William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Italian Scientists Convicted! Shocked That Their Predictions Were Heeded

Do you feel that chill? It’s from a fell wind issuing from an Italian judge’s courtroom, where he has just sent a group of seismologists and one politician to the hoosegow for, it is said, failing to predict the deadly L’Aquila earthquake in 2009.

“Science” has been iced. Why, if scientists are held responsible for some of their whackier propositions, then they might not make them so freely. And nobody wants that. Right, Gav? From the WSJ:

“The concern is this could have a very chilling effect for future scientists in seismology,” said Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the Office of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Where does the responsibility lie? It’s really a political question, a process question, not just a science question,” she said.

The story is however more complicated (we originally covered it here and here). Turns out that there was this Italian guy peddling quack earthquake forecasts, based on the radon emitted from burning cat entrails or some such thing. As with all false seers, he was right sometimes and wrong most times, but his fans only remembered his successes.

He predicted there would be quakes in L’Aquila, an area which had been experiencing a multiplicity of small tremors, which caused many indigenous populants to grow dizzy with fear. So a commission of government officials paid visit to six certified seismologists who pooh-poohed the quack and said there was only a low chance of an earthquake.

L’Aquila earthquake

According to Nature:

What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting. In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, i’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

Oops. The New York Times weighed in with an expert:

The statement by the official, who is not a seismologist, violated a cardinal rule of risk communication, which is that those involved should speak only to their expertise, said Dennis Mileti, an emeritus professor of behavioral science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “This person should not have been speaking,” said Dr. Mileti, who has studied risk communication.

Yes, we often find officials keeping silent on important matters of the day. Anyway, the earthquake came and killed and after the funerals people remembered the wine quip. Fingers were pointed, collars were fingered, a trial was ordered. Guilty! The judge gave the six scientists who had the conclave with De Bernardinis six whopping years in prison.

But the trial was not, contrary to many discussions, because the scientists failed to predict the quake. The prosecutor, one Picuti, said (in Nature), “The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila…They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors and they did not.”

“This isn’t a trial against science,” insists [surgeon and local resident] Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of “Be calm, don’t worry”, and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. “That’s why I feel betrayed by science,” he says. “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”

The busted Italian forecast was of the Bobby “Don’t Worry Be Happy” McFerrin, there-is-no-reason-for-concern kind. And those fellows paid the price. But what of the opposite endless end-of-the-world predictions that besiege us from otherwise sober scientists who assure us that our very breath is killing us? They ever going to be hauled before the (earthly) judge?

False negatives are surely more costly than false positives, but it would be nice if there were a measure of responsibility tied to predictions.

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Nature article: “At Fault?” by Stephen S. Hall, vol 477, 15 September 2011, pp264-269.

11 Comments

  1. “The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila…They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors and they did not.”

    Except they were not convicted of deriliction of duty or criminal negligence, they were convicted of manslaughter.

    Had this trial taken place in the US and I had been on the jury, I would be looking for evidence that specific persons would not have died but for the statements made by the defendents.

  2. They should be glad they are in modern (more or less) Italy. In ancient Israel the penalty for false prophecy was death. That’s why they didn’t have any of this global warming prophecy by the prophet Hansen.

  3. “This isn’t a trial against science,” insists [surgeon and local resident] Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of “Be calm, don’t worry”,

    I wonder what he would be saying if the message was “PANIC!” and the earthquake never happened.

    So, someone comes along and (rightly) says an earthquake is imminent. How exactly does one prepare for it? Stay outside? Move? Completely redesign your dwelling structure? You don’t know when it will happen nor the severity, so how long or how much should one apply these preparations? Should one prepare for the worst earthquake imaginable?

  4. The want of a accurate predictions is the root of all evil.

  5. GoneWithTheWind

    24 October 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Some years back, 20 or 30 years or so) Mammoth Lakes California was experiencing earthquakes and the seismologists explained that the entire area was a super volcano site and that another explosive super eruption would happen in the future and that could even be what the current earthquakes were indicating. The are around Mammot lakes is a well known ski/resort area where condos and homes are built and sold. The seismologist’s report understandably put a damper on real estate and ski trips in Mammoth lakes. The people hurt by this report, resort owners, real estate agentsm builders, etc., took the seismologists and the universities to court over the “predictions”. It all got settled and I don’t know who got what but there are no more reports about the possibility of a serious volcano eruption in Mammoth lakes anymore. By the way is anyone interested in buying a time share at a condo in Mammoth lakes?

  6. Then could we get ALL the scientists an a few politicians for beliving in “global warming”?
    Or the truthers that say the building on 911 were rigged to blow up?
    Or hollywood for supporting movies that show the United States in a incorrect way?

  7. “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”

    That makes sense to me.

    By the way, what’s with the picture labeled Chihuahua, Mexico (not reviewed by human) all about?

  8. I think the episode touches on several of the topics that comes up frequently on this blog. First, there are too many people too certain about too many things. Briggs is more eloquent on the topic but I think that is a decent summary.

    There is another issue, also discussed on this blog, having to do with the difference between the ‘raw data’ and the conclusions one might draw. The conclusions depend on your ‘model’ or ‘notion’ or ‘hypothesis’ or ‘bias’ – pick one.

    So, in the Italian case there were some ‘facts’ or ‘raw data’ – the town is in an earthquake zone and there were tremors. No one disputes this.

    Then the question becomes ‘what conclusion do I draw’ from the ‘raw data’. There is obviously some possibility of an earthquake (tremors and the earthquake zone). To say ‘there is no danger’ says in effect that the probability of an earthquake that will cause damage is zero.

    So if the citizens of the town and those going to jail were avid readers of this blog neither group would have made the mistake of assuming that ‘there was no danger’.

    That said, I don’t see how these issues can be sorted out in a court case. I don’t think someone making a mistake, even a serious mistake, about the likelihood of something going wrong, is guilty of manslaughter.

    Imagine that the person had said, “There is a chance of an earthquake, there always is, but I think it’s low.” People still would have died so is the person who made the prediction guilty of manslaughter in only some of the deaths but not all of the deaths?

    Or to put the shoe on the other foot are the citizens of the town guilty for not taking the ‘precautionary principle’ to heart and leaving town before the earthquake?

    That said, I don’t see how these considerations can be sorted out in a court room.

  9. Since it’s not scientifically possible to reliably predict earthquakes perhaps the best thing to do here is tell the public this. I realise that the scientists involved may have to sacrifice their prestige as oracles…

  10. I imagine the judge’s decision hinged on the associated P value. Must have been > .05 else they would have been found innocent.

  11. Go Whitecaps!!!

    26 October 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Have to agree with DAV. Do you evacuate the town if the seismologist predicts a 10%, 20%, …. 50% likelyhood of an earthquake . Would they be prosecuted if they just said that the event was possible.
    6 years ? Where did they get this figure?

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