecutors believe that earthquake are caused by seismologists, Rick Perry's collaborator unfortunately believes that tornadoes are caused by homosexuals.

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snail feedback (7) :

reader Alessandro said...

It is obvious that you are as bigot as you think i am. You are talking about things that you don't know. Noone is hunting witches here, there are responsibilities and responsibles. And this has nothing to do with unforseen earthquakes, but it's clear that you feel really cool on defending those poor scientists that are prosecuted by the inquisition. But i'm pretty sure you're not going to post this, as you didn't post my last reply.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I have posted all your replies.

Of course that you and similar assholes are hunting witches.

There are responsibilities and responsible people but in a country that has a basic respect for our scientific understanding of the world, seismologists can't be made responsible for the casualties in an earthquake because they didn't cause the earthquake; and they couldn't reliably predict it.

The very fact that you're making the seismologists responsible for the casualties *means* that you are hunting witches. It is *exactly* what the trials against witches were always all about. Someone's daughter died a week after a strange and unpopular new neighbor moved into the village, so the neighbor - a witch - was clearly "responsible" for the daughter's death.

Except that she wasn't and everyone who acts as if she had is an idiotic and evil asshole just like you.

reader Alessandro said...

Again, you know you are talking about things you don't know. If you do, please write here EXACTLY the charge that has been made to those people. If it is "not having predicted that an earthquake would occurr", i'll get down on my knees and kiss your feet.
For example, you don't know that a major safety conference was held a week before the quake, it lasted half an hour, and the official document of that summit was released after the quake...

reader Luboš Motl said...

Ciao obnoxious jerk, it doesn't matter whether a conference lasts half an hour or 50 hours and whether it releases a document or a YouTube music video clip.

Regardless of those things, it's still true that large earthquakes occur randomly and at most some probability distribution and patterns may be predicted which is exactly what those people did.

Italy hired a group of 6+1 people that were most likely to say something sensible about seismology but it still doesn't change the fact that individual earthquakes such as this one occur independently of expectations, conferences, and documents.

If assholes like you were meaning to harass the people in the case that the region is affected by a natural catastrophe, i.e. you wanted to hold the scientists responsible for earthquakes that would occur and their casualties, you should have told the scientists in advance.

I guess that they wouldn't serve on your committee under these insane conditions. A scientist - or anyone else - can't be held responsible for an earthquake because he has no way to influence whether it will occur at a given place and given time.

reader Gab said...

I think you may find this account of the story interesting and a little bit less biased:


reader Eugene S said...

Guilty!! Six years in the slammer for six scientists and one ex-government official. In the quake 309 people died. The BBC report does not mention anything about prosecutions of builders who failed to put enough rebar in concrete...

How many people's lives could have been saved if not for the misallocation of many billions of dollars due to craziness about preventable man-made catastrophic global warming?

reader Luboš Motl said...

It would be much more reasonable to convict the builders but it would still be insane.

Buildings in the real world, much like seismological predictions, just can't be perfect because they would be infinitely expensive, too. Italian village people have a certain amount of money and they may only afford to live in houses with a certain degree of resiliency.
In the case of predictions, even an infinitely expensive facility to predict such things would fail to achieve a 100% success rate.