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Italian Seismologists on Trial–for Failing to Communicate Well?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The ground shook violently in L’Aquila, Italy, early in the morning of April 6, 2009, more violently than it had during the tremors the area had been experiencing for months. After the dust settled and the recovery effort was over, 308 people were dead. Now the local prosecutor is charging the scientific committee responsible for predicting earthquakes with failing to give the people of L’Aquila adequate warning.

But the issue is not the science of earthquake prediction. The prosecutor, and the locals who want the case brought, realize that nobody can accurately predict earthquakes. The issue, and the heart of the charge, is about how risk is communicated, and what role scientists should play in that communication. And for that reason, this is a trial with implications far beyond L’Aquila, and far beyond seismology. This is about the important, and overlooked, responsibility of scientists to participate in communications that help protect public safety.

People in central Italy know the Apennine mountains are seismically active, and the months-long spate of tremors had put everyone on edge. A technician at a physics lab had announced a new way of predicting earthquakes, and predicted big quakes near L’Aquila in the weeks before April 6…false alarms that freaked people out. The technician was blamed for being alarmist. He was even reported to the police for ‘spreading fear’.

For all these reasons the Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi, the national panel of science experts charged with studying and forecasting serious risks in Italy, held an emergency meeting in L’Aquila a week before the quake. Their discussion focused on that lab tech’s new prediction method, and the experts agreed the tech was wrong. They agreed that the tremors that had hit the area were releasing energy, which could suggest that a big quake might not happen, or that it might. Nobody could know for sure. In the meeting, they were cautious. In the brief news conference that followed, the government official in charge of the committee – who was the only person to speak to the press – was not.

“The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable,” Dr. Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, told a reporter. People in the area were reassured. Some say they took fewer precautions than a more thoughtful warning might have prompted. Essentially for that imprecise bit of risk communication, Dr. De Bernadinis and the six scientists on the committee now face manslaughter charges, and a civil penalty request of $60 million, in a case that has shaken the international science community and caused widespread criticism, most of which fails to understand the real issue on trial.

5,000 scientists signed a petition sent to Italy’s president criticizing prosecutors for blaming scientists for not predicting earthquakes accurately. “There is no way they could have done that credibly,” the petition says. ‘To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable.” An editorial in the Los Angeles (earthquake central) Times gets it wrong too, calling the trial an ‘inquisition’ and ‘ludicrous’. The lawyer for one of the scientist-defendants says “You can not put science on trial.”

Say what you might about Italy’s justice system, but we’re not back at Galileo here. Science is NOT on trial. Even the quake victims say so. Vincenzo Vittorini, a L’Aquila doctor who lost his wife and daughter in the quake and now heads the victims’ association ’309 Martiri’ (309 Martyrs) that pressed to have the case brought, says “Nobody here wants to put science in the dock,” he says. “We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices”.

What is on trial is risk communication, and the entire committee deserves some blame. The comments by Dr. De Bernardinis, government official and chair of the committee but an expert in floods, that there was “No danger” and that “the situation looks favourable”, were patently thoughtless. Some of the other defendants are hinting that De Bernardinis overstated their cautious consensus in order to calm the public down after those previous false alarms, possibly under orders from higher up in government (this being ‘there’s a conspiracy behind everything’ Italy). Easy for them to say now. None of the others, experts in seismology, participated in the post-meeting news conference.

Everyone on that committee failed the public. They all failed to provide information that would help people make healthy judgments about their safety. They apparently never even considered that critical aspect of their responsibility. There was no one with risk communication expertise at the table during the meeting, and the experts skipped the post-meeting new conference. They thought about the risk through their narrow expertise as scientists, and either out of ignorance, or hubris – probably both – thought that was enough. They aren’t on trial for failing as risk scientists. They are on trial for failing as risk communicators.

And they should be, though perhaps more in the court of public opinion than in a court of law. There are all sorts of psychological factors that play a role in how people perceive the risk of earthquakes (or any risk, for that matter), so proving to some reasonable legal certainty that the inadequate communication directly caused deaths and harm is highly unlikely. But poor risk communication undoubtedly contributed to the public’s perception of the risk, and had some influence on the choices and behaviors of the residents of L’Aquila that may have left some of them at greater risk.

Here is the problem, and the lesson the L’Aquila case might teach. Scientists and government risk analysts may do objective fact-based risk assessment, but non-scientists (and scientists too, when they get out of the lab) do subjective risk perception, based on a few facts and, mostly, how those facts feel, and how we feel shapes how we behave. To a significant degree our feelings about any risk are shaped by the opinion of experts, like the Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi, upon whom we rely for guidance about how to stay safe. The scientists and government officials studying risk on our behalf must not only do their analyses well. They must accept the responsibility to communicate, and to communicate well…carefully, clearly, respectful of the importance of emotions to how we perceive risk…because as much as the science they do, what they say, and how they say it, has a lot to do with how much risk we actually face.

The trial got underway October 1. Some links, if you want to learn more about the case:

BBC: Italy scientists on trial over L’Aquila earthquake

A CBC interview with Nicola Nosengo, an Italian science journalist who has covered the story for Nature magazine.

The Economist: L’Aquila’s earthquake, Scientists in the dock. An extraordinary manslaughter trial starts in Italy

A New Scientist essay by Professor Tom Jordan of USC, who chaired a review panel for the Italian government after the quake. Don’t blame Italian seismologists for quake deaths

Related at Scientific American:

Stuart Fox : Did a Technician Accurately Forecast the L’Aquila Earthquake–Or Was It a Lucky Guess?

Steve Mirsky : Shaky Ground: Can Seismologists Be Charged with a Crime for Not Predicting Deadly Quakes?

Stephanie Pappas: Scientists Worry Over “Bizarre” Trial on Earthquake Prediction

Larry Greenemeier: Error and Trial: Italian Scientists Face Prison as Earthquake Manslaughter Hearing Resumes This Weekend

David Ropeik About the Author: David Ropeik is an Instructor at the Harvard Extension School and author of 'How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts'. Follow on Twitter @dropeik.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. rgrumbine 12:23 pm 10/20/2011

    It would certainly be nice if all people were better at communicating risk than they are, and if all listeners were better at evaluating risk than they are. But it’s quite a long way from that ideal to jailing and fining people for manslaughter for failing to do their risk communication ‘well enough’.

    In condemning scientists for not engaging in the risk communication (not being at the press conference), it would first be worthwhile to see whether they were even allowed to go by their employer. It’s rather routine for scientists to not be allowed to speak to the public directly — instead being the job of a government official, or, often a ‘public relations’ person. Blaming people for not doing something they’re not allowed to do does not seem reasonable. Even less so to charge them with manslaughter.

    The official who did not accurately represent what the scientific discussion said, and translate that well for public consumption, … perhaps a different matter.

    But it seems to me that much hinges upon the matter of ‘we’re not complaining about the science, just the risk communication’. That’s an awfully thin hair to split. It’s an earthquake-prone region, as these things go. If there were actions people would take to prepare for an earthquake, they should already have been taken before the announcement, regardless of what the announcement was. Absent the ability to predict earthquakes — and even to say that there’s an increased likelihood would be such an ability — there was no change of preparation to be made. The chance of there being an earthquake was unchanged, preparations to advise were unchanged. The official suggesting that things were ‘favorable’ was failing to communicate that well. But, giving how rare significant earthquakes are in any given year in the area, it’s not unreasonable even then to suggest that conditions are ‘favorable’ (most years you don’t have a significant earthquake), though not that one should not have preparations for earthquakes.

    Manslaughter (at least in the US and UK) does have some requirement that the person charged have had both a responsiblity and an ability to have prevented the death(s). Short of evacuating the area, the deaths could not be prevented. That would not happen until earthquakes could be forecast accurately enough for officials to make evacuation orders, and for the populace to respect them. It having been agreed, per your quote, that evacuation was not on the table, it’s hard to see how deaths are the responsibility of the official — nothing he could reasonably say would have resulted in the evacuation.

    I’m afraid that even with the efforts to disclaim that science is being put on trial, it pretty much is. It seems rather similar in nature, though vastly more serious in its effect on the public and the scientists, to a common event in weather forecasting. Namely, forecaster says 30% chance of rain, and then it does rain. Many in the public then complain that they were not warned of the rain, and would be quite happy to sue the forecaster (if it were legally; usually it is not) for having gotten wet, and whatever damage occurred from the rain occurring on a day the forecast said only 30% chance.

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  2. 2. BorisG 7:40 am 10/22/2011

    The author says that scientists and media are miguided but I think he is also misguided. He blames the seismologists for their failure to communicate risk properly. But he does not provide any evidence or indications that there was any higher than normal risk. Maybe there was, but it isn’t clear. The fact that the big earthquake did occur is not an indication of the higher risk (beyond what is high for this area at any time). Making such an inference now would be a look back bias. As one of the seismologists on trial pointed out, if someone asks me about the safest mode of transport, and I say it is much safer to go by plane thna by car, and then the plane crashes, this does not mean that my assessment of risk was wrong.

    In the wake of the earthquake, a commission consisting of world’s most respected seismologists was established by the Italian authorities to look into the matter. It concluded that the advice of the seismologists was consistent with the current scientific understanding of seismic risk. There is no evidence that any of the six seismologists did anything wrong, let alone criminal. I hope that the seismologists will be exhonerated by this show trial, but the enormous damage has been done as in the future sccientists will be much more reluctant to give honest advice on matters of public interest.

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  3. 3. mpease46 11:51 am 10/27/2011

    If the scientists can be jailed for communicating badly, what can we do with politicians who just simply lie?

    Link to this

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