Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven”

Abstract

The trial and conviction of seven public officials in L’Aquila, central Italy, for having allegedly given out misleading and incorrect information to the public before the 6 April 2009 earthquake has proved to be one of the most momentous developments of recent times in science and disaster risk reduction—and also one of the most misunderstood. It highlights the difficulty in transforming the findings of the earth sciences, which are often characterised by uncertainty, into information that can be used to protect ordinary citizens. This paper describes those elements of the disaster at L’Aquila which are pertinent to the trial and the legal proceedings that followed them. It analyses the political, social and scientific context of the trial, and the reaction of scientists and their institutions in Italy and other countries. I conclude that the defendants were tried as responsible public officials, not as scientists. The mass media in Italy and abroad tended to insist that what was on trial was the ability to predict earthquakes, and this had an enormous influence on the opinion of scientists in many different places. However, the trial was actually about the apparently fatal consequences of misleading the public with “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information”, as the prosecutors put it. I believe that much of the international reaction to the trial was misguided because it was based on incomplete, second-hand information about the proceedings. If scientists were to make judgements on their own work in such a superficial manner, the results would be highly unreliable and public faith in science would plummet.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Giordano Bruno's cosmology was unacceptable to the cardinals who tried him, but the main reason for his condemnation and execution by the Inquisition appears to have been his pantheism. This is a good reason why it was inappropriate to cite him in arguments relating to the L'Aquila trial.

  2. 2.

    There are plenty of precedents for this in Italy. The twentieth-century battle to abolish anti-seismic construction regulations in Rimini is a case in point (Emanuela Guidoboni, personal communication—see also Rumiz 2011).

  3. 3.

    "L’Abruzzo aquilano è ora un angolo di Occidente contagiato dall’angoscia e dall’isteria, portate da una ponderatamente clemente apocalisse locale che ha il nome di terremoto.".

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Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge the support of the EC FP6 Project MICRODIS and the Centre for Research in the Epidemiology of Disasters, Catholic University of Louvain, in the early stages of my work in L’Aquila and the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT), associated with the London-based Institute of Structural Engineers, in later work. I thank Dr Antonello Ciccozzi for fruitful discussions on the subject matter discussed here and to wish him good fortune in his excellent work on behalf of seismic safety in Abruzzo region.

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Correspondence to David E. Alexander.

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Alexander, D.E. Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven”. Nat Hazards 72, 1159–1173 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-014-1062-2

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Keywords

  • Earthquake
  • Disaster
  • Warning
  • Public information
  • Legal proceedings
  • Italy