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Seismologists face manslaughter charges for not predicting quake

Seven scientists face prosecution in Italy for allegedly failing to anticipate the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila in which more than 300 died.

I happen to live in something of an earthquake zone and it seems that these things do happen quite randomly, such as when you're sitting at home watching TV.

However, some in Italy feel that it's about time seismologists were held responsible for their supposed ability to recognize when a trembler is going to hit a certain neighborhood.

Science magazine reports that Enzo Boschi, the president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and his fellow seismologists have been charged with manslaughter after they allegedly didn't alert the residents of L'Aquila in Central Italy before a quake hit that town and killed 308 residents.

This might seem insanely harsh. Seismologists do work hard at trying to discover when and where a quake might hit.

However, in this case, it seems that these seven, all of whom sit on Italy's major risks committee, reportedly offered certain words of reassurance that caused some residents of L'Aquila not to abandon their homes, but to stay in an area that had previously experienced some smaller quakes.

L'Aquila after the earthquake. CC Wolfango/Flickr

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella reportedly offered that the seven had held a televised press conference six days before the quake and offered "imprecise, incomplete, and contradictory information."

Some might wonder whether this is what scientists regularly do, however certain their words might sometimes seem. However, Garagarella reportedly further accuses Franco Barberi, the vice chairman of the committee, of specifically stating that no quake was to be immediately expected in the area.

This reassurance, Gargarella reportedly claimed to Corriere Della Serra, "thwarted the activities designed to protect the public."

Science did manage to speak to Boschi's lawyer, Marcello Melandri, who reportedly stated that his client is extremely unhappy at the prospect of this lawsuit. Indeed, Melandri reportedly claimed that Boschi did state that a major earthquake was entirely probable in the region.

The Italian justice system does have its own highly unpredictable fault lines, so one can only speculate as to what political motives might be embedded in this lawsuit. The prospect of scientists' words being parsed in a court of law, though, is one that might make large brains all over the world judder with trepidation.

Sadly, though, words do get remembered at times like these.

Here are some that might haunt at least one of the defendants, Bernardo De Bernardis, at the time vice president of Italy's Civil Protection Department and now president of the country's Institute for Environmental Protection and Research. The Guardian reported that he was asked before the quakes whether residents of L'Aquila should just sit back and relax with a glass of wine.

His reported reply: "Absolutely, a Montepulciano doc (a very nice red wine from Tuscany). This seems important."