Seven of Italy’s leading experts on natural disasters have been sentenced to six years each in prison for giving “false assurances” before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake which killed more than 300 people.
This is a shocking development. It is impossible for me to delve into what the scientists did or did not say to the authorities and the public before the earthquake, or to critique the facts, theories and assumptions on which they based any views they may have expressed. But sending scientists to prison for being wrong, especially when the error is apparent only in hindsight, will have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists and other experts to advise public authorities.
Yes, other scientists may have publicly disagreed with these scientists and might now be in a position to say “I told you so”. But provided there was no malign or reckless intent, how can this be in the public interest? Attempts to predict outcomes from complex systems (meteorology, vulcanology, seismology for example) are rarely straight-forward and generally take the form of risk assessments, not certainties. Is there anywhere else in the world where scientists could be jailed under these circumstances, except in totalitarian states?