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29/09

Don’t pick on the scientist

One of the things we’ve been surprised to learn is the growing trend for holding scientists accountable for predicting natural events, particularly earthquakes.

It is well known that it is impossible to predict earthquakes, yet a growing number of scientists and technicians have come under attack in recent years for their handling of this sensitive subject. It seems that our culture of blame and persistent need for answers has extended even to the scientific community who have always been the first to admit that predicting earthquakes is beyond their reach, and will remain so for some time.

In a move that has stunned the geological community, following on from the large earthquake in L’Aquila in Italy last year, seven scientists are under investigation for manslaughter. In the six months leading up to the earthquake, a series of smaller seismic movements were detected in the surrounding area, including one earthquake measuring 4.0 magnitude on March 30th, a mere seven days before the big quake struck. On March 31st, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency held a meeting with the Major Risks Committee, to assess the risk of a major earthquake. At the time, the committee concluded that there was ‘no reason to suppose a sequence of small earthquakes could be the prelude to a strong event’ and that ‘a major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out’.

At a press conference afterwards, government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Agency told reporters that ‘the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable’. Mr Bernardinis is now under investigation. Was his statement an inappropriate statement to make to the general public? Residents of L’Aquila think so – thirty of them filed an official complaint saying that they themselves and many victims were planning to leave their homes due to ongoing tremors but had changed their minds after the committee’s statements.

To make matters worse, or certainly more shrouded in controversy, at the same time, a month before the quake, Giampaolo Giuliani, a technician and researcher at the Laboratori dell’Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare at Gran Sasso, said he had predicted the quake using a methodology not recognised or endorsed by the scientific community that measured radon gas emissions. Having recorded ominously high levels of the gas he drove around the town in a van with loudspeakers telling people to evacuate their homes. His prediction was snubbed and he was subsequently accused of being alarmist and “an imbecile who enjoyed spreading false news” by Bertolaso, the head of Civil Protection.

This trend for prosecution has fueled a fierce debate within the scientific community, with scientists saying they merely provide information and should not be held accountable for what is done with that information – that task is up to government officials and policy makers. Over 5000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter to Berlusconi urging him to focus on earthquake preparation, rather than holding scientists responsible for something they cannot do – predict earthquakes.

We met with another eminent scientist, Dimitri Papanikoloaou, who was Secretary of State for the Ministry of the Interior for two years. Similarly, he had been accused of ignoring two separate warnings of an earthquake.

Back in 1995, Panagyotis Varotsos, a professor at the University of Athens used his controversial VAN method, in which an impending earthquake is forecast from a characteristic electrical signal in the ground. Varatsos claims he has predicted the last three earthquakes in Greece using VAN but the scientific community remains skeptical, pointing out that the technique has not been properly peer-reviewed and the physics behind the prediction remains unclear.

Dimitri told us more about his background, his focus of study and his on-going battle for geology and geo-science to play a bigger role in politics in such a seismically active country.

It seems that technological progress may be the key to changing how governments perceive and respond to scientific knowledge. Governments want solutions, and often easy ones, which the science doesn’t necessarily accommodate. It maybe with the back up of technological advances that scientific arguments will be better heard.

In this second short film he talks profoundly about the implications of scientists’ role in the era of accountability.

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