Data in the dock

While a few Italian physicists have been enjoying their time in the spotlight, some others have been less enthused about public attention for their interpretation of data. Especially as they are now on trial for manslaughter.

Late last month, researchers at the Gran Sasso laboratory declared that they had seen neutrinos travelling faster than light, violating a central tenet
of physics. Their reading of the data is controversial - perhaps more controversial than the interpretation of data by six experts assessing earthquake threats at nearby L'Aquila.

Unfortunately for the six earthquake scientists and engineers, they could now face 15 years in jail each. According to the prosecution, they provided "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information", resulting in an inadequately prepared population and 309 people dead when an earthquake struck L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

No one is claiming that the experts should have predicted the earthquake. But, according to the prosecution, they played down the risks more than the information available merited. The claim is that they did not, as required, take into account the fragility of buildings and the number of people at risk. Given the scientific advice, the prosecutors allege, a jittery public became too relaxed.

The advice of the L'Aquila Six was motivated partly by discomfort over the way a retired technician from the Gran Sasso lab had been interpreting the release of radon gas from rocks in the L'Aquila region. Newspapers had been publishing Giampaolo Giuliani's alarming radon-based earthquake predictions. As a result, the local people were scared and confused; the official line was different - that a major earthquake event was unlikely.
The experts held a meeting to discuss the problem with officials, and then staged a press conference at which a Civil Protection Agency official, Bernardo de Bernardinis, told journalists that there was "no danger" and encouraged them to go and have a glass of wine.

Damage done

The six say that de Bernardinis, who also stands accused of manslaughter, misinterpreted their comments. Prosecutors argue that the experts were negligent nonetheless.

The case has caused outrage among scientists across the world, but it remains to be seen whether this reaction is justified. Raw data is inherently unreliable. The Gran Sasso neutrino researchers know this, which is why, after six months of checking and failing to find a flaw (and having their hand forced by an insider's blog post), they opened their doors and invited others to inspect their data. Even if an embarrassing mistake is found, it is unlikely to have an adverse effect on the image of science. The L'Aquila case will leave a much graver legacy.

The panel of experts no doubt made it clear to their employers that science is not able to forecast earthquakes reliably. The question that will now be addressed is whether they misrepresented what their abilities did enable them to do, and whether they fulfilled all the obligations placed on them.

The damage is done, however: the case has already set many scientists against offering any kind of official advice. In a world beset by problems that need scientific input, that can only be a bad thing.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression