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From CBS News (October 22, 2012):

An Italian court convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter on Monday for failing to adequately warn citizens before an earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing more than 300 people.

The court in L'Aquila also sentenced the defendants to six years in prison.

... the prosecution said the case revolved around one key word, "analysis," that in spite of the data the scientists failed to give adequate warning that a major earthquake might be imminent.

[...]

Scientists worldwide had decried the trial as ridiculous, contending that science has no reliable way of predicting earthquakes.


My Question:

  • Were the scientists negligent in their analysis or did the data at hand simply not hint at an upcoming major earthquake?
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    Your title is somewhat misleading, as the fact that they are currently sitting in jail is a pretty clear indication that the scientists can be blamed for this :) – Tacroy Oct 22 '12 at 21:27
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    I'm concerned that the reporting is unclear, especially given the political aspects of the case. Were they really (unconscionably) jailed for being unable to predict earthquakes accurately, or did they negligently state that there was zero risk, or something else? My point: An answer that merely points out the uncertainty in earthquake prediction may have little bearing on this court-case. – Oddthinking Oct 22 '12 at 23:20
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    Like Tacroy said... Apparently they can be blamed. Is that blame misplaced? Well, given that we don't know how to predict Earthquakes - it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation they're in. If they predicted one that didn't occur, they could be blamed for any panic caused. As-is, they were blamed for manslaughter because they said nothing indicated one was coming. I personally think the blame is misplaced, and Italy might see an exodus of their brightest for fear of undeserved persecution. – MCM Oct 22 '12 at 23:22
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    @MCM: "they said nothing indicated one was coming" Is that what the prosecutor claims they said? I would like to see the prosecutor's claims more clearly stated before we attack them. – Oddthinking Oct 23 '12 at 2:24
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    It is obvious that these scientists can and have been blamed, since they are in jail. The question of whether they should be blamed is a discussion question and not a Skeptical one. Vote to close. – DJClayworth Oct 23 '12 at 13:33
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Short Answer

NO, none of the data nor the "analysis" can predict effectively the earthquakes, because that impossible with our current detection capabilities and understanding of the earthquakes.

Long Answer

First, what is a "Scientific earthquake predictions"?

Scientific earthquake predictions should state where, when, how big, and how probable the predicted event is, and why the prediction is made.

R. Ludwin Reference on The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network

Let`s review each part:

where: We already know where the earthquake occurs, based on list of prior earthquakes and the Plate tectonics, but we can`t pinpoint the place of the next one.

when and how big: in the same way you can check the statistic world wide here and speculate about time intervals and such, but will be gambler fallacy state a date for a earthquake with 100% certainty.

how probable: That depends of the method of predictions, as I state before, there is none.

why: even when we know why an earthquake occurs, put this knowledge to use in predictions is sparse to say at least, there isn`t a practical way to probe vast regions of the earth with stress sensors at such depths.

Despise all of this a statistic/"finite element" model, based on a well know area like California and with extensive computational power can forecast earthquakes, but with "not-so-impresive" results (not useful for prevent deaths or evacuate people), best forecasts are about 10 times more accurate than a random prediction (seen here, here and here), still yielding results like this:

While all the forecasts showed some success in forecasting the locations of likely earthquakes, the NASA-funded UC Davis forecast team, which included Andrea Donnellan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., was found to be the most accurate at picking the quake locations. It correctly labeled 17 of the 22 affected grids, and gave the highest probability of an earthquake in eight of these 17.

reference nasa page

or

California Has More Than 99% Chance Of A Big Earthquake Within 30 Years, Report Shows.

reference here, based on data from USGS

The scientific community have studied many variables to find some form to predict earthquakes, from very long ago, like in radon analysis (emphasis mine):

Scientists studied radon as a possible earthquake warning signal as far back as the 1970s, and while they found convincing cases of radon releases before some earthquakes — for example, levels of radon in groundwater were 10 times normal before the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, in 1995 — the correlations were not strong enough or clear enough for useful predictions.

NY times

in the same way a precursor, "earthquake swarm" or "foreshock earthquakes"(Wikipedia definition), are a big series of minor but very frequent minor earthquake, can be a energy release or a big earthquake precursor:

The worry is that one of these small earthquakes could cascade into a big earthquake like the one that badly damaged Basel in 1356. Conversely, the small earthquakes could instead be relieving stress along a fault, reducing the likelihood of a larger quake.

NY times

another reference about this:

However, most earthquakes lack obvious foreshock patterns and this method has not proved useful, as most small earthquakes are not foreshocks, leading to probable false alarms.

reference

And we can go on and on and on about so many methods like:

  • Strain-rate changes.
  • Seismic velocity changes.
  • Electrical conductivity changes.
  • Hydrological changes.
  • Electromagnetic signals.
  • Thermal anomalies.
  • Anomalous animal behavior.
  • Seismicity patterns.
  • Proxies for accelerating strain.

but in the end, nothing past beyond anecdotal:

The search for diagnostic precursors has thus far been unsuccessful. This silver-bullet strategy for earthquake prediction is predicated on two hypotheses: (1) large earthquakes are the culmination of progressive deformation sequences with diagnostic precursory changes in the regional stress and strain fields, and (2) diagnostic information about an impending earthquake can be extracted from observations that are sensitive to these precursory stress and strain changes. Neither of these hypotheses has been empirically validated.

reference PDF, and here, something very interesting about this paper it was made specifically for Làquila incident.

More info about earthquake prediction can be found in the wikipedia, even when is a wikipedia article this is very well referenced.

Conclusion

Actually, there no way to predict or forecast earthquake in a meaningful way to prevent loss of life or mitigate his effects without incurring a BIG financial loss by false positives or loss of credibility in authorities or scientists.

About the imprisonment

all the seven people, 6 scientists and a civil servant were, judged and convicted as a a whole, without regard for who said what:

"The prosecution have not distinguished between the different defendants' actions or words. To be prosecuted for other people's miscommunication of your scientific advice is a travesty."

The Huffington Post

but above all for a terrible and gross miscommunication, never amended by those scientist:

Employed by Italy's Major Hazards Committee to assess earthquake risks and communicate them to the government and the public, the seismologists got the science right, but left the job of public communication to a civil protection official with no specialist knowledge of seismology. His statement to the press was, to put it mildly, a grossly inaccurate reflection of the situation: "The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable." At this point, the seismologists should have stepped in. But they did not, and the message stuck.

New Scientist

Well maybe being absent during this statement help to overlook this terrible misinterpretation for many of them:

Immediately after that meeting, De Bernardinis and Barberi, acting president of the committee, held a press conference in L'Aquila, where De Bernardinis told reporters that "the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable". No other members of the committee were at the press conference.

Nature

Afterthoughts

Another angles not seen:

  • Why the Italians, living in a seismic country, keep un-reinforced building inhabited? the tourism is worth the risk?The centuries old list of earthquakes
  • Why the Italians, living in a seismic country and in no seismic-resistant building, believe the authorities about "you can sleep quietly, no earthquake" statement? is to blame the lack of culture?
  • Why blame the seismic expert instead the builder?
  • Why the Italian seismic expert never refute the "there no danger" statement?.

My last thought

  • would be terrible that we need to extend the CYA (Covert Your Ass) policy outside of USA.
  • Can we blame the weather-cast announcer/scientists for the car accident occurred by his "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information".
  • I have to proof-read more this answer.

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