The Continuing Tragedy of L’Aquila

As in ‘Boffins jailed for not predicting earthquake’, the 6-year sentences and massive fines handed out to the Italian seismologists have been largely portrayed by the media and commentators outside Italy as an attack on science, and the prosecution ridiculed as expecting the scientists to have been able to predict the earthquake.

However, many have pointed out that it is all a bit more complicated than that. See, for example, a detailed article in Nature and these blogs by Roger Pielke and Austin Elliott.

Briefly, the seismologists appear to have agreed to attend a hasty meeting that had, possibly unknown to them, been set up by local officials with the express intention of playing down local fears. The scientists concluded that ‘they could not be confident there would be an earthquake’, which was subsequently communicated in an informal press conference as ‘confident there would not be an earthquake’, which in the eyes of some locals rendered them culpable after the subsequent events. Essentially, the seismologists appear to have been manipulated by local interests, and are now paying a ludicrous price.

In spite of Sir John Beddington (Government Chief Scientific Advisor) assuring us that this type of prosecution would not happen in the UK, this should be a strong warning to any scientist asked for their opinion about matters of strong public interest, as Willy Aspinall lays out in this excellent commentary in Nature.

The lessons I am personally trying to learn are -

1. Never to give advice unless I am confident that the findings will be communicated either by myself or a trusted professional source, using a pre-determined plan and appropriate, carefully chosen language that acknowledges uncertainty and does not either prematurely reassure or induce unreasonable concern.

2. Not to engage in informal communication using social media on that issue.

3. Ensure proper indemnity arrangements are in place. Apparently this is true for official government advisors, but in my experience I have found that establishing advisors' legal position was not a high priority for the people asking for advice. And indemnity could not be taken for granted when advising agencies such as NHS Trusts (not being an NHS employee). Of course, even in the UK one would not be covered for criminal prosecutions such as the one on Italy.

The earthquake threat will always be there in many parts of Italy, and this court case has only added to the woes of the Italian public by distracting attention from lax building standards. And who in Italy will want to choose seismology as a career now?

Added as an afterthought

There is, of course, a danger of 'defensive science', and an unwillingness to engage with important public issues. But I believe the lessons listed above should be standard professional practice, and do not represent an over-cautious approach. It would be an extra tragedy if L'Aquila led to a general reluctance to provide scientific advice.

Comments

Dave Marsay's picture

David, some good points on an important issue. At http://djmarsay.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/risks-to-scientists-from-mis-predictions/ I speculate that there are some features of potential crises that tend to lead to risks being underestimated. There seem to be many situations in which P(A|B) is known but we want P(A|B') where B' implies B. I am not aware of any theory that supports the estimate P(A|B') = P(A|B), but this seems to be common practice even when, as at Aquila, it seems to me fairly obvious that (possibly) P(A|B') >> P(A|B). Could we identify some guidelines to indicate when 'scientific' estimates might reasonably be expected to be underestimates?