Further twists in the Italian manslaughter trial of seismologists

L'Aquila house ruin

A panel of seismologists who met just days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy are on trial over their reassurances to the public. WOLFANGO VIA FLICKR UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS.

Back in September when this trial for manslaughter began, many rushed to the defence of the scientists being indicted as being an “attack on science”. I wrote then that indictments for incompetence or negligence or even gross negligence by scientists  should not be confused with being an indictment of the scientific method. Scientists are in a privileged position but that does not mean that they cannot be liable for their incompetence. As the trial lumbers on it becomes clearer that there was indeed some considerable incompetence involved. Now Nature reports that a Californian scientist and earthquake expert is testifying against the defendents:

….. The hearing also included some true scientific debate when Lalliana Mualchin, former chief seismologist for the Department of Transportation in California, testified as an expert witness for the prosecution. In 2010, when news about the indictment broke, Mualchin was among the few experts who openly criticized — and refused to sign — a letter supporting the indicted seismologists signed by about 5,000 international scientists.

Mualchin said that seismic hazards were not properly assessed in L’Aquila. “Italy is one of the countries with the best seismic knowledge in the world. And yet look at what a 6.3 earthquake has done to this city. That knowledge was not used, and scientists are responsible for that. They were conscious of the high risk in the area, and yet did not advise the people to take any precaution whatsoever,” he said.

The problem is in part a scientific one, Mualchin said. The Italian scientists based their analysis on the frequency of earthquakes in the area. This is known as the probabilistic seismic-hazard analysis (PSHA), a method that is state of the art in many countries, but that, in Mualchin’s view, systematically underestimates seismic hazard because it does not consider extreme and rare events.

“Frequency is not important, what really matters is the largest earthquake we can expect, the strongest one that has happened in the past. Risk prevention should be based on that,” he said. This is the philosophy behind deterministic seismic-hazard analysis, a method that Mualchin says has been mostly abandoned by the scientific community, to the point that younger seismologists do not even learn about it.

“PSHA is a bad model California has exported elsewhere, and we see the results here in L’Aquila,” he told Nature after the hearing. Mualchin worries that the new building codes approved in Italy after the L’Aquila earthquake show no improvement. “They never consider the worst-case scenario for any particular area, and this can lead to new disasters in the future”.

The trial continues.

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