In early March, in a mountainous, quake-prone patch of central Italy, the readings on Gioacchino Giuliani’s patented radon detector suddenly spiked. He concluded the jump could only mean one thing: impending seismic activity. Giuliani immediately dispatched a fleet of vans equipped with loudspeakers throughout the Abruzzo region, blaring warnings to evacuate.
Giuliani issued the same warning in a video he posted on YouTube, and in interviews with local Italian blogs. He predicted that the quake would strike Abruzzo on March 29, but local officials dismissed Giuliani’s warnings, forcing him to remove his radon findings from the Internet and to stop his loudspeaker announcements. Seven days later, a 6.3–magnitude earthquake shook the region.
Not surprisingly, many of the earliest articles about the tremor seized upon Giuliani’s story. “Italy muzzled scientist who predicated quake,” a Reuters headline reported, roughly fifteen hours after the event. It seems like we’ve watched this movie before, though. Is Giuliani the real-life version of Pierce Brosnan in Dante’s Peak or Anne Heche in Volcano—a frustrated scientist struggling to warn the passive local authorities of an imminent natural disaster? This Hollywood sensationalism may be why so many media sources hopped on Giuliani’s radon-detection bandwagon, or maybe it was a need to place blame in the post-quake chaos. But no matter the reason, it seems most reporters didn’t do their homework on Giuliani or his research.
Articles on Giuliani’s prediction appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, Time, CNN, The Daily News, The Independent, the , The Guardian, Daily Telegraph , and even WikiNews.
The stories concentrated on the struggle between Giuliani and the local authorities that accused the researcher of “spreading alarm.” Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, was quoted in several articles saying, “These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news. Everyone knows that you can’t predict earthquakes.” According to Reuters, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “seemed defensive” about whether the government had protected the Abruzzo population properly in light of Giuliani’s warnings.
In most of the early coverage, however, specifics on the “mad scientist” who “accurately prophesized the earthquake in L’Aquila” were sketchy at best. Giuliani was called a “seismologist” (WSJ, New York Times, Independent, Reuters and several others), a “volcanologist” (Daily News), physicist (another WSJ article) and “Dr. Giuliani” (Evening Standard). According to several outlets, Giuliani is an employee of the “National Institute of Astrophysics,” “an Italian national nuclear research center,” “Institute of Nuclear Physics at nearby Gran Sasso,” and the “National Physical Laboratory of Gran Sasso.”
But Giuliani is none of these things. Eugenio Coccia, the director of the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, where the now-famous researcher actually works, said in an interview with Nature that Giuliani is “a technician.” “His work on earthquakes is a hobby,” he said. “Nothing to do with the research project here.” Coccia also told Nature that the research center has been a “bit embarrassed” by the media reports.
Researchers and reporters alike cannot deny that scientific discoveries sometimes come from the most unlikely people and places. But, as articles in the Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, and Science rightly pointed out in the days following the quake, Giuliani’s method for earthquake prediction from radon measurements has been tried, without success, for nearly four decades.
“There isn’t a definitive link between radon gas measurements and earthquake occurrence,” said Brian Baptie of the British Geological Survey in a Reuters article (which appeared one day after Reuters had published a piece highlighting Giuliani’s efforts). In Science’s blog Science Insider, Scottish seismologist Ian Main noted that statistically, radon measurements over the decades have not supported quake prediction at all. (The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Spotts and Anna Momigliano further noted that any responsible prediction would actually be referred to as a “forecast,” and be expressed in probabilistic rather than deterministic terms.)
Many scientists from the United States and Europe voiced concerns that media coverage of Giuliani’s findings could trigger false hope in the success of earthquake predictions. “It’s a very humbling field to be in,” Ross Stein, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Reuters. “We cannot predict earthquakes.”
Several other scientists noted that it is relatively easy to predict where earthquakes will happen, but that doesn’t mean researchers are any closer to understanding when they will strike.
In this case, Reuters reported that Giuliani did not even predict the location correctly. He claimed the earthquake would hit Sulmona, a town thirty miles south of L’Aquila, the town hit hardest by the quake. Officials “told reporters that if they had listened to Giuliani, they probably would have evacuated the residents of Sulmona to L’Aquila just in time for the earthquake,” according to Reuters.