Of Particular Significance

Shock, Foreshock and Aftershock in Italy

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 10/25/2012

It’s hard to know quite what to say about the verdict in Italy convicting scientists — experts on earthquakes — for having… for having… well, what, exactly did they do?  That’s the whole question.  They made pronouncements that tried to state that risks of a big quake, following a swarm of smaller earthquakes in the L’Aquila area of Central Italy, were low, although of course not zero.  But their wording and their calls for calm led to some people staying in their homes instead of remaining outdoors, and consequently losing their lives when, in fact, the big quake did take place soon after.   The issue is not whether they failed to predict the quake — no one is arguing they could have done that.  The issues are whether they did enough to make clear that there was a small risk of a big quake, and also, who is ultimately responsible — the experts, the government, or the public — for making the final cost-benefit analysis about the risks to individuals’ lives?

And of course, following the conviction, and a sentence of six years in prison for manslaughter, the next question is: even if this sentence is overturned on appeal, what scientist, or expert of any type, will dare to give advice to the Italian public in future, knowing that if the advice proves incomplete or unwise in retrospect, the result may be incarceration? Has Italy lost its wisest advisors?  (Four members of the “Great Risks Commission” have already resigned, including one of Italy’s greatest theoretical particle physicists, and I doubt they’ll return without new legal protections.) Will other countries lose theirs?

The issue at stake is clearly not Italian earthquakes; it is expert advice.  Sometimes I feel that we in modern society are forgetting how to be grown-ups and take responsibility for our own actions, and how to accept that bad things do just happen sometimes and it isn’t always someone’s fault.  When we go and get advice from anyone — whether it be medical advice,  financial advice,  advice about the weather or advice about the risks from earthquakes — we need to remember it’s provided by a human being.  Ideally that human being has access to the best information available and understands the odds, and will give us a recommendation based on the odds — on the probabilities for various things to happen.  But even when it is the best available advice, it’s based on odds… on statistics.  It’s an educated guess — yes, it’s educated, but also yes, it’s a guess.

And one thing that is dead certain, given that it is a guess based on odds, is that occasionally — rarely, perhaps, but not never — that guess will be wrong.   It’s inevitable, even if the expert is making the best possible recommendation, based on the best available information and the most accurate possible assessment of the odds.  When that bad guess happens, property may be lost, and people may die.  It’s sad, but it is inherent in the nature of odds and probabilities.

So it would be nice to see people be adults and accept this limitation of human beings and their statistical methods.  There are things people just can’t do.  No one could predict that a big earthquake was going to happen, given the set of smaller earthquakes that preceded it.  And even if the experts had somehow known that a big earthquake was going to happen, there is no way that they could have predicted that it would happen in the next day, or the next week, or the next year, or in the next decade.  What would people have said if the experts, based on the small but non-zero risk, recommended evacuation of the town of L’Aquila in 2009, and then the big earthquake finally occurred only in 2012?  Would the experts have been sued for the resulting economic losses over those years?

Press your palm down onto a table or other surface (smooth but not too smooth) — press hard — and also press sideways.  If your sideways push is strong enough, your hand will eventually slip on the table.  But try to predict when it will happen, or how far it will slip — even though it’s your own hand, it’s not easy.  Now try doing this deep inside the earth, where you can’t see or feel what’s going on.  Such are the challenges of predicting how and when things under stress and strain will break — of predicting the time and size of snow avalanches, rock slides, falling trees, collapses of decrepit buildings, earthquakes. It’s one thing to know there are risks; but to know when the risks are significantly higher than usual isn’t always possible.

For any process as unpredictable as earthquakes, advice that is 100% reliable is out of the question.   This is true also for hurricanes and for the financial markets and for medical treatment, to greater and lesser degrees. So societies have to make a choice: do they want experts’ imperfect advice or not?  If they want it, then it comes with a limited liability warranty:

  • It is highly likely that on average,  over long periods of time, expert scientific advice will significantly reduce the number of deaths and the loss of property that would otherwise occur.
  • But it is guaranteed that sometimes, in individual cases, the advice will be wrong and deaths and property-loss will occur that could have been avoided if different advice had been given.

If a society doesn’t like that warranty, fine: then it need not take any advice.  Of course it is very likely that the result will be a significantly higher loss of life and property, on average; indeed, that’s what used to happen, back in the Dark Ages before there was any understanding whatsoever of hurricanes and earthquakes and cancer.

But it’s utterly unfair and outrageous — indeed, it’s right out of the Dark Ages — to ask experts for their opinions while simultaneously pointing to the prison cell they’ll occupy if their recommendation, in the light of future events, turns out to have been unfortunate in its content or its wording.

Perhaps in this case there were errors in judgment, in terms of how to present the existence of low-probability but high-cost risk to the public.  But people who are doing their best for the common good, and benefiting society on the whole, should not be going to jail for such errors, even when they cost lives.  We simply can’t have it both ways.  Either we try to collect the best experts, ask them to tell us what they think, accept their recommendations as the wisdom of intelligent, educated, skilled but fallible human beings using good but imperfect methods, and take individual and collective responsibility for whether we ourselves and our communities choose to follow or disregard their recommendations — or we simply shouldn’t ask them for advice at all.

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60 Responses

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  3. And yet Berlusconi gets four years down to one for deliberately defrauding the entire Italian nation… did these scientists deliberately set out to get this wrong? I doubt it. Kangaroo courts of this nature are precisely why investment will focus on stable less corrupt economies no matter how much such countries artificially inflate the potential rewards from developing there.

    Economics will drive them to a better reality but not before it hurts a fair few people.

  4. Resignation from post as form of protest will be futile if there is no repercussions. Somebody must sue Italy’s appointment commission if they have such functionality over there.. for appointing incompetent staff condemned by the judiciary.. cast a big net and take everyone by the virtue of command responsibility… and let’s see how it will pan out.

  5. this verdict should have the strongest repulse from all the scientific community in Europe and World.
    Scientists condemned should be freed of all charges and penalties.
    The scientific community should express actively and loudly and it should not rest until judges are removed from their jobs for exceeding their duties and for their arbitrary unjustifiable decisions.
    A complete solution to this atrocity is required to achieve that scientists can be able to continue in contact with the general public and with governmental advice agencies without any fear.
    Lawyers should restrain their sophisms to themselves and themselves only. Two and half thousand years after sophists condemned Socrates to death (or exile) tell me please the world has learned something.

  6. It’s a murky trial, I hope there is a higher court to go to protest the verdict. The way I see it, it was not a trial against science but rather on lapses on communicating what science said… a breach of standard procedures if such management information system do exists in that organization. I conjecture they don’t have such procedure or it’s unspecified, and their judicial system was forced to cast a big net and catch everyone. If there’s a retrial of the case, I can see loophole that will free the condemned scientist.. though I’m not a lawyer… what more a true lawyer can see? Anyways, Italy is a democratic state, probably they practice presidential pardon?

  7. Thanks Matt, for one of the most thoughtful posts on this episode. As you say, “criminalizing mistakes that are only clearly so in hindsight leads to increasing costs to society.” I don’t think it’s just an Italian problem. If, hypothetically, the Director of the National Hurricane Center had said, prior to Katrina “best stay in your homes, the flood defenses are strong and there’s more danger fleeing” (wrong, but arguably not crazy advice) would he have faced prosecution in the US? I’d like to think no, but I’m not so sure.

  8. What do you think of REGINALD CAHILL process physics and cosmology ?
    Is it a paradigm explosion or mere bubble to explode sooner or later ? with all due respect to the person.

  9. Clearly, the mayor and other govt officials should be the first to be thrown in jail since they failed to take any action to siesmically retrofit buildings or atleast advice people to do so. But, I bet that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

  10. Next we’ll have people predicting the weather prosecuted for indirectly causing criminal damage by not predicting the weather correctly.

    Just before the infamous 1987 storm of Britain, we had weatherman Michael Fish saying: “”Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!”

    Thankfully, him and the Met office wasn’t prosecuted, but instead lessons were learnt which involved the implementation of Monte Carlo methods in predicting the weather.

    1. Quite! – and very funny and appropriate comparison, but this story is not actually about sending people to prison per say its about appeasment of the public – and angry relatives. But YES send michael fish to prison as one of the trees ruined my garage! But unfortunately we are out of Court Statute TIme to start the action. The government know that all they have to do is pick up the phone and let them out. This will most probably occur from the italian upper government. The public appeased – story forgotten about and out pretty smartish. What really worries me is are all the soldiers sent to prison for murder for fighting a war in the governments name are they STILL in prison!!!

  11. Well, those scientist are very well paid for that job. Their appointment is a political one, thery are not chosen by the scientific community, they are selected by the government. And this is the main and fundamental mistake. Where they trully autonomous? were they free in judging? I don’t know. Anyway, there are a lot of other people involved being under trial for what happened in L’Aquila before and after the earthquake, They have been found guilty as they were part of a bigger system. This case is not only about those people, as it may appear from other countries. Things are still very much unclear and very complex. The court will make public the reasons for this pronuncement soon, and we will have a clearer picture. But I would be very carefull in taking a side without having all the info. Scientist are humans, they are not better than others.

    1. Well, to suggest that 6 actual scientists, leaving out De Bernadinis who was (as I understand) in a different position, knowingly endangered hundreds of people’s lives by engaging in a public charade, because they were well-paid for their positions, and for the benefit of some political appointment, is pretty implausible. When you say “scientists are not better than others”, as individuals that is surely true — everyone has flaws — but in my experience the culture of science tends to put truth higher on their agenda than in most vocations, because science is about the search for facts and understanding, not the search for profit on its own. Anyone who wants money first and foremost does not go into science; finance, politics, medicine and law are much better places to go if that’s your priority. And anyone who joins a disasters committee, even if it is political, has to know that there is a heavy responsibility that goes with that appointment — that lives *will* be at stake.

      I think the real lesson is the immediate resignation of the four members of the current Disasters committee, including its current head, Luciano Maiani. Maiani is of course very well-known in my community, both for his exceptionally good science (he’s done Nobel-prize-deserving work) and his important role in guiding CERN through one of its most difficult decisions at the turn of the millenium. If people of that quality are resigning now, then something is deeply wrong, and it is hard to believe that this will all turn out to be corrupt scientists who deserve the sentence they’ve just received.

      But as you say, we will get more information and we will see.

  12. The blame is in this case focused on these seven people to obscure that we all are powerless in this case and nobody could have done anything about it, despite all the tries. Blaming someone is usually done to avoid important basic insights. This is not rational behaviour, these experts are targeted so the public can maintain an illusion. A problem of psychology, the general tendency of man to always run away from the truth, if you will.

  13. the italian case has nothing to do with science. Local and national politicians said to the so-called “experts” to reassure people and they did it on command. There are registration of calls where it is clearly expressed that the scientist meeting only had to be a piece of theatre to boost the confidence of people in the government. That is it. Please do not disturb Galileo or the Inquisition. It is only an “ordinary” case of corruption

    1. I can believe that; that’s what it sounds like to me, though apparently some of the scientists who were convicted were not aware of how they were being used, which if true makes it all the worse that they were scapegoated.

      It is the scapegoating of experts that concerns me the most. Whatever the cause of the bad decision-making, which is clearly systemic, why is the blame being focused on these seven people?

  14. My guess is that a scientist who makes a probabilistic prediction is more likely to be sued or punished than a religious leader who makes a prediction on the basis of prophetic writings — I am not sure if this is a vote of confidence in science or a propensity to excuse religious believers.

  15. on the othe rhand usually these experts get huge suns of public money after submitting grant proposals, where they actually claim that all of their predictio
    ns are hundred percent true

    1. Nope, scientists are just public punching balls. Many people begrudge them every cent they urgently need to make a living, even though not even well respected professors are among the people who earn the largest amount of money. Smart people dont go into science because they want to make a furtune, to achieve this one should become a banker, manager etc and you know this very well.

      Today, it is very fashonable for the public to spit and spat on scientists as you do, applaude the governement if drives them out of the country by eradicating the small part in the public budget devoted to education and research, and now their live can be brutally destroyed by putting them into prison, banning them from working in the profession they are educated for, and dishing out fines of outragous amounts a single person can never pay and afford in the course of her live.

      Whey does this not happen to bankers and managers who carelessly ruin the economy of the whole world, destroy the lives of people by firing them to maximize their large profit even further etc?

      So dont talk about the waste of punlic money on scientists on this nice site, your absurd comment full of desdain makes me vomit!

      (Apology for the typos, I’m very angry and writing on my smart phone…)

    2. Oh, come on Boris. Do you, in your grant proposals, actually claim that all your predictions are 100% true? Do you really think Maiani, one of the best in our field and former director of CERN, and who just resigned in protest from the same commission that these convicted scientists were previously serving on, should be described in this way?

      1. I think Boris is right:

        I hereby submit a 2012 grant proposal in which I will show that my prediction for the 2009 Aquila eatth quake to take place is 100%.

        Signed: scientist (and Italian judge) Marcello

      2. If I remember well it was the American Lee Smolin who claimed (maybe still claims) that energy waves with different energy levels have different speeds? Whereas the simultaneous arrival of such energy waves from a supernova proved him wrong? There was hardly any fuss about that The speeds involved are not different under the ceteris paribe proviso. The discussion will go on. Lee Smolin is OK and so are the ”Italians”.

        1. Well — first an aside: scientists don’t “claim” things like this, they “suggest” the possibility based on a theoretical idea and urge a measurement.

          Actually I think it was light of different wavelengths from a gamma ray burst that constrained this idea.

          And why would there be a fuss about it? when the conventional wisdom survives a test, it’s “dog bites man” news.

          1. Dear Matt:

            Entanglement ( or ‘ instantaneous synchronism’ ). Your intuitive reply please: 1. The ability of 2 photons appear to have the ability to act simultaneously and synchronized. 2. When these observations occur they may be at any distance from its pair, or companions . 3. The fact that they are acting instantaneously irrespective of distance, then there is no time ability for any information to communicate between them. 4. Then cannot it be stated that due to this phenomena they are in fact occupying a common space where time is zero? And one may think of them as cohabitant the same point space? And the consideration of distance is irrelevant?

  16. Matt, thank you for your reply. May I personalize to situation to show you where I and the Italian court think the scientists recklessly and culpably exceeded their professional mandate. Suppose you were an expert in commercial nuclear plant engineering and your local nuke develops an unknown but possibly serious problem. People begin to flee area. Some director at the NRC (or whoever is in charge of these accidents) calls you up and says go on the TV and reassure people. You understand the problem and that there is only a 1/50 or so chance of a catastrophic accident. Do you then go on TV and tell people not to worry, to return to their homes, and that the situation is normal and there is no danger? Really? And suppose then that a catastrophic failure occurs and people who return are killed or seriously harmed. Don’t you think you deserve to face criminal and civil liability for your false statements? You knew the situation was not “normal” and a 1/50 chance of a lethal accident is not “no danger”. This is why Italian prosecutors went after the scientists they indicted.

    1. I completely disagree with you.

      First, as far as I can tell, only one person went on TV and made this statement — the non-earthquake expert among the seven. The other six are innocent of this, as far as I know.

      Second, even for this one person, there is a difference between “lying” (which is what you accused them of in the last comment you made) and “stupidity”. He believed he was doing the best thing for everyone. He made an error. It’s not criminal behavior. Stupidity is regrettable and very frustrating, but you cannot put people into prison every time they do something stupid.

      If the nuclear expert you referred to believed that the chances of a problem were low, but mis-stated the situation, that is a very serious mistake; I would be furious at that person and insist that he lose his job. And he will have it on his conscience as long as he lives. But jail? If the reason he mis-stated the situation was to cover up difficulties from the police, that would be criminal. If he lied to the public in order to prevent his company’s stock from plummeting, that would be criminal. But if he was doing his best, in good faith, to prevent panic, which would have its own costs, and he made an error of judgment, that is not criminal.

      And the cost of calling it criminal is the loss, to all of Italy, of earthquake advice — and other advice — for the future. Forget it; no one will tell them anything now. And over time, many, many more people may die as a result, if this is not reversed with new legislation to protect people from their own fallibility. If you demand perfection, you will get nothing.

    2. I really hope that the judges at the higher court will be more reasonable and less stupid than you are, such that this blatant mistake can be reverted.
      Is there some European court, international organization of human rights or anything like that the scientists can turn to if everything fails in Italy ?

      Maybe they should directly seek international help since the Italian legal system is too corrupted to admit and correct its mistake … !

  17. How different things could be if most of the population were prepared for a quake. The undiscussed factor is that people will flee into danger if a quake is predicted.

  18. The Nature article is very disturbing, Matt. A 2% risk of a life-threatening disaster is very high, to be frank. While I agree that these scientists were not lying and should not go to jail, it does appear that this situation was not handled properly. One can only hope that a higher court will overturn this verdict, and also that the worldwide disaster preparedness community will reflect on this failure and provide standardized unimpeachable protocols for how such risks should be adequately communicated in the future.

    1. I think there is very widespread agreement within and outside of Italy on this point. But criminalizing the actions obviously makes the problem with the Italian system insoluble, because who will participate in a system where any mistake can lead to a risk of six years in prison?

      Also, Mike, there’s a key question that I don’t know the answer to: the 2% number, is that the probability of a serious earthquake occurring within a week, within a month, within a year or within a decade? Clearly the implications are completely different depending on the answer.

  19. We should remember the eruption of the Galeras volcano in 1993 in Colombia, that killed 6 scientists that descended into the crater to gather gas samples.

    The different branches of science are not equally good and precise at predicting outcomes.

    This is politics and politicians desperately seeking for a scapegoat to put the noose around somebody’s neck.

    Just as Prof Strassler points out, this will mean that next time, italian experts will either decline such an offer, or they will seek legal and insurance coverage before accepting any such offer.

    Kind regards, Gastón

  20. I exactly agree with what Prof. Strassler says in this article.

    This outragous, barbarian, and unfair verdict coming directly from the Dark Ages makes Italy look like an uncivilized banana republic. It is an unbelievable insult and affront to the whole international scientific community and an attack on the scientific method.
    Can we not write a letter of protest signed by as many scientists as possible from all over the world :-/…?

    This incident makes me so upset whenever I think about it that I could explode with anger :-(0) about it !

    Scientists in Italy should immediately stop advising the public, it is too dangerous for them.

    1. They already have stopped, by all accounts. And until they get legal protections, I doubt they will start again.

      Meanwhile, in the United States, fewer and fewer people want to be doctors. Every honest mistake is a lawsuit. And both insurance costs and the costs of tests for low-probability diseases keep rising.

      1. I think it makes our society looking not good that whenever something bad happens, the first thing people do is looking for somebody they can assign the blame to, determine who has to financially pay for it, etc. instead of just looking what and why something went wrong (IF something could have been done about it ..) and trying to avoid that the same thing happens again IF possible.

        Blaming any human for natural hazards would just be ridiculous, if it hat not such dramatic, brutal, and unjustified consequences for the innocent scapegoats chosen by the lynch law.

        Maybe scientists in the whole EU should stop their advising service, including weather forecasts etc …

        I feel with our Italian colleagues and I hope the best that they succed in getting themselfs legal protection :-/ …

    2. Naturally a lot of people are upset.

      Public grievance = government identification of culpability = search for lambs to slaughter = lambs slaughtered = public satisfied. This is not unique to Italy! Then Public grievance = it is not fair to slaughter the lambs = government brings the lambs back from the dead = public satisfied. Most of this I think is just Italian style knee jerking Tosca hysteria. All will end ok I am sure. However, I would be interested to know it the air traffic controllers are out of prison? Aquila has a reputation for putting employees into prison! So that is a bit banana I agree.

  21. Philoponus – I also read the article you linked. Aside from providing a local point of view, the article includes discussions by two American experts on earthquakes. I would like to quote one of them:
    “The role of science is to present information about hazards,” said Thomas Jordan [Director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and chair of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF)]. “But it’s the role of the decision-makers to take that information, and a lot of other information, in order to make decisions about public welfare.”

    As I totally agree with this statement my question is: Why are the scientists taking ‘the rap’ for the decision makers?

  22. Matt, If I may speak narrowly to what happened in L’Quila (which I know is not the main point of your essay), you might to read this article. It explains what the indictments were about. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/full/477264a.html
    The gravamen of the case was that the scientists, on an official mission to calm the residents, not only mislead these people but lied to them. There is a YouTube video of a press conference in which one scientist say the situation is “normal” and there is “no danger”, this after a series of increasingly frequent & strong foreshocks. The situation was not normal and the scientist who is on tape saying this knew it was not true. People believed these lies, trusted in the reassurances, and returned to their homes from safer lodging. Some of them subsequently died in their homes. I don’t think it is your view that officials ought have no liability when they lie and people die because they believe their lies. That, in case, what the core issue at trial.

    1. Nothing in the article you sent changes my views.

      Being mistaken is not the same as lying. And being confusing is not the same as lying. And a very unfortunate confluence of events is not the same thing as criminal behavior.

      I quote from the article that you linked to:

      “Unnerving though these clusters may be, experts agree that seismic swarms rarely precede major earthquakes. In 1988, seismic engineer Giuseppe Grandori, now professor emeritus at the Polytechnic of Milan, and his colleagues published a retrospective analysis of seismic swarms in three other earthquake-prone Italian localities (G. Grandori et al. Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am. 78, 1538–1549; 1988). They concluded that a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days about 2% of the time, and Grandori says that the same was probably true for the region around L’Aquila.”

      2% is one in fifty. That means that if these swarms occur once every hundred years, there could be several thousand years of such swarms before one led to a major quake. Other major quakes would occur, meanwhile, without swarms.

      To accuse these people of lying — to accuse them of saying there was no increase in risk when they knew there was a significant increase in risk — is, as far as I understand it, to misunderstand the scientific situation. I do not understand them to have “known there was a significant increase in risk.” So I don’t see that they were lying. Just that they played the odds, and lost. And that kind of thing is bound to happen sometimes. Just because taking a plane is much safer than driving doesn’t mean your plane won’t crash.

      My question stands: do you want expert advice? Because if this is the price of giving expert advice, I can assure you I personally wouldn’t provide any.

      1. From the Nature article:

        Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting … De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

        This to me is the smoking gun. De Bernardinis’ conduct, while it does not rise to the level of manslaughter, was certainly negligent. He new that the risk was low but not zero. To make a flippant statement to the press was unprofessional. His duty was to state clearly and unequivaclly that a risk always exists, and that citizens who choose to live in a house of medeival construction located in the centre of a major seismic zone need to be prepared at all times for an earthquake.

        Also from the article :
        As part of the prosecution’s case, Picuti argues in his brief that local residents made fateful decisions on the night of the earthquake on the basis of statements made by public officials outside the meeting. Maurizio Cora, a lawyer who lived not far from Vittorini, told prosecutors that after the 30 March shock, he and his family retreated to the grounds of L’Aquila’s sixteenth-century castle; after the 11 p.m. foreshock on 5 April, he said his family “rationally” discussed the situation and, recalling the reassurances of government officials that the tremors would not exceed those already experienced, decided to remain at home, “changing our usual habit of leaving the house when we felt a shock”. Cora’s wife and two daughters died when their house collapsed.

        When scientists make statements in an official capacity to the public they have to be fully aware of the impact their words will have. People will follow their advice. That’s why we are paying them.

        1. Oh, I think it is very easy to make an argument that De Bernardinis should be fired/demoted/whatever. What he said and did was very stupid, and at that point the whole system for providing information to the public failed. On this I think everyone agrees. But it’s not manslaughter on his part. He did believe (wrongly) that the risk was lower than it was (according to the article in Nature, he was misunderstanding the scientific situation at the moment that he made that remark, which was before the scientific meeting — and he is not an earthquake scientist).

          And what about the other six who were convicted? What was their crime, exactly? That they were subject to miscommunication about what their role should have been and about the purpose of the meeting that they held?

          What happened was dumb, stupid; it should be fixed. Everyone agrees the system failed. But criminalizing the actions of the individuals within a broken system destroys the system rather than repairing it. It’s an incredibly stupid thing for the Italian justice system to do: it responds to a disastrous mistake with a much more disastrous one. Who benefits now? The dead are still dead; the experts are either in jail or unwilling to speak; and those in danger will get even less advice.

          1. normally I think in these kind of circumstances a peer reprimand occurs. If the parties are negligent and embarrassed they normally resign from the service. If peoples lives have been put at risk or endangered that is a bit more tricky. In the military scenario a solder can and is sent to prison for murder for killing the enemy !!! For using his own initiatives? Recently in Afganistan, and very commonly in Northern Ireland some years ago. Its all about the GOVERNMENT having to save its FACE! Sending a legal official to prison does not return dead people back to life.

          2. Prof I can understand your political grievance on this unfortunate subject – I am surprised though that you are more reactive, and have ‘time’ for this subject than you do for the actual subject of this site! I am sorry to have to state this. I have posited many questions and has not resulted really in much insight from your extensive knowledge. yours respectfully.

          3. Actually Italy and France are two special countries – in the sense that the government is ultra sensitive to public opinion. In France where I live as an Englishman I am very much aware that the French government will always step down against the will of its people as it has a history as you know regarding revolutions. 4 in total including the first famous one. In Italy it is the same more or less – the people are very reactive. In this current case the government can’t really win. If they did nothing would cause and outrage because so many people lost their lives – and in their actual action sending them to prison is probably going to have the same affect? In the USA you could bury the problem in Federalism. I expect that the impending national strikes which may follow will have them released. If the people think they have been imprisoned unjustly?

            1. It is true that cultural differences, country to country, make a difference in this type of thing.

              When the space shuttle blew up in the 1980s, the response in the U.S. was not to sue the individuals at NASA who made some bad decisions. It was to hold a commission to figure out what went wrong and to fix the system. That has happened in Italy too, after the earthquake — and that’s commendable, that’s exactly what should happen.

              Criminalizing mistakes that are only clearly so in hindsight leads to increasing costs to society. I think you can argue that has happened in medicine in the U.S.

              1. Yep! History is full of these accounts. The Italian disaster is news! And a popular story unhappily centered around 100’s people losing their lives and scientific employees going to prison for it. A young midshipman was apparently condemned to death by hanging from the yard arm during the admiralty investigation of those men who remained on Taihiti after the mutiny on the bounty. Then some days later he was given a kings pardon. The authority had been seen to have done their work! The Italian government I would not be surprised if they do a turn around hence keep the peace? With the people/relatives who claim send them to prison vs those who claim no prison it’s not fair? The authorities cannot be seen to be non reactive – otherwise they have no right to be in that job.

  23. / back in the Dark Ages before there was any understanding whatsoever of hurricanes and earthquakes and cancer.

    But it’s utterly unfair and outrageous — indeed, it’s right out of the Dark Ages. But people who are doing their best for the common good, and benefiting society on the whole, fallible(no body is perfect) human beings using good but imperfect methods, and take individual and collective responsibility for whether we ourselves and our communities choose to follow or disregard their recommendations — or we simply shouldn’t ask them for advice at all./— Nice article Professor !

  24. Italian air traffic controller go to jail !
    Italian Court Judgment a detriment to Safety

    The International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations condemns the ruling of the Italian court of appeal in Cagliari on 18 March 2010, which confirmed an earlier sentence of two years imprisonment for the controllers who were on duty at Cagliari airport at the time of the controlled flight into terrain accident of a Cessna Citation near Cagliari on the 24 February 2004.

    This is but another instance in which the judicial system of a country has shown a lack of understanding of how the aviation system operates and consequently produces a verdict that undermines the provision of the highest level of safety to the very public that is the judiciary’s primary constituent.

    In international civil aviation it is understood that the ultimate responsibility for the safety of a flight rests with the captain of that flight. This applies to all flights; including those that are operated under Instrument Flight Rules in controlled airspace under the guidance of an Air Traffic Control unit. Air traffic controllers worldwide are aware of this authrity of flight captains and are trained to
    accommodate requests from pilots for specific changes in the status of a flight whenever possible, as long as this does not jeopardize the safety of other flights.

    In the case of the accident in Cagliari it was the pilot who requested to perform a visual approach. The controller specifically asked if during such an approach the pilots could provide their own separation from obstacles, and the answer of the pilot was affirmative. The controller subsequently authorized the visual approach, because, under the prevailing rules and regulations
    in Italy at that time, there was no reason from an air traffic control perspective to withhold such permission.

    Sad as the outcome of the event was, it is IFATCA’s considered opinion that the pilots were fully accountable for their decision to conduct a visual approach that night. The controllers acted within the norms of internationally established procedures, and it could even be argued that they performed beyond the call of duty by asking the pilots about their ability to maintain their own separation from obstacles during the visual approach.

    As a result to this court ruling, our Member Association in Italy, ANACNA, has appealed to its members to not authorize any visual approaches in Italy anymore. IFATCA endorses the approach of our Member Association as being in the professional interest of the Italian air traffic controllers. This reaction demonstrates that criminalizing air traffic controllers for doing their jobs
    in accordance with their training and experience will only have a negative impact on efforts to continually improve the safety and efficiency of the aviation system. “

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