15 July 2011

L'Aquila Prophesy

On 6 April 2009, a Magnitude 6.3 earthquake devastated the small town of L’Aquila in central Italy.  It was caused by movement on a NW-SE normal fault in a region known for tectonic activity and volcanism (there is a reason for Vesuvius and those Alps). Over 300 people died.

There were a number of fore-shocks, something not unusual for an earthquake-prone region, and they were sufficient that local officials asked for advice from six seismologists and a government official. A week before the main event, these individuals gathered as a panel to review data, and afterwards at a press conference assured the public that they were in no danger. Their reasoning: that any potential fault energy was already being dissipated with these small shocks.

In May 2011, an Italian judge gave the go-ahead for a trial for these individuals. The charge: manslaughter.

What’s happening here? Seven individuals are being charged in court for failing to predict correctly the devastation that was about to happen.  If convicted, they could spend up to 12 years in jail.

Is this right? Can you throw people in jail for failure to prophesy correctly? Italian jurisprudence certainly seems to think so.

The consequences of this trial are being felt far and wide in the scientific community. There have been impassioned letters sent to the Italian judge by European scientific societies, and among other entities the American Geophysical Union.

The US Geological Survey felt sufficiently moved by this to host a two-hour-long, web-based briefing for scientists about their legal liability for doing their science under US Law.

Bottom line: if you do your job in good faith as a Federal scientist, you are un-touchable by the Federal government prosecution because of several protective Federal laws, and you are untouchable by any other state or municipal government because of the Supremacy Clause in the US Constitution.

A volcanic eruption can be approximately forecast - the timing approximately, but the extent of damage and duration less so.

A hurricane can be forecast in a narrower window of time, but again, the extent of damage can only be estimated ahead of time very imprecisely.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted. The Dow Jones Industrial average cannot be predicted.

In both cases you can make some statistical forecasts based on past history, but they assume history will repeat, and most people would consider a statement like 'there is a 31% chance that the Hayward Fault will rupture in the next 50 years'... to be close to useless for them personally. Well, sure... so what am I supposed to do about it? Not totally useless: you can use this number to appeal for more funds to retrofit buildings and strengthen building codes.

The FACT of your death can be predicted: it will happen.  Forecasting the timing of your death is entirely different; your lifestyle and parents’ longevity weakly correlate with how long you can expect to live, but that's all you can say. Statistically, Mormons live longer and healthier than the rest of the population, but my friend Mike, an LDS chef, died last year of lung cancer from who knows what fumes in his kitchen.

Scientists are not prophets, seers, or revelators... though these roles are something that we implicitly demand of all politicians and managers.

Research geophysicist sounds just fine to me as a career choice - and I can even spell it.


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