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science and policy

Post by halfwise on Mon Oct 22, 2012 5:30 pm

From Reuters:

Italian scientists convicted over earthquake warning

L'AQUILA, Italy (Reuters) - An Italian court convicted six scientists and a government official of manslaughter on Monday and sentenced them to six years in prison for failing to give adequate warning of a deadly earthquake which destroyed the central city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people in 2009.
The seven, all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of an earthquake and their duty to keep the city informed of the risks.
The case has drawn wide condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working to assess seismic risk.
A 6.3 strength earthquake struck L'Aquila, in Italy's Abruzzo region at 3.32 a.m. on April 6, 2009, wrecking tens of thousands of buildings, injuring more than 1,000 people and killing hundreds of others in their sleep.
At the heart of the case was whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries.
The case focused in particular on a series of low-level tremors which hit the region in the months preceding the earthquake and which prosecutors said should have warned experts not to underestimate the risk of a major shock.
The scientists are unlikely to be sent to jail pending a probable appeal trial.
(Reporting by Alberto Sisto, writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Barry Moody)

This is a sad day and hopefully the implications won't spill over from this stupid conviction. I'll leave it to the New York Times to say why it's such a stupid conviction, as they did a pretty good job:

Trial Over Earthquake in Italy Puts Focus on Probability and Panic

By HENRY FOUNTAIN
Published: October 3, 2011

The manslaughter trial of six seismologists and a government official in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, stemming from what the authorities say was a failure to warn the population before a deadly 2009 earthquake, has outraged many scientists. Thousands have signed petitions protesting the prosecution as anti-science.
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But the trial, which resumed Saturday, has also focused attention on a vexing problem in earthquake-prone regions around the world: how to effectively communicate the risk of potential disaster. Whatever the merits of the L’Aquila case, scientists and government officials have difficulty conveying what they know about the risk of earthquakes in ways that help prepare the public without sowing panic.

“People are expecting much more information, in particular quantitative information,” said Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. “Coming clean with what you know is being demanded by the public.”

Earthquakes differ from other types of natural disasters. Meteorologists can track a hurricane with precision, but seismologists cannot predict exactly when and where an earthquake will occur. Scientists have condemned the Italian prosecution for this reason, saying the defendants are on trial for failing to do something that is impossible.

What seismologists are increasingly able to do, however, is forecast the likelihood that a quake will occur in a certain area over a certain time. Statistical analysis shows, for example, that some seismic activity — a minor quake or a swarm of very small ones — increases the probability of a larger, destructive earthquake in the same area.

But the probabilities are still very small, and they become even smaller with time. Given a low-probability forecast of an event that has potentially high consequences, the problem, Dr. Jordan said, becomes “what the heck do you do with that kind of information?”

That was a question that the Italian defendants faced. In the months before a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila on April 6, 2009, killing more than 300, the area had experienced an earthquake swarm. That probably increased the likelihood of a major earthquake in the near future by a factor of 100 or 1,000, Dr. Jordan said, but the probability remained very low — perhaps 1 in 1,000.

But there was a wild card in L’Aquila that complicated the situation. As the earthquake swarm continued over several months, a local man who is not a scientist issued several predictions of a large earthquake — specific as to date and location — based on measurements of radon, a radioactive gas that is released as rocks fracture.

The predictions, none of which proved accurate, increased public anxiety in the city — so much so that the Italian government convened a meeting of a national risk-forecasting commission, including the seismologists and the government official, in L’Aquila on March 30.

At the meeting, the seismologists noted that it was possible, though unlikely, that the seismic activity could be a sign that a larger quake was imminent. They also noted that there was always some risk in L’Aquila, which has a history of earthquakes. But in a news conference afterward, the message to the public became garbled, with the government official assuring that there was no danger.

“The government ended up looking like it was saying, ‘No, there’s not going to be a big earthquake,’ ” when the scientists had not precluded the possibility, said Dr. Jordan, who was the chairman of a commission established by the Italian government after the quake to look at the forecasting issue.

The statement by the official, who is not a seismologist, violated a cardinal rule of risk communication, which is that those involved should speak only to their expertise, said Dennis Mileti, an emeritus professor of behavioral science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This person should not have been speaking,” said Dr. Mileti, who has studied risk communication.

In general, said Michael Lindell, a professor at Texas A & M, scientists should advise emergency managers about the likelihood of events, and then the managers should make the yes-or-no decisions about whether to order an evacuation or urge the public to make other, simpler preparations. But often the roles become confused.

“When you step over the boundary outside your area of expertise, then there aren’t necessarily any warning signs,” Dr. Lindell said.

The L’Aquila news conference did not fill what was essentially an information vacuum, Dr. Jordan said. “One of the principles that social science has shown is that the public wants to hear things from people they trust,” he said. “They want to hear things repeated.

“You don’t want to put out information just when there’s a seismic crisis, because people then don’t have the context for this kind of information,” he added. “You want people to get used to how these things ebb and flow.”

California, with its active seismic zones, has a system for communicating risks to the public on a regular basis — though it, too, has flaws, Dr. Jordan said.

Just a few weeks before the L’Aquila quake, an analysis of an earthquake swarm in Southern California showed an increased likelihood of a major earthquake near the southern end of the San Andreas fault. While the probability was small, it was high enough that a scientific group decided to advise the state’s emergency management agency. (In the end, no quake occurred.)

Even if the information at the L’Aquila news conference had been correct and the public had been warned there was a slightly higher risk, Dr. Mileti said, it would probably have made little difference. “One person saying once ‘You don’t have to worry’ is probably not why they didn’t do what they might have done to protect themselves,” he said. “Humans are hard-wired to deny low-probability, high-impact events.”

The only way to overcome that, he continued, is through constant communication. Once-a-year earthquake drills, like those in California, are not enough. The messages have to be everywhere, repeated ad nauseam.

“If you want to sell earthquake preparation in a way that it affects human behavior,” he said, “you have to sell it like Coca-Cola.”

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Mon Oct 22, 2012 5:47 pm

If ever there was a case of scapegoating and finding someone to blame this is it.
No doubt if the planet gets hit by a comet the few survivors will just sit around afterwards working out who to sue for it. Mad

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Re: science and policy

Post by Eldorion on Mon Oct 22, 2012 6:26 pm

I remember hearing about this case a while back. It's shameful that this actually resulted in convictions.
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Re: science and policy

Post by Mrs Figg on Mon Oct 22, 2012 9:54 pm

this from Nature journal of science, this puts things into perspective,


"This isn't a trial against science," insists Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of "Be calm, don't worry", and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. "That's why I feel betrayed by science," he says. "Either they didn't know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn't know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem."

"I'm not crazy," Picuti says. "I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila." Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. "They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors," he says, "and they did not."




To this difficult exercise in risk probability was added a wild card in the case of L'Aquila: a resident named Giampaolo Giuliani began to make unofficial earthquake predictions on the basis of measurements of radon gas levels. Giuliani, who had worked for 40 years as a laboratory technician, including 20 years at the nearby Gran Sasso National Laboratory until his retirement in 2010, had deployed four home-made radon detectors throughout the region.

The idea behind radon measurement, Giuliani says, is that emissions of the gas fluctuate significantly in the 24 hours before an earthquake. But their use as a reliable short-term predictor of earthquakes has never been scientifically proved or accepted. The recent ICEF report deemed Giuliani's findings "unsatisfactory", and he has yet to publish a single peer-reviewed paper on his radon work. Nonetheless, he maintained an open website that posted real-time radon measurements from his detectors, and in interviews with journalists and in an informal mobile-phone network, Giuliani made predictions about low-level seismic activity. Although the ICEF report notes that he made two false forecasts, The Guardian newspaper dubbed him "The Man Who Predicted An Earthquake", after the April 2009 quake hit.

As word spread about Giuliani's unofficial predictions, even more unease percolated through the population. Marcello Melandri, the lawyer for Boschi, says that Giuliani had been terrifying local residents, and that Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's Department of Civil Protection agency, "was very worried about the population of L'Aquila". On 30 March, Giuliani says, national civil-protection officials cited him for procurato allarme — essentially instigating public alarm or panic — and forbade him from making any public pronouncements.

Vincenzo Vittorini’s apartment building collapsed in the 2009 quake, killing his wife and daughter. He says that he feels “betrayed by science”

That same day, L'Aquila was hit by an intense, magnitude 4.1 shock in the afternoon that deeply rattled local residents. Vittorini, who performs his surgeries in the nearby town of Popoli, received an anguished call from his wife and son. (His daughter was not at home at the time.) He urged them to leave the house immediately and get outside, he says. L'Aquila's mayor, Massimo Cialente, ordered the evacuation of several public buildings and closed the De Amicis primary school to inspect for structural damage.

Italian seismologists had been monitoring the swarm in the Abruzzo region for months, and notifying civil-protection officials in real time of every tremor with a magnitude of greater than 2.5. Now, given the growing unease in L'Aquila, Bertolaso decided to convene an unusual meeting of the risks commission. The commission normally meets in Rome to assess the probability of earthquakes, volcanoes and other natural disasters, but this meeting was to take place the next day in L'Aquila. The goal, according to a press release from the Department of Civil Protection, was to furnish citizens in the Abruzzo region "with all the information available to the scientific community about the seismic activity of recent weeks".

Meeting of minds

The now-famous commission meeting convened on the evening of 31 March in a local government office in L'Aquila. Boschi, who had travelled by car to the city with two other scientists, later called the circumstances "completely out of the ordinary". Commission sessions are usually closed, so Boschi was surprised to see nearly a dozen local government officials and other non-scientists attending the brief, one-hour meeting, in which the six scientists assessed the swarms of tremors that had rattled the local population. When asked during the meeting if the current seismic swarm could be a precursor to a major quake like the one that levelled L'Aquila in 1703, Boschi said, according to the meeting minutes: "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded." The scientific message conveyed at the meeting was anything but reassuring, according to Selvaggi. "If you live in L'Aquila, even if there's no swarm," he says, "you can never say, 'No problem.' You can never say that in a high-risk region." But there was minimal discussion of the vulnerability of local buildings, say prosecutors, or of what specific advice should be given to residents about what to do in the event of a major quake. Boschi himself, in a 2009 letter to civil-protection officials published in the Italian weekly news magazine L'Espresso, said: "actions to be undertaken were not even minimally discussed".

Many people in L'Aquila now view the meeting as essentially a public-relations event held to discredit the idea of reliable earthquake prediction (and, by implication, Giuliani) and thereby reassure local residents. Christian Del Pinto, a seismologist with the civil-protection department for the neighbouring region of Molise, sat in on part of the meeting and later told prosecutors in L'Aquila that the commission proceedings struck him as a "grotesque pantomine". Even Boschi now says that "the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn't understand that until later on."

What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. 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. In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, 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.



“To have made a joke about a glass of wine and then face a conviction is absurd. It’s something out of the Middle Ages.”

The suggestion that repeated tremors were favourable because they 'unload', or discharge, seismic stress and reduce the probability of a major quake seems to be scientifically incorrect. Two of the committee members — Selvaggi and Eva — later told prosecutors that they "strongly dissented" from such an assertion, and Jordan later characterized it as "not a correct view of things". (De Bernardinis declined a request for an interview through his lawyer, Dinacci, who insisted that De Bernardinis's public comments reflected only what the commission scientists had told him. There is no mention of the discharge idea in the official minutes, Picuti says, and several of the indicted scientists point out that De Bernardinis made these remarks before the actual meeting.)

That message, whatever its source, seems to have resonated deeply with the local population. "You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town," says Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer who represents some of the families of the eight University of L'Aquila students who died when a dormitory collapsed. "It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger." "That phrase," in the opinion of one L'Aquila resident, "was deadly for a lot of people here."

The press conference and interviews, prosecutors argue, carried special weight because they were the only public comments to emerge immediately after the meeting. The commission did not issue its usual formal statement, and the minutes of the meeting were not even prepared, says Boschi, until after the earthquake had occurred. Moreover, it did not issue any specific recommendations for community preparedness, according to Picuti, thereby failing in its legal obligation "to avoid death, injury and damage, or at least to minimize them".

Picuti argues that the fragility of local housing should have been a central component in the commission's risk assessment. "This isn't Tokyo, where the buildings are anti-seismic," he says. "This is a medieval city, and that raises the risk." In 1999, Barberi himself had compiled a massive census of every seismically vulnerable public building in southern Italy; the survey, according to the prosecution brief, indicated that more than 550 masonry buildings in L'Aquila were at medium–high risk of collapsing in the event of a major earthquake.

The failure to remind residents of earthquake preparedness procedures in the face of such risks is one of the reasons that John Mutter, a seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, declined to sign the open letter circulated to support the Italian scientists. Mutter says that in his opinion, "these guys shouldn't go to jail, but they should be fined or censured because they should have said something other than what they said. To say 'don't worry' — that sort of thing just isn't helpful. You need to remind people of their earthquake drills: if they feel the house moving, get out of the building if you can, or get under a table or a door frame if you can't. Do all the things that we know save lives."

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.

"That night, all the old people in L'Aquila, after the first shock, went outside and stayed outside for the rest of the night," Vittorini says. "Those of us who are used to using the Internet, television, science — we stayed inside."


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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Mon Oct 22, 2012 10:13 pm

Sorry these people sound like fools to me- if you live in a an earthqquake zone then if there are tremors you do the earthquake drill no matter how high or low the risk 'officially' is deemed surely?
Thats just sensible.
And if you dont already know your earthquake drill you are living in the wrong place.
Expecting science to know the liklihood of a serious qauke when its such a nebulous and still not understood process seems like looking for someone to blame to me.

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Re: science and policy

Post by halfwise on Mon Oct 22, 2012 10:19 pm

it sounds like the off-the-cuff statement made by this De Barnidinis chap was the root of most of the trouble. The rest of it was not religiously repeating the earthquake safety mantra during every public pronouncement.

I'm relieved that the case didn't turn on their inability to predict earthquakes, but on the more subtle point of giving the public the perception that 'small chance' means 'don't be prepared'.

It does seem like they didn't do a good job of their official duty, perhaps because as scientists they never completely understood the importance of the public relations component. Doesn't seem to worth 6 years of jail time though. Hopefully the mandatory appeal will bring things more into alignment.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Mrs Figg on Mon Oct 22, 2012 11:16 pm

I agree that 6 years is over kill, but I understand the anger of the victims, if there had been any doubt they should have been put at least on standby to evacuate. Its also very difficult for the population as they were getting hundreds of mini shocks over a long period of time. They were told these mini shocks were not dangerous and not to evacuate. Obviously the experts were wrong.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Orwell on Tue Oct 23, 2012 2:41 am

I think it is always good to blame individuals for acts of nature. (Reminds me of the scapegoating around the Hillsborough disaster, actually).

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Re: science and policy

Post by Eldorion on Tue Oct 23, 2012 2:54 am

I don't see any sort of justice in convicting people for having made an honest mistake in the practice of a notoriously unpredictable and unreliable science.
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Re: science and policy

Post by halfwise on Tue Oct 23, 2012 3:46 am

You missed the subtlety, Eldo, as did I and most of the world. You need to read the article Mrs Figg posted. They did manage to give far too much a feeling of security with relation to the temblors, basically telling people they could ignore them. Though statistically speaking that wasn't bad advice, they should have also emphasized basic earthquake safety.

Not worth anything like a 6 year sentence, but they did need some censure for accepting a policy position and then blowing it.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Oct 23, 2012 4:16 am

I still dont see how that is the fault of some scientists- even if they had said to people it would probably amount to nothing (and they alway say probably in one fashion or another- they are scientists) surely to hell if there are tremors you do your earthquake drill stuff just to be on the safe side and if you dont then whatever follows is your own fault noone elses no matter what they might have said.
I mean if your sitting there and the ground starts to open up and eat your house are people really just siting on their couch going "Its ok. The scientists said this wouldnt happen so we'll be fine if we just ignore it and act like its not happening."
It seems mad to me.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Nov 06, 2012 1:44 am

Nothing to do with policy but does have to do with science!
Watching a prog on the BBC- Richard hammond's Miracles of Nature- basically looking at tech inspired by nature.
Theyve got a bloke wearing a suit inspired by a giraffe's neck! Basically it copies a contraction in the neck muscles to prevent blood loss from the brain at high G's.
Now the best human at this sort of thing usually starts to lose vision about 3-4 G and by 5-6 G will have passsed out.
Wearing this giraffe neck inspired suit the test guy in this went to over 9 G! At which point, and I swear I'm not joking, he completed a rubix cube. Shocked (which I have yet to manage at no G!)

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Re: science and policy

Post by David H on Tue Nov 06, 2012 7:48 am

Pettytyrant101 wrote:
Wearing this giraffe neck inspired suit the test guy in this went to over 9 G!

Of course,
before they could do human testing,
they had to test it on animals.
Rolling Eyes

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Re: science and policy

Post by Eldorion on Tue Nov 06, 2012 3:35 pm

Did the wiener dog also solve a Rubik's cube? Very Happy
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Re: science and policy

Post by Mrs Figg on Tue Nov 06, 2012 3:35 pm

I think you are missing the point Petty. They are not condeming the scientists for not predicting the earthquake, they are condeming years of lax safety measures, over confident scientists, corruption as regards building regulations, evacuation plans (mostly non existent), and a population that has seen thousands of lives lost due to gross negligence and abusive building, FOR DECADES. this was just the last straw. a wakeup call that ordinary people would no longer tolerate so called experts putting them in harms way. The ordinary people trusted them when they said, 'stay in your homes, there is no or little risk. these are traditional people who look up to and respect authority. probably too much, but this attitude is changing after recent disasters. They all know its an imprecise science, but there was no where to go to, there was no provision for makeshift tents or camps. where were the people to go? the authorities should have ordered suitable accommodation for the poulation to go to if they felt unsafe, like a camp, but they did nothing until it was too late. this is just a symbolic sentence, the scientists will not actually spend time in prison.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Nov 06, 2012 9:18 pm

Given thats the case Mrs Figg why were the government agencies responsible for building, planning not in the court instead? Why were whatever the equivelent of the elected local body not in court? Surely it is they who should be being held to account not the scientists?

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Re: science and policy

Post by halfwise on Tue Nov 06, 2012 9:28 pm

No you see, the scientists accepted official policy positions. The fact that they were scientists is actually beside the point, and in fact several non scientists were convicted as well. I think the mistake made by the scientists was thinking that their job on the board was simply to advise on science, not actually devise and carry out sound safety policy.

Forget that they happen to be scientists: not what this was about. If they were simply government officials, and there was an earthquake in a relatively high risk area, and no useful government action was in place - you'd be howling the same way you were howling about the Hillsborough disaster. Blaming the conviction on their inability to predict earthquakes was media misdirection.

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Re: science and policy

Post by David H on Tue Nov 06, 2012 10:03 pm

What Halfy said. Nod
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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Nov 06, 2012 10:21 pm

Its sounds to mw Halfwise that the problem there is whoever set up this board the scientists were on did not make the roles and responsibilities clear enough. If the scientists genuinely believed their role in it was solely advisory.
And who else was on this board? Were there those responsible for building works? For planning? And were they equally punished?

I'm still not convinced the right people have been sentenced here, and because of that sentencing them will not in the end make any difference next time it happens.

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Re: science and policy

Post by halfwise on Tue Nov 06, 2012 10:24 pm

Can't answer those questions, but the article Mrs Figg posted is what convinced me the Italians weren't acting like complete fools, and I can't say anything beyond what is in that article.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Tue Nov 06, 2012 10:26 pm

Well cant say fairer than that, to use a Gafferism.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Mrs Figg on Wed Nov 07, 2012 12:28 am

Basically its like this. There is endemic corruption. The head of the Protezione Civile or civil protection, Bertolaso, the guy whos job it is to protect the Italians when disaster strikes has been involoved in a huge fraud scandal. After the earthquake in Aquila lucrative business steered to chosen bidders in return for payment in cash and kind, sometimes including sex. allegedly accepting sexual favours from a contractor who has been jailed.
This has been in complicity with senior executives in public administration at both the national and regional level, high-ranking judges and lawyers, and a posse of businessmen throughout the building industry in Italy.
Bertolaso has responsibility for decisions involving billions of euros of public money: no wonder the eavesdroppers on a couple of corrupt building contractors on the night of the earthquake where 300 people died were horrified to hear him celebrating the event with a cynical laugh that his business was guaranteed for life.

so there you have it. Thats why people here are very very angry. The people paid to protect them drink wine and laugh while people die. This has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with science or scapegoating science. The man who tried to help, Guiliani is a SCIENTIST and they gagged him from warning the people before the earthquake in Aquila. He went round the town with a loudspeaker trying to warn people and he was banned and stopped by yes you guessed it, Bertolaso.

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Re: science and policy

Post by Pettytyrant101 on Wed Nov 07, 2012 12:33 am

Thanks for the info Mrs Figg- but are there other people also being prosecuted for this? Or is it like much of Italian politics so corrupt it will all somehow get swept under the carpet again?

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Re: science and policy

Post by Mrs Figg on Wed Nov 07, 2012 12:46 am

who knows if it will get swept under the carpet? its likely none of these people will go to prison, its more a symbolic thing rather than really wanting them to go to prison. its very disheartening, and its always the poor ordinary folk that get shafted. Mad I have noticed however that as soon as we got rid of Berlusconi all the shit has hit the fan, and many countless corrupt people have been unmasked and dealt with, and I mean thousands of corruption charges, quite mind boggling amounts of money have been stolen by public servants, cronies of Berlusconi and co. its a cleanish sweep. Mario Monti has meant the parasites have crawled out of the woodwork Monti’s government is pushing hard to get anti corruption laws passed quickly to shore up confidence in the political system and show that something is being done to stem it.


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