"This is a very big pile of quicksand that will almost certainly tamp down any attempt to provide warnings about natural disasters," Michigan's Pollack told LiveScience.
The case does highlight the need to be upfront with the public about the limits of scientific predictions, said Erik Klemetti, a professor at Denison University in Ohio who specializes in volcanism and communicates with the public via his blog, Eruptions.
"Prediction of volcanic or earthquake hazards is not the game where you want to be going out and making bold, specific predictions, because we just really don't have the capability to do that," Klemetti said.
The case may take months to settle, and it remains to be seen whether Italy will hold scientists responsible for the deaths in L'Aquila. In the meantime, geoscientists are remaining humble about their understanding of tectonic forces.
"What you want to do in this business is to show humility in the face of the complexities of nature," Stein said. "I think that's probably a good thing for everybody to bear in mind."
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