Science and Law: Rattled by Quakes

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Science  16 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6062, pp. 1472
DOI: 10.1126/science.1217478

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When good risk assessments improve financial, environmental, or health decisions, society often does not recognize the combined efforts of stakeholders who brought good management to bear. But when disaster strikes, the interface between science and public policy can come into question. A recent example is the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck the Italian city of L'Aquila in early April 2009, destroying 20,000 buildings, displacing 65,000 people, injuring more than 1500, and killing more than 300. This region suffered earlier severe earthquakes and experienced swarms of tremors beginning in 2008. A National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks met briefly in late March 2009 to evaluate and communicate the risks in L'Aquila. In September 2011, the six scientists and one bureaucrat comprising this commission were put on trial in Italy. The charges are not simple, and the trial is expected to last months or years. The indictment raised outcries from many geoscientists and some scientific organizations, who pointed out that no scientific method reliably predicts the occurrence of an earthquake. The controversy also raised questions about how well scientific information is conveyed to the public and how well policymakers and lawyers understand the nature of science.