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AAAS Protests Charges Against Scientists Who Failed to Predict Earthquake

Recent indictments against six scientists and a government official who failed to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy are “unfair and naïve,” AAAS said in a letter of protest sent 29 June 2010 to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

The basis for indictments brought by the local prosecutor in L’Aquila “appears to be that the scientists failed to alert the population of L’Aquila of an impending earthquake,” wrote AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of Science.

“However, there is no way they could have done that credibly,” Leshner continued in his letter to President Napolitano. “Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster.”

Leshner noted that scientists, engineers, and architects should of course play a key role in mitigating earthquakes and other natural disasters by consulting on issues such as appropriate building codes, for example. But, he added: “It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.”

According to a report in ScienceNOW, L’Aquila’s chief prosecutor Alfredo Rossini was quoted by Italian media as saying that the scientists “should have provided the public with different answers.”

The earthquake on 6 April 2009 registered 6.3 magnitude and claimed 308 lives, an English language account on the Life in Italy Web site reports. That account noted that committee members from the Civil Protection Department and the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute (INGV) had concluded that a series of tremors did not necessarily indicate an impending major quake.