Burn the scientists!

June 18th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, predictions, uncertainty | 51 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 19 June 2010

On the 6th of April 2009, an earthquake registering 5.8 on the richter scale hit the town of L’Aquila in Abruzzo, Italy. This was a tragedy, and hundreds of people died. It would be great if we could have firm predictions about every risk whose rare but tragic outcome cannot be accurately predicted, whether it is a flu outbreak, a murder, an illness, or an earthquake. Most of us recognise that this is impossible.

But some find it harder to accept. The L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office have now leapt into action. They have a Commissione Grandi Rischi, after all – a “Commission on Big Risks” – and it’s full of seismologists. If these people can’t predict an earthquake, then what’s the point of them? And so these seismologists are now being indicted and investigated for manslaughter, on account of their failure to warn the population that an earthquake was coming.

You can join various Fellows of various Royal Societies in protesting about this case at qurl.com/quake. Clearly the Italian government would rather be informed by scientists who are happier to throw caution into the wind and make claims in excess of the evidence. Oddly enough, though, that did actually happen, in the week before the earthquake.

Gioacchino Giuliani is a laboratory technician who became convinced that he was able to predict earthquakes by measuring the emission of radon from the ground. He ignored the doubts of seismologists – he has never published his theories or evidence in an academic journal – and invested in several measuring devices to let him make his predictions.

Shortly before the earthquake struck, Giuliani became convinced that something serious was coming. He began desperately trying to warn the public, even posting a video on YouTube explaining his theory, and warning people to evacuate their houses urgently. Vans loaded with loudspeakers were driven around the town to spread the warning. Giuliani tried in vain to persuade the mayor that he was right.

But they did not heed this warning: instead, the local government reported him to the police for spreading unnecessary panic and alarm, forced him to remove his warnings from the internet, and forbad him from telling anyone anything about the coming earthquake.

In reality, of course, Giuliani made a lucky guess (and he was out by 55km). Nothing has changed, and there is still no reliable or validated way to predict an earthquake. Because of this, seismologists around the world are united in explaining that the best way to protect your population is not through an impossible early warning system, but rather by investing in preparedness, to mitigate against the damage done by one rare, unpredictable, horrific outcome.

So you use seismic hazard maps to reliably work out where the risk is greatest, rather than when. You change the specifications in your building code so that homes are less likely to collapse and crush people to death. You insist on retrospective modifications to existing structures. You make sure your population are educated in what to do when the worst happens, and you prepare your emergency services with enduring supplies of the appropriate equipment.

If, in a political emergency, you find you have failed to do all this to universal satisfaction: then you can charge some scientists with manslaughter. But ideally this should be a last resort.


Below is some footage of a recent presentation on risk appraisal by the academic initially approached by the Italian government to head their Commission on Big Risks.

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51 Responses

  1. kierank said,

    June 18, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    It’s a shame to see this considering the Italian Earthquake rescue service is considered the best in the world.

  2. dslick said,

    June 19, 2010 at 2:07 am

    What’s next? Burning witches at the stake? This just defies reason. You couldn’t make it up. The worst kind of political pandering. Good luck finding seismologists to work for you now. Idiots.

  3. AndyD said,

    June 19, 2010 at 6:14 am

    So if the police can’t predict crime, will they be arrested? And if judges can’t predict who’s guilty, will they find themselves in the dock? And if politicians can’t accurately predict the economy…

  4. rueroy said,

    June 19, 2010 at 9:01 am

    I thought that earthquakes are recognised as acts of god. I know he has a long track record of failing to appear in court when asked, but there’s a Italian resident who claims to have a special relationship with him. Wouldn’t he make a more appropriate candidate for prosecution?

  5. oakdale said,

    June 19, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Forgive me for reminding you that one doesn’t “mitigate against” things, one “militates”.

    Apart from that, I agree with everything you say.

  6. umberto said,

    June 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

    The members of INGV are not being prosecuted because they were not able to predict the earthquake. The Commissione Grandi Rischi (CGR) was followed by a press conference during which it was stated that there was no risk for the population because “the small earthquakes that were happening since weeks were actually releasing the energy, thus they were making a big earthquake less likely”. This statement had no scientific basis and caused the death of a lot of people. The investigation is aimed to asses if the responsibility of such declarations relies on the speaker who hold the press conference or on the members of the CGR who, supposedly, provided such information. Therefore, the letter in defense of INGV is an improper intimidation on the Aquila Prosecutor’s office.

  7. rlongstaff said,

    June 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Yet again, those in positions of power who have absolutely *no* understanding of proper risk analysis (or consequent risk mitigation) as well as taking the ignorant extreme position of either science can predict everything perfectly or it’s rubbish.

    Sometimes I long for a technocracy. No doubt it would be far from perfect but could it be any worse than the clowns we have in authority now?

  8. jaycee said,

    June 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I suspect the scientists are in a no win situation, had they recommended an evacuation and the earthquake failed to materialise, they would probably face charges for any deaths caused during the evacuation and also faced other civil legal action for loss of business etc.

    I would hope that should this case come to trial it will end in favour of the scientists, I can’t see how it could be otherwise as it is not currently possible to accurately predict an earthquake.

    If there is to be any blame for the deaths that occurred during this earthquake surely it must be with the politicians and those responsible for ensuring that buildings in a high risk area are built or reinforced to an acceptable standard.

  9. RogerMexico said,

    June 19, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    #7 Unfortunately good scientists tend to be open to the belief that they might be wrong. This is a quality not much prized in politics and may explain why so few science graduates become MPs. Put technocrats in charge and you tend to end up with Lysenkos rather than Darwins.

    The Guilani guy has certainly had a lot of publicity – of course it’s the kind of narrative the media love. Strange how as journalistic standards slip, the desire to hold others to account increases.

    Having said that, seismology always strikes me as such a provisional science (that’s not a criticism) that for all I know there might be something in the radon idea. So much of what’s known seems to be a matter of hints and tendencies, that anything might be in some way informative.

  10. rwuncertainty said,

    June 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Stories like this remind me that the model many people have of what a scientist is can be closer to “magical answer-knowing machine” than to the reality.

  11. CoralBloom said,

    June 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Does this reaction say anything about the diversity (or lack of)the Italian media?

    It has just struck me that perhaps a media owned by too few people/organisations may contribute to a lack of understanding across a whole range of fields including science. I wonder…

  12. JonDurham said,

    June 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    We should turn to the meteorologists, who can apparently predict the future.

  13. Mojo said,

    June 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm


    I think he has diplomatic immunity.

  14. fringed said,

    June 20, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    can someone please explain to me what this has to do with the labyrinth?

  15. NelC said,

    June 21, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Reminds of that story of the two ancient Chinese astronomers who got their heads cut off for failing to predict an eclipse. Difference being, of course, that eclipses are predictable.

  16. Guy said,

    June 21, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Umberto says “This statement had no scientific basis and caused the death of a lot of people.”
    No it didn’t cause the death of a lot of people, the earthquake did that. If you want to be safe then the only sure way is not to live, work or even farm in earthquake prone areas.

  17. jdehls said,

    June 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    There seems to be some misunderstanding of just who is being prosecuted and for what. I am a scientist working in the field of geological hazards. One of my Italian colleagues told me the following when I mentioned this case:

    “1) Heads of Civil Protection and IGV are prosecuted, no scientists are prosecuted because they can not predict eartquakes.

    2) The reason they are prosecuted it is not becuase they didn’t predict the earthquake, but because they said ‘There is no dangerous’.

    3) They are also accused to have manipulated documents of the Major Risk Commision and to have ignored a report of the CNR (research istitute) estimating high probability of earthquake.

    4) The prefektur of Aquila was evacuated some hours before the major event but no alarm was given to the population of the city.

    I think it is good that they are invistigating to clarify what happened.”

  18. dilov said,

    June 21, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    No, no, the earthquakes do not kill. The structures built by humans kill. So, build in steel, build low, be informed where the active faults are and what their properties are … If information is lacking, demand from the administration to fund basic research. Get ready for the next one.

  19. Keo said,

    June 21, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    @umberto, @jdehls,
    Perhaps you have a different source, but all I could find was that the statements were such as “There is no reason to suggest that the sequence of low-magnitude tremors are a precursor to a major event,” or “just because a small series of quakes has been observed” does not point to a large quake, which [he] described as “improbable, although not impossible”.
    I don’t see that these statements are so blatantly unscientific as to warrant jail time. I am not a seismologist, but I would guess that most of the time that there is a series of small tremors there is no big earthquake, as small tremors are very frequent and large ones are not.
    If the prefektur was evacuated *hours* before the big one, they then have the best earthquake predictor in the world. Or perhaps the *evacuated* because it was 3 a.m. in the morning, and most government buildings are closed.

  20. pv said,

    June 21, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    umberto said

    Therefore, the letter in defense of INGV is an improper intimidation on the Aquila Prosecutor’s office.

    What does that mean? Is there such a thing as a proper intimidation of the Aquila Prosecutor’s office?

    This is just more of the usual Italian nonsense, smokescreen and mirrors. If anyone should be prosecuted it is the construction companies and the town officials who allowed such inadequate construction for a known earthquake zone.
    Once again we have yet more evidence of Italy’s endemic corruption and consequent disregard for human life.

  21. Daibhid C said,

    June 21, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Is the fact that the academic in charge of risk appraisal in your video is, in fact, the Goblin King with a crystal ball an intentional gag or an error?

  22. spotthelemon said,

    June 22, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Actually I think Gioacchino Giuliani is owed a bit of an apology, he’s not the first person to suggest Radon may be emitted before earthqaukes and isn’t the only person to working on Radon detectors.

    “a group of physicists, led by physics Nobel laureate Georges Charpak, has developed a new detector that could measure one of the more testable earthquake precursors – the suggestion that radon gas is released from fault zones prior to earth slipping. ”

    – Physicsworld Mar 18 2010


  23. Zwack said,

    June 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Yeah, you’ve obviously got to be suspicious about a method of earthquake detection that hasn’t been subjected to scientific scrutiny but “lucky guess” seems like it’s going a bit far. Surely the point of science is that it can only be put down as a lucky guess if the detection method used is actually proved to be worthless.

  24. skyesteve said,

    June 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    @spotthelemon – but isn’t the point that no current method can predict the magnitude of the quake and that’s what determines whether the quake is devastating or not. There are thousands of quakes a day and most go unnoticed by the population at large. Whilst it’s true that massive quakes tend to be preceded by small tremors these small tremors are very common and virtually none of them progress to a large quake and it’s impossible to tell between those that will and those that won’t!
    Clearly, as others have stated, if you choose to live in earthquake-prone zones (which are well documented the world over) and your politicians decide not to build earthquake-proof buildings or to allow the development of massive urban settlements in these zones (such as Tokyo, LA or San Francisco) you can have little complaint when it blows up in your face.

  25. spotthelemon said,

    June 22, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Sorry I didn’t explain myself properly, There was an implication that Giuliani was some kind of nutter who constructed a homemade radon detector and made a lucky guess. While idea of using the detection of Radon gas to predict earthquakes is far from proven, it is a valid area of research being pursued by reputable scientists as my link shows. Actually it turns out Giuliani works for Gran Sasso National Physical Laboratory where practical research in this area is also being undertaken, while he may not peronally have published on the topic some of his colleques have, if only internally.

    For a technology of this type which is at an early stage of development to be a week and 55km out is not bad.
    As per usual when the media get hold of something it’s getting hard to get to the truth of this story. From what I can make out his view, having spent several years monitoring Radon in the area was that exceptionally high Radon readings were an indicator of a major eathquake, the Civil Protection Agency ignored him so he took it upon himself to warn people by the means given the article and was reported to the police for “scaremongering” and had to pull his warnings off the internet.
    If you’re working on development a an unproven technology for predicting earthquakes and it says there’s going to be a big one, do you ignore it and just let people die on the basis it may be wrong or do you warn them?

    It seems in Italy you can be prosecuted for predicting an earthquake and prosecuted for failing to predict one.

  26. pv said,

    June 22, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Giuliani is a publicity seeker, that’s for sure. And some of the Italian press like him because it’s an easy narrative for them: people died because maverick scientist ignored.

    As has been pointed out by seismologists following the Aquila issue. If you act on every supposed warning about the imminence of eathquakes, some communities would be forever evacuating and reoccupying their towns, mostly to no avail whatsoever – simply because you cannot predict with any certainty at all time, location or strength on an earthquake.

    Giuliani is, it seems, a very misguided man much enamoured of his own perception of his infallibility. Because he’s cried wolf and by chance been nearly but not quite correct, he thinks it validates his idea.
    I don’t think this makes him a good scientist. He’s more of a good publicity seeker.

  27. spotthelemon said,

    June 23, 2010 at 2:02 am

    You may well be right, if you’d just like to the provide the evidence to back up all you claims that that would doubtless settle the matter.

  28. umberto said,

    June 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    your are citing parts from the official report of the Commissione Grandi Rischi (CGR). One of the facts being investigated is that this report was written and signed AFTER the earthquake (declaration of geologist Boschi head of the INGV).
    The meeting of CGR was done because the population was scared and a lot of Aquila citizens were already sleeping in cars or friend’s houses. When the CGR reassured everybody saying “the energy is being released and the risk is lowering” people came back to their homes, where they died.

  29. umberto said,

    June 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    “What does that mean? Is there such a thing as a proper intimidation of the Aquila Prosecutor’s office?”

    I could have said “indecent intimidation” or “unacceptable” or whatever. All of them are adjectives which make the statement stronger. You cannot say that an intimidation can be “acceptable” or “decent” because I stated it is the opposite! You need classes of logic and maybe of English too.

  30. TheDolcetto said,

    June 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments but the situation is very different from the one described.
    Nobody charged the scientists because they didn’t predict the earthquake or merely for that. I can’t write now all the details, .

    Please don’t write comments when your knowledge about the situation in L’Aquila comes from just a post on a blog.

  31. pv said,

    June 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    @umberto said,
    June 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I could have said “indecent intimidation” or “unacceptable” or whatever. All of them are adjectives which make the statement stronger. You cannot say that an intimidation can be “acceptable” or “decent” because I stated it is the opposite! You need classes of logic and maybe of English too.

    With respect, the Prosecutors office is not being “intimidated”, improperly or otherwise. To petition or lobby an authority, or even to complain to it, isn’t to “intimidate” it… except in Italy where over-sensitivity is regarded as a virtue. “Intimidation” is what Italian Politicians do in conjunction with organised crime. “Intimidation” is the function of “Authority” in Italy.

    Incidentally, the English “sensitive” translates as “sensible” in Italian. And Humpty Dumpty was Italian.

  32. Trez75 said,

    June 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Stunning that can happen. I’m pretty surprised that people can be prosecuted for failing to predict natural disasters. I can’t imagine that the Met office would get prosecuted for failing to predict the scale of the floods in Cockermouth, or the snowstorms that we had in January

    P.S. You sure you’ve got the right link for that footage. Seems to show the (albeit rather superb) bit of contact juggling from Labyrinth

  33. TheDolcetto said,

    June 24, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Again. The situation is “slightly” different but please try to do some kind of research on newspapers, even Italian ones (make the effort of trying to read in Italian).

    I’m sorry, I don’t have time right now to collect and translate all the news articles, video and direct evidences I’ve gather in the last 14 months.

    Don’t consider this thing as a sort of persecution of scientists.
    There are people who didn’t do the job they were expected to. People who speculated on this very big disgrace.

    L’Aquila is a dead city (have you ever visited Pompei? Same thing). Many things could have been done before the big earthquake.

    I’m trying to put you in contact with a guy who recorded an interview with Giuliani and with a researcher of INGV (Italian national Institute for Geophysics and volcanology). The video is in Italian but, as far as I know, he is trying to put some subtitles.

    Keep an open mind as scientists are supposed to do, and wait for all the evidences.

    Thank you

  34. pv said,

    June 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    There are people who didn’t do the job they were expected to. People who speculated on this very big disgrace.
    I’m trying to put you in contact with a guy who recorded an interview with Giuliani and with a researcher of INGV (Italian national Institute for Geophysics and volcanology). The video is in Italian but, as far as I know, he is trying to put some subtitles.

    Gioacchino Giuliani was the one who was speculating.
    And I think the scientists involved are intelligent enough to know what is going on now and whether they are being used as scapegoats.
    I should say, because I have been living in Italy for several years and can follow what masquerades as news quite easily, that the the Italian public are through no fault of their own some of the least informed and, therefore, the most ignorant commentators.
    I would trust the scientists involved in this case much more than most Italian news outlets which, like their British tabloid counterparts, have a narrative to sell… “the plucky maverick “scientist” battling against the Establishment conspiracy”.

    In the meantime the residents of L’Aquila are still suffering and the real culprits, local officials, buildings inspectors, builders and the like will all get off scot free while the Italian judicial system mucks about with this fiasco.

    Btw, scientists are not supposed to keep their minds so open their brains fall out.
    And in English the plural of evidence is evidence.

  35. Sqk said,

    June 25, 2010 at 12:22 am

    TheDolcetto, please forgive, but the throwaway part of your comment should have had a note of optimism attached.

    Yes, I have been to Pompei.

    Now, do you mean ‘Pompei’, the modern town, built on the ruins, or the ‘Pompeii’ the Roman city encased in rock for over 1500 years?

    It’s interesting that you should chose it as your comparison, because while you equate the destruction of L’Aquila to the destruction of Pompeii you do a disservice to both. Pompeii was finally destroyed and preserved by a volcano in 79AD. I presume that this is the ‘dead city’ to which you refer. However, 17 years earlier in 62AD it had been destroyed absolutely by a huge earthquake. The destruction was so total that the city was to be abandoned. But like a phoenix it arose and returned to being a thriving, bustling city.

    Cities can resurrect from earthquakes a little easier than from a pyroclastic event and encasement in molten rock and you are equating the two. But more than that, what does this mean you are saying about the hopes and abilities of the residents of L’Aquila?

  36. SteveGJ said,

    June 25, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Who needs seismologists to predict an Earthquake? According to OU life scientist, Rachel Grant, toads 74km from the epicentre were able to predict the L’Aquila earthquake, if only somebody could understand that the reason the amphibians weren’t engaging in their normal spring shags at the seasonal pond was because they had somehow sensed the earth was going to move for them in a completely different way.


    And no, she wasn’t misrepresented by the Guardian reporter on this occasion. The OU being what it is, the paper is available to all.

    And there was me thinking that Silvio Berlusconi was the most famous toad in all of Italy.

  37. Bishop Gillian Wakefield said,

    June 26, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    So what happened to “nullius-in-verba-verba-in-nullius”?

  38. Stooge said,

    June 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    “And so these seismologists are now being indicted and investigated for manslaughter, on account of their failure to warn the population that an earthquake was coming.”

    Got a source for that, Ben? I presume you’ve got a quote from the Aquila public prosecutor Alfredo Rossini that illustrates the validity of the dependent clause. I’m having trouble shaking off the suspicion that without one your article might as well have been entitled ‘Burn the straw man!’.

  39. lookatme6414 said,

    June 28, 2010 at 4:45 am

    ben should visit the family research council and the discovery institute. these organizations are the definition of bad science.

  40. thetallerpaul said,

    June 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    I remember Mr Fish telling me there was no hurricane coming. All of a sudden I feel litigious. Where is that number for Claims Direct. That guy of the Bill reckons they are straight shooters.

  41. Aquila said,

    July 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Let’s try to start from scratch.

    There is no current reliable method for short term forecasting of earthquakes.

    So, claiming that on day X there will be an earthquake is unscientific.

    Also, claiming that there SURELY will be no earthquake is unscientific.

    To save lives, we can’t count on forecasting. We must count on preparation.


    So, let’s see what the Commissione Grandi Rischi did.

    They met on March 31. They wrote NO FINAL CONCLUSIONS of the meeting. They held a press conference, though. In the press conference it was clearly stated that there was NO RISK at all. Let’s see what was said: “La comunità scientifica conferma che non c’è pericolo, perché c’è uno scarico continuo di energia; la situazione è favorevole”.
    Translating into English: “The science community confirms that there is no risk, because there is a continuing discharge of energy; the situation is favourable”.

    This is a clear forecast: no deadly earth quake is going to happen. As we saw, there was no scientific basis for this forecast.

    There was also some mumbo-jumbo about a “normal seismic sequence”. I could never find what a “normal seismic sequence” is on any seismology book. I could find a definition for a “normal fault line”, but nothing about seismic sequences. Mumbo-jumbo, not scientific language.

    All of this was capped with a patronising comment by Bernardo de Bernardinis (vice director of the civil protection of Italy, already under criminal investigation for other unrelated issues) who recommended everyone to have a good glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine instead of worrying.

    This was probably the only scientifically sound advice in the whole press conference (recent studies say that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties).

    Some people in L’Aquila didn’t trust the commissione anyway. Unfortunately, some did. So, when on April 5, at 22:48 (local time) there was a 3.9 Ml quake, they didn’t run away. When two hours later, at 00:39, there was another 3.5 Ml shock, some people didn’t run away because the commissione had said there was no risk.
    Some of the people who had run away from their homes got back inside, after an hour or so, because “scientists” had just said that there was no risk.
    Then, at 03:32 there was a 6.3 Mw quake. 308 deaths. Some of them were unavoidable. Most of them were due to poor buildings. A few of them were the fault of antiscientific claims by the commissione grandi rischi.

    A few days later, they realized they needed to cover their backs. So that’s when they really wrote the final conclusions of the meeting. In perfect 20/20 hindsight, they used expressions such as “improbable, although not impossible”. Of course, they didn’t say that when they were addressing the general public. They didn’t say that since there was some risk, it might have been useful to start preparations. Review building evacuation plans. Stockpile emergency materiel. Inform the population on what to do during an earthquake. Such precautions would have lessened the impact of the quake, at a small cost and without generating panic.

    So, no, there are no seismologists being indicted for a failure to forecast. There are pseudo-scientists being indicted for a totally unfounded forecast which ultimately proved lethal.

    This is a criminal behaviour, and should be confronted with criminal charges. Judges will decide whether such bad science is a crime, but in the meanwhile the scientific community should ask for the resignation of all the people involved in this shameful event.

    Thank you for your attention from a L’Aquila resident who loves good science.

  42. Aquila said,

    July 1, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    A few replies to some individual comments./

    @jaycee: it’s not true that scientists are in a no-win situation. Scientists can always save their integrity by saying “we can’t predict an earthquake”. Witch-doctors have no integrity to defend, so they can safely say “we foresee no quake will happen, so stay calm”. Which is what the “commissione grandi rischi” did.

    @rwuncertainty: I agree that politicians and the general public expect a scientist to be “magical answer-knowing machine”. A witch-doctor pretending to be a scientist will bask in this image, and relish in giving advice such as “don’t worry and have a glass of wine”. A scientist wouldn’t have been ashamed to say “I don’t know”.

    @CoralBloom: you’re correct about italian media. There isn’t much attention to scientific fact, which allows pseudo-scientists to climb into important public bodies such as the Commissione Grandi Rischi.

    @pv: local officials and builders were already being investigated since a long time when the prosecutors also started looking at the members of commissione grandi rischi. So, as you can see, the prosecution has its priorities correct.

  43. clep said,

    July 2, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    All the readers of this article (and Ben Goldacre as well) have to carefully read the comments offered above by Aquila which paint a far more accurate picture of what really happened in Italy.
    The situation is quite different than a witch-hunt of scientists, and the misunderstanding springs from the fact that the subject matter is not one that Ben Goldacre is familiar with. It also does not help that with Britain not being an earthquake prone country it is very difficult to visualise how traumatic such an event is.
    The reality is that in countries that have earthquakes, seismologists are not just some obscure scientists but actual public figures and (some of them) household names. The fact that earthquakes cannot be predicted does not stop them at giving high profile patronizing interviews, usually with the aim of calming the populace after the latest earthquake rumour. Only rarely will they actually admit that they cannot really predict earthquake. After a series of minor earthquakes they will invariably repeat the seismological cliché that “energy has now dissipated” although they should know that a major earthquake is often preceded by pre-earthquake tremors.
    (By the way in a series of tremors, the biggest one will be called an earthquake, all the ones before it pre-seismic tremors and all the ones after it post –seismic tremors. No one knows which one is the main earthquake until after the series of tremors end, which sounds to me almost like a circular argument)
    And although the guy that claims he predicted the earthquake is almost certainly wrong, his method is not really much different than every method ever put forward by seismologists (based on detecting emissions or sound waves) .
    Seismologists have a reason to exist only if we believe that at some point in the–not so distant- future they will be able to predict earthquakes. Otherwise they will have quite a lot of explaining to do about their huge research grants. Until then it would be great if they could keep quiet. Building codes are updated by structural engineers and seismic hazard maps are only as good as the last earthquake.

    Now I like Goldacre’s blog and I’ve bought his book but this article is not different than the quasi-scientific stuff he so much criticises. Back to medicine please….

  44. TheDolcetto said,

    July 6, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    @ Sqk,

    I apologize for my mistake, I meant Pompeii, the roman city destroyed by Vesuvio volcano in 79ad.
    I really hope you are right about l’Aquila.
    I went there the 6th of Aprile of this year for the Anniversary of the earthquake. The city center is severely damaged and with this I mean the buildings are still standing because shored up but unfit for use. The economy of the city and of the small villages around it, mainly based on tourism and small family-owned business, is stuck because few people want to go to a place affected by an earthquake on vacation. Besides many people still live in the hotels near the sea cost completely isolated from any activity and decision concerning the life of their city.

    I have many pictures of the city I personally took, if you want I can find a way to let you have them.


    I live in Italy and I can assure you I’m aware about the situation of free information. My source of information is only internet, I don’t watch any TV news and I seldom read some newspaper (I mean the paper version). Actually the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” head is tightly connected to Protezione Civile (Civil Protection) and Berlusconi government, who is accused to manipulate the information in Italy (My personal opinion is that he really does). So it is a Berlusconi-connected Institution that has been charged. Only the trial will say who is innocent and who is not.

    Now regarding the matter of scientist, forget about Giuliani, whose role is controversial, for a minute and read what Aquila wrote few comments above, he/she perfectly explained what really happened. Something I couldn’t do for a lack of time and deep knowledge of the subject.

    I would also suggest to watch Sabina Guzzanti’s movie “Draquila” presented at Cannes film festival this year. I’m sure there is a version with english subtitles. Even if sometimes I don’t like Guzzanti’s style, this movie resembles Michael Moore directing style, and I think it is very interesting.


    Thank you very much for what you wrote.

    I hope I have been clear this time

  45. TheDolcetto said,

    July 6, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    @pv Thank you for correcting my english, I’m not a native speaker as you could understand and sometimes I make some mistakes like any other human being on the earth face. Even english speakers made mistakes in the comments above. It is nice that of all the things other people and I wrote you noticed every single mistake.
    I’d encourage you again to read what Aquila wrote.
    Thank you also for your funny joke about keeping owns mind open, don’t worry you are not going to lose your brain.


  46. soulinafishbowl said,

    July 16, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Some considerations:

    Giuliani: a week before the L’Aquila event, he did the prediction that the city of Sulmona (50 km far from L’Aquila) would be subject to a big earthquake. Never happened.
    Even if we admit that an actual event would be forecasted by Giuliani, what about sensitivity and specificity? Can you trash them away?

    L’Aquila event: I’m ready to admit that the statement at the press conference (cfr. @umberto and @Aquila) was at least very bad. But to be really honests and cynicals, there’s really a difference between the pratical implications of the statements “there’s no risk” and “we cannot forecast the risk”. I mean, you don’t evacuate if I say “no risk”. Did you evacuate instead if I say “no forecast”? The consequences would really have been differents?

    To be REALLY cynical:
    what’s the danger of an earthquake of intensity 5.9 Ritcher in a known seismic zone in a developed country? The expected real danger?
    A seismologist would know that the walls of the buildings will crash because they are unlawfully built with sand? A seismologist would know this? Really?
    Do you evacuate a city if you forecast a 5.9 Ritcher earthquake in a G8 country? Really?

  47. Aquila said,

    July 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm


    Giuliani: there is no record of his prediction about Sulmona. The mayor of Sulmona claims that Giuliani told him so on the phone. Giuliani claims he told him the opposite. No third party listened to the phone call. So we don’t know what they said. At the time Giuliani was being investigated for “causing alarm”, so he didn’t talk publicly at all.

    L’Aquila event: there is a big, big difference between saying “there is no risk at all, so please don’t worry, and please have a glass of wine instead” and saying “we can’t forecast anything, so you’re on your own”. Lots of people remained indoors after a 3.9 Ml quake and a 3.5 Ml second quake because they had been told that nothing was going to happen. Evacuation is not the only response. Public preparedness is an answer, and nothing was done on that front.

    About the cynical remark. The real question is “what is the danger which the Commissione Grandi Eventi could expect, given the data they had?”. The data they had said that most schools were not seismically secure. The data they had said that most strategic public buildings were not seismically secure. The data they had said that there had been no preparation at all for the population. A seismologist might not know the status of buildings. However, Protezione civile did know. And the Commissione Grandi Rischi includes people from different bodies to account for this. There had been a study which had been commissioned a few years later, after the San Giuliano di Puglia quake, another earthquake which, according to its magnitude, should have caused no problem, but instead caused around 30 deaths.
    So, of course, a seismologist who only deals with pure research might be excused if he believes that a town such as L’Aquila might survive an earthquake of the expectable magnitude for that area (which could have been up to 6.5 Mw). The vice director of Protezione Civile must know otherwise.

    Also, please don’t perpetuate the myth that the only response to a coming earthquake is evacuation. Of course, in the case of the 1975 Haicheng earthquake, evacuation saved an estimated 150.000 lives out of a population of about one million, but that’s not the only action you can take in advance to save lives.
    Alertness can save lives.
    Suppressing alertness is criminal behaviour.

  48. soulinafishbowl said,

    July 24, 2010 at 1:18 am

    @ Aquila

    Giuliani: I didn’t know. I suspend the judgement about this point.

    L’Aquila event: personally, I think you’re right. But my comment was a possible explanation of why they act as they do. I’m not justifying them, I give only my opinion of the reasoning behind the decisions. This is a personal opinion and, I want to put it evident, I haven’t taken the same decisions. But I’m a physicist and I will never be a politician.

    I don’t want to say that evacuation is, in general, the only response to an earthquake. In this case an early (let say, january) evacuation was the only safe option. If you want that preparedness works, both people and buildings must be earthquake-ready. It is useless that a person know that he has to run out of his house or under a table if the house crash in a few seconds. If you know that some buildings are not seismic secure, you only have to evacuate. You destroy the buildings and let people comeback only in new houses.
    If you want alertness, the population must posses all informations available.

    They known that. Me too I’m sure of this.
    Why they don’t alerted the population and/or evacuate? Because they believed that it wouldn’t be a “politically” viable option. They couldn’t say “we are not sure about your security, leave your houses.” How many people? For how much time? And if they can’t say the truth, the remaining option would be evacuate only in the sureness of the earthquake. But you can’t forecast it. So, for whom who take the decisions, “no forecast” and “no risk” would bring to the same decision. Don’t act. Wait. Do nothing.
    I believe that this is what happened.
    Suing scientists are only a way to say “we’re doing something”.

    I hope I was clearer now, but I’m not so sure.
    I repeat, I haven’t act the same way, and I’m not justifying them. But if you want to know why this happened, you too you have to think politically, and not rationally. Because they thought politically.

    Another example will be the Vesuvio eruption. There exists a plan, there is some degree of preparedness and alertness, but the plan will fail due to the insufficiency of the outgoing ways and the higher population density. To eliminate this obstacles is possible. But this is a political decision, not a rational decision. I think this is sad.

  49. Aquila said,

    August 6, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Part of the defence of the accused members of the commissione was “we couldn’t evacuate both L’Aquila and Sulmona; what if we moved the people from Sulmona to L’Aquila and the the earthquake struck L’Aquila?”.

    That is very disingenuous, and that’s why I keep insisting that there are many more short-term precautions one can take, short of evacuation.

    Most people didn’t know that you don’t run out of a building while it’s still shaking (many still don’t).

    The students in the student house (who had complained because they said the building was unsafe) were told to sleep in the ground floor, so they could run away, in case. Of course, in a reinforced concrete building, the top floors are safer. Maybe some of the eight students who died in that building could have survived, had they slept in a higher floor.

    While rebuilding (or at least reinforcing) buildings is the safest solution in the long term, simply avoiding unsafe buildings would have been a good stopgap measure.

    I agree that evacuation is perceived as a politically non-viable option. Again, there was no need to order full evacuation.

    Just saying “there might be risk, have an engineer take a look at your home and then decide what to do” would have been much more honest and safer.

    Of course, to say that you have to say “there is a risk”. Which is why saying “there’s a risk” is different from saying “we can foresee that there is no risk”.

    Also, since the members of the commissione were acting as politicians, you can’t say we’re suing scientists. We’re suing bad politicians. And I believe suing bad politicians is very good. Darwin can explain you why :-)

    I don’t know what languages you do speak. This news article is enlightening:

    They report the views of a seismologist who could see what was being said in the meeting of the commissione. Very interesting. Too bad there is no english language translation.

    About Vesuvio. I know very well. But AFAIK in that case the INGV never hid the dangers. It keeps saying to politicians that they have to create more roads, make evacuation tests more often (I think there was only one done, ever), and start seizing and destroying illegal homes.

    If scientists do their duty as whistle-blowers, then the ball is in the court of the politicians, and they have to act or face the consequences.

    If scientists hide the risk, then they become as bad as bad politicians. And they can’t complain when the consequences fall on them.

  50. solidsquid said,

    August 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I realise this is an older post, but I’m amazed to see that David Bowie has managed to gain such a good reputation within academia that the Italian government has brought him in as a consultant. Good for him!

  51. Aquila said,

    August 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    David Bowie would certainly have done a much better job than Boschi, Barberi and so on!