When I say “overcriminalizing” or “science under attack” or “tort reform,” you may think I’m talking about three of the biggest debates being fought in the United States today. But a news story from Italy reminds us that we do not corner the market on any of those topics.

The report describes manslaughter charges brought against six Italian seismologists. Their trial arose from accusations that the scientists “failed to adequately communicate the potential for a major earthquake to the population around the central Italian town of L’Aquila.” That town was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in April 2009. More than 300 people died, and about 20,000 buildings were destroyed.

Government office in L’Aquila damaged by 2009 earthquake (Wikimedia Commons)

The story calls L’Aquila an “earthquake-prone region.” That may be an understatement of seismic proportions. Here is a description of the region, by Wikipedia:

“Earthquakes mark the history of L’Aquila, as the city is situated partially on an ancient lake-bed that amplifies seismic activity. On December 3, 1315, the city was struck by an earthquake which seriously damaged the San Francesco Church. Another earthquake struck on January 22, 1349, killing about 800 people. Other earthquakes struck in 1452, then on November 26, 1461, and again in 1501 and 1646. On February 3, 1703, a major earthquake struck the town. More than 3,000 people died and almost all the churches collapsed; Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in Europe, was also ruined by this event, yet the town survived. L’Aquila was then repopulated by decision of Pope Clement XI. The town was rocked by earthquake again in 1706. The most serious earthquake in the history of the town struck on July 31, 1786, when more than 6,000 people died. On June 26, 1958, an earthquake of 5.0 magnitude struck the town.”

Prosecutors claim they do not argue the scientists should be able to predict earthquakes. Instead, they say that “they failed to accurately characterize the risks and convey that information to local civic officials and the public.”

Apartment buildings in L’Aquila, Italy, after the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that killed more than 300 people and damaged an estimated 20,000 buildings in 2009. (Credit: Leandro Demori/Creative Commons)

That may be a distinction without a difference. In any case, scientists around the world are watching that Italian courtroom, and threatening that a guilty verdict could serve as a chilling effect on any scientists being willing to share their findings publicly.

The article goes on to explain how scientists might frame their public conversations in the future, so as to provide relevant and useful information with the public. But in the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes on the verdict.