The following post expresses my personal opinion on the verdict in which some members of a scientific (or supposedly scientific) board organized by the Italian Risk Management Commission were found guilty of slaughter. It mainly draws on the national and international news press which, according to my analysis, provides a misleading idea of what went on during the trial. My main target of critique is a BBC Article which provides a very poor account of the facts. However, I am still waiting to read (possibly with the help of some lawyer friend) the “reasons” of such a verdict, of which I try nonetheless to provide with consistency in relation to the Italian context.
I am ready to change my mind if the verdict proves to be unjust. By the way, I do not think it will turn out to be as gross as it was depicted by the media. I am always interested to examine how the portraial of facts on behalf of the media could raise irrational and emotional reactions among the public.
Looking back at the comments on the BBC website, I feel the urge to reassure the English-speaking public that those people seemed to have been convicted because of what they said and did while filling the role of public officers — and not because of their role as “scientists.”
Moreover, it should beobserved that the falsely reassuring claims where broadcasted to the public during a risk assessment meeting on spot that did everything except assessing the risk. As its organizers admitted, it was meant to be a purely media operation whose goal was that to “shut up those idiots which are scaring the population.” Some of them also claimed: “I do not carry on field study any more. I just coordinate activities and quitted active academic engagement.”
The problem is that, among those “idiots,” there was not only that fake scientist (Giuliani) which stirred the public opinion by claiming he could predict an earthquake (false claim — he got it right by mere chance). There were also other “idiots” (such as Dr Moretti): all of them where actually the members of the Department of Geology of L’Aquila, which had repeatedly asked to be included in the risk assessment committee because to their extensive and deep knowledge of the territory. Their intervention was aimed at stressing how bigger earthquakes were not predictable, but statistically far from being incidental, thus inviting the people to prepare for the worse since they lived in one of the most dangerous places in the World — for what concerns earthquakes. However, their equally valuable scientific opinion was turned down and they had been labelled by the Committee as “whistle-blowers whose aim was that of creating panic.” Then came the “idiot” insult on behalf of the former Government Risk Committee manager.
So, not only the Panel met at L’Aquila by claiming they were conducting a survey, while they were actually just expressing their own personal opinions. In addition, most of them, in their interview, suggested people that the whole pattern of shakes, recorded as early as 2007, was perfectly ordinary — although most of the scientists believed it was “a unusual pattern that displayed a growth of intensity and depth of quakes on the same spot,” which “in scientific literature is well-known under the name of ‘predictive’ quakes.” They also did not stress, although acting as public officers, on the need to prepare some risk management plans for the people… which is something the whole Country is lacking since the early construction boom of the Sixties — mainly due to corruption and bad policies. Meanwhile, the other scientists had their mouths shut, because after the Committee emanated its own verdict, any contradiction was going to be prosecuted as “interruption of public service.”
In conclusion, those “scientists” are not being charged of slaughter for the fact they expressed their own opinions, but for the fact they lied to the public in many ways while assuming the role of public officers. In some ways I do not rank among those scientists around the world who publicly declared their indignation for the court’s verdict. I think they were rightly prosecuted not as scientists but as members of the public administration which had overlooked the necessity for quick and steady countermeasures to prevent deaths and harm as a consequence of a risk whose date was clearly uncertain, but whose happening was considered inevitable. When they became public officers, they accepted to took responsibility for their decisions. The decisions were blatantly wrong and misleading, so the court trial came into play.
Finally, for the sake of justice… I too think the verdict was too harsh (6 years of prison for slaughter… but probably they will spend less than 1 year in jail). However, Italian justice grants up to three levels of trial, and it is not uncommon for a higher court to overthrow the verdict of a lower one after new evidences are being provided.
The whole BBC idea that the verdict was a consequence of the blame for not having predicted an earthquake is false and misleading.
They are being convicted because, although knowing the risk was certain (but its date not precisely knowable) they did not take up the necessary public countermeasures while acting as member of the Risk management board.
P.S.: The idea itself of this verdict being a “precedent” is misleading too, because we are not under the common law. Hence, since it was just the first level of trial, it is very unlikely for this to become part of the jurisprudence.
Other sources (Italian):