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Memo to Italy: It's not a crime to get an earthquake prediction wrong

Memo to Italy: It's not a crime to get an earthquake prediction wrong
Buildings lie in ruins in L'Aquila, Italy, after the 2009 earthquake. (Joe Klamar / Getty Images)

The Dark Ages ended, at least for now, in Italy this week, when an appeals court overturned the convictions of six scientists and a government official who had wrongly predicted that the chances of an earthquake in L'Aquila, where there had been a series of tremors, were very remote. Three hundred people died in the quake that struck within a week of the prediction.

Perhaps they were bad scientists, and certainly no one should have condescendingly told the people of L'Aquila, as one of the group did, that they should relax over a glass of wine. But they did what earthquake scientists do: They studied the situation and came up with a prediction, as they had been asked. They included the necessary caveat that they could be wrong.

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Unless they did their work while drunk or on drugs, it's hard to imagine how scientists can be considered criminals for making a mistake in what is, after all, still an imprecise science.

But the grieving and outraged public was looking for a witch to burn, or in this case, seven witches. What's extraordinary is that the government and a panel of judges were willing to go along, convicting the group and sentencing them to six years in prison and a $10.2-million fine.

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Whether the scientists made avoidable mistakes, or whether others would have come to the exact same conclusion, they're not magicians. Science is not a matter of communing with the devil, but of consulting the best available information.

The appeals court finally brought common sense to a tragic situation. But now these scientists have gone through more than two years of legal battle — they were convicted in 2012 — and who knows what kind of financial cost. It's hard to imagine the seismologist who would provide any kind of opinion at all after this sad and ruinous affair.

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