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