Earlier this month the Italian Supreme Court formally and finally overturned the convictions of six scientists who had been charged with manslaughter for failing to adequately warn of the dangers of an April 2009 earthquake that left 309 people dead.
The seismologists had participated in a meeting a week before the earthquake to discuss the dangers of recent smaller tremors in the town of L'Aquila. The original judge had found that their risk assessment of the threat of a larger earthquake had been superficial and inadequate, resulting in townspeople being wrongly reassured that they would be safe in their homes when the earthquake struck.
Series of Earthquakes Threaten Michelangelo's David
The complicated case began in 2010 when the six were investigated and charged, resulting in six-year prison sentences handed down in 2012; the convictions were appealed and overturned last year. That appeal was itself appealed by prosecutors who asked that the convictions be reinstated. This final ruling by the Supreme Court puts an end to the matter for all involved.
According to a Science Insider report, "Six scientists convicted of manslaughter ... were definitively acquitted by Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome following lengthy deliberations by a panel of five judges. But the court upheld the conviction of a public official tried alongside them."
The judges found that that official, Bernardo De Bernardinis - at the time part of Italy's civil protection department - had in fact wrongly reassured the public, while the six seismic scientists had simply stated that the chance of a major earthquake remained the same and thus had neither raised undue alarm nor downplayed the risk of the quake that soon followed. De Bernardinis's jail time was reduced to two years.
Is Not Predicting an Earthquake a Crime?
Life is inherently risky and fraught with dangers ranging from sunlight to cigarettes to eating meat to driving in a car. Minor risks are routinely blown out of proportion in news media reports - the recent WHO finding that meat is carcinogenic is a good example –while the public regularly ignores (or tolerates) much greater risks to their health and lives when they smoke or fail to wear seat belts, for example.
The public often expects certainty from scientists about what will hurt or kill them-a certainty which science cannot provide.