No one can predict earthquakes. Though many have claimed to do so over the years, all have been proven wrong. The science we have today can at best give us an indication on the likelihood of an earthquake happening in the span of a few years or tens of years.
That didn't stop one Italian court from sentencing
seven seismologists for failing to predict one such earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 300 people in 2009.
The area had been hit by a series of earthquakes, 400 of them, over four months. The people were worried and a local began saying that a major tremor was on its way based on the scientifically unproven method of measuring radon emissions.
A panel of experts was brought in to assess the danger. The seismologists found that there was no indication of a major earthquake coming and that, if anything, risks should be lower since the tension in the plates was being released gradually.
It turned out that a major earthquake was on its way and hit the region hard
. 300 people lost their lives, more than 1,000 their homes.
The seven experts were accused by prosecutors of making false reassurances that resulted in many people not fleeing the region or staying in home when the earthquake started which they claim led to a greater loss of life.
Among those prosecuted are some of Italy's leading seismologists and geologists. The scientific community jumped to their defense, some 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to the Italian president urging him to stop the farce.
Still, the judge only took four hours to deliberate and sentenced the men to six years in prison for manslaughter, two more than what the prosecution asked for.
They're also barred from holding public office and will have to pay €7.8 million, $10.16 million in damages. Sentences are not considered final until an appeal in Italy, so no one is going to jail.
Still, the decision sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community both in Italy and elsewhere.
The reason is simple, if scientists are going to be sent to prison for failing to make a prediction or for making an erroneous decision based on the evidence they had and the best of their abilities, no one is going to say anything anymore.
Experts will not risk going to jail for something they say, leaving the government and the public with much less reliable information. There was a time when scientists were put on trial in Italy, but the Inquisition is, thankfully, long over.