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Scientists jailed for six years for underesti -

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Robyn Williams: We begin in Italy. This was The World Today on Tuesday:

Winsome Denyer: The defence argued there is no way to predict major earthquakes, but they were overruled. Wania della Vigna, a lawyer for the families of some of the victims, says the scientists should have known a quake of this magnitude could have hit the region.

Wania della Vigna: [Translation] It's not possible to predict earthquakes, but it was possible to predict the seismic risk in L'Aquila after a month of tremors. L'Aquila is a fragile city which was hit and destroyed a lot of times by quakes in the past.

Winsome Denyer: However, Professor Paul Somerville from Macquarie University says a dangerous precedent has been set.

Paul Somerville: Science is all about predictive power of theories, and if scientists aren't allowed to test the predictive powers of their theories, then it may inhibit what scientists are willing to say about things that might occur in the future.

Robyn Williams: In today's Science Show, what's special about wishbones, what killed the woolly mammoths, and exotic flowers that turn you on. Hello, I'm Robyn Williams.

And we return to Italy and that astonishing aftermath in the courts, which sentenced scientists to six years in jail for manslaughter.

Paul Somerville: I think that there were shortcomings in what the scientists did that could be improved upon. I don't think they should be serving jail sentences, but I think instead of making it a punishment, I think it should be viewed as an opportunity to greatly increase the understanding that the public have of what seismologists can and cannot say about earthquake forecasts.

Obviously seismologists are going to be very, very careful about what they say to the public, as they have been happening in places like Christchurch and Tohoku, Japan. When those things happen, seismologists are going to be thinking about keeping quiet or talking to lawyers or something like that, and I think that's really unfortunate.

Robyn Williams: Professor Paul Somerville from Macquarie University. And Lindy Kerin talked to other scientists on PM, with similar responses:

Brian Kennett: People will be much more cautious I believe, in giving advice in future, because this sets a precedent that in the past you could give the best opinion you could, which presumably those officials did, and you are left now with a scenario where you will be looking over your shoulder.

Lindy Kerin:Rick Sarre is a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of South Australia. He's described the sentence as bizarre and says it's likely to be overturned.

Rick Sarre: All I can say is it would never happen here in Australia, and I think what's happening is the lower courts in Italy, they've just decided to make an example of these guys, knowing full well that the appeal courts will overturn it.

Lindy Kerin: So do you think it will be overturned?

Rick Sarre: My strong prediction is yes, it will. This is too outlandish, and of course the repercussions for the scientific community are enormous.

Lindy Kerin: Professor Sarre agrees the sentence will have far reaching implications and could dissuade other experts in their field from sharing their expertise.

Rick Sarre: The big one of course would be flooding predictions, dam safety, bushfires would be another one, even climatologists talking about sea level rises. And it would have put a fairly serious spoke in the wheels of any scientist who was likely to put forward his or her view on predictions.

No one is ever going to make a prediction in future lest they get it wrong and then find themselves in jail, or alternatively they're going to predict the worst-case scenario in every instance, which means we're going to be throwing all sorts of resources at events that are very unlikely to happen. So in any event, policy-wise, it's a disaster.

Robyn Williams: That report from PM. Policy-wise a disaster. Professor Rick Sarre from the University of South Australia.