Friday, October 26, 2012

"TO ERR IS HUMAN"

This has been quite a week for surprising court judgements in Italy but in the wake of a 5.0 earthquake which struck the Massiccio del Pollino [Calabria and Basilicata] at 1.05 this morning - there are no fatalities reported as a direct result of the quake* - I'm going to leave aside this afternoon's announcement regarding Mr Berlusconi and talk about Monday's "earthquake trial" verdict. 

News of the six-year prison sentence passed on six scientists and the former deputy director of Italy's Civil Protection organisation, all of whom were members of the country's Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Serious Risks, travelled around the world and met, mostly, with disbelief.  Scientific opinion was divided but the majority of experts concurred that it is impossible to predict earthquakes and Italy found herself once again the object of ridicule. Meanwhile, many Italian parliamentarians condemned the sentence and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Gianfranco Fini said he trusted that the verdict would be overturned at the first appeal.  Yesterday Italy's Environment Minister said the only precedent for such a judgement was the case of Galileo and today a Cabinet meeting refused to accept the en masse resignations, offered in protest at the verdict, of other members of the Risks Commission. 

There seems to be broad agreement, then, that the scientists, however learned, should not be punished for their failure to predict an unpredictable event - nor will they be, for this was not the charge.  The men were tried, not for failure to predict a major quake but for being too reassuring towards the citizens of  L'Aquila in the six months prior to the terrible earthquake of 6th April 2009.  In the words of the judge, at a meeting one week before the quake, they gave "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information on the danger of tremors in the six months prior to 6th April 2009."  It has been implied that, because of the scientists' reassuring statements, some people stayed in their houses and died on the night of the quake, whereas if they had gone out into the street they might have lived.

So are we talking about professional error or poor communication? Very possibly both and surely anyone who has been in any position of responsibility will sympathise with seismologist Enzo Boschi, who, in obvious distress after the judgement, said, "I still don't understand what I've been convicted of."  

Given that errors of judgement do happen at work, are the errors of some professionals more serious than those of others?  I guess most of us would agree that they can be if the professionals in question are teachers on a school trip, doctors or perhaps seismologists.  But all these people are human too and where there are humans there will always be human error.

My opinion? I am not qualified to give one in this sad case so I merely state the facts for your perusal and ask the questions that come to mind.

  *Pollino:  an 84-year-old man is reported to have died of a heart attack, probably caused by fear, in Scalea.  Tonight many people in the area are frightened and are sleeping out in the open.

3 comments:

jams o donnell said...

To mind the decision to give the scientists a prison sentence is perverse in the extreme. They look like scapegoats for all the other failures in the tragedy.

If I were an Italian scientist I would seriously consider employment somewhere outside of Italy

rosaria williams said...

I do hope there were few casualties in this last earthquake! As far as predicting earthquakes, the science is still growing. The only thing we can do is to be prepared, build or retrofit buildings to withstand more seismic shifts, or move to areas that are not prone to such calamities.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

They probably are scapegoats to a degree, jams but it seems more and more that they didn't communicate very well with the people of the area. No casualties in the Pollino one other than the man who died of a hear attack, Rosaria. As you know, the whole of Italy is at risk and few comuni have the money to strengthen buildings. Most people are unable to move for economic reasons.

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