The latest on L’Aquila

I have had a number of messages from various people in the scientific community in the UK asking if there is any petition they can sign in support of the Italian scientists recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter over the affair of the L’Aquila earthquake. While I’m not aware of any petition, I do know that many professional organisations in the earth sciences and engineering have posted statements on the web sites expressing concern.

To give a few examples: the Royal Astronomical Society (www.ras.org.uk) states that

“The Royal Astronomical Society is gravely concerned by the sentencing of scientists accused of providing misleading advice and false reassurances in the days leading up to the April 6th, 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. This verdict will seriously compromise the engagement of all scientists in issues of risk, particularly when uncertainties in scientific evidence preclude the type of definitive answer that is often demanded by politicians and the public.”

The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (www.eeri.org) writes

“Based on all the evidence available to date and speaking on behalf of the Institute, the Board of Directors believes the indictment and conviction are misguided and stands with our member Professor Calvi and our other colleagues on the commission during this difficult time. The Board expresses its respect for their long service in working to improve earthquake safety in Italy and internationally.”

And more could be cited. So what does one make of an organisation that issues a statement against the six scientists, and explicitly supporting the verdict condemning them? A letter to this effect has been sent to the Italian president in the name of the “International Seismic Safety Organization” (ISSO), and signed by a number of scientists, some moderately well known.

Who or what is ISSO? A little web research suggests that it did not exist before August 2012. Further, its postal address appears to be that of a lawyer acting for the victims of the L’Aquila case. Its name is deceptively similar to the International Seismic Safety Centre (ISSC) which is affiliated to the International Atomic Energy Authority. Anyone with access to a copy of Photoshop can mash together a logo and award themselves an impressive sounding title to put on a letterhead. I could found the International Agency for Seismology and Geophysics tomorrow if I wanted to, and start sending out official-looking letters that might fool the unwary.

As far as I can see, the goal of ISSO is to decry the practice of probabilistic seismic hazard assessment in favour of a deterministic approach, using the same failed arguments and misleading examples as get trotted out regularly. The irony is that hazard assessment was not the main issue at L’Aquila; had any of the accused been staunch determinists, they would have been found guilty with the rest. Nevertheless, the idea that these people are seeking to exploit the trial to try and score points in a dispute over seismological methodology, at the expense of the freedom of the accused scientists, will be found repugnant in the extreme. It is hard to imagine a more despicable way of advancing one’s cause.

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