The Aquila Earthquake Verdict: Where the Guilt May Really Lie

Time has just published my story on the convictions of seven Italian experts for not having warned the city of Aquila of the risk of an earthquake.

When a judge in Italy ruled Monday that seven experts were guilty of manslaughter for having failed to adequately warn citizens in the city of Aquila of a major earthquake, the verdict was met in the courtroom by stunned silence. Internationally, it was greeted with outrage. Scientists claimed that science itself was on trial. Columnists compared the conviction, in which each man was sentenced to six years in prison, to the persecution of Galileo. In Italy, on Tuesday, the head of the country’s disaster management agency resigned in protest. But whatever one thinks of the judgment–and there are more reasons than not to be concerned–the greatest danger may lie elsewhere: that anger over the verdict will distract from the very real lessons the case has to offer.

At issue is a meeting of the seven defendants, then members of a board called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, in Aquila on March 31, 2009. Small tremors had been rocking the area for months, light shocks that rattled buildings and sent frightened citizens into the streets. To make matters worse, a local resident who wasn’t a scientist was using an unproved method of earthquake prediction, analyzing concentrations of radon gas to forecast the time and place of tremors. His findings–which proved unfounded–were being picked up by the local media, adding to the sense of panic.

Read the rest.