Public Warning and The Science Behind EM

Rescuers at the L’AQUILA, Italy earthquake.

I was completely shocked to read this article at NBC News about six scientists and a government official in Italy being convicted of manslaughter and causing criminally negligent injury for their failure to predict an earthquake in 2009.  The article doesn’t give a lot of background, including what their statements or warnings may or may not have been.  It does mention that there were several smaller quakes in the months preceding a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed over 300 people.  It goes on to elude that the scientists (seismologists, presumably) perhaps didn’t give these smaller quakes much consideration as possible precursors to a larger earthquake.

I’m not a geologist, nor do I play one on TV, but we all know that we can’t predict earthquakes with any measure of reliability.  Here in the northeast there are plenty of small quakes, which are generally no cause for alarm.  Italy, however, is earthquake prone.  One would think that people would have in their minds that the possibility of a sizeable earthquake is always present, especially after a series of smaller earthquakes.  Unless these scientists really downplayed that possibility (which would be ludicrous in that region of the world), I just don’t see how they can be held responsible.  Some disasters we can predict, others – such as earthquakes, we just can’t.  This is a dangerous precedent that I truly hope doesn’t catch on.  There are scientists in a variety of fields that are strong partners with emergency management.  While we know that the sciences (or the human interpretation of them) are often times imperfect, we go with the best information available to drive the planning and decisions we make.  Admittedly, it’s a gamble to a degree – a darn dangerous gamble – but I challenge anyone to find a better way.  If we cry wolf every time the possibility of something occurs, the population will become complacent and ignore our warnings.  We must strive for better science, achieve better balance, and maintain common sense.

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