As you’ll know by now there is an uproar over the sentence handed down to six Italian scientists over communication of earthquake risk.
I’m not doubting that the experts drew fair conclusions from the evidence available at the time; there seems ample commentary on this. It’s not my field and I can only take their word for it. My reading is also limited – I have only so much time.
My impression is that the complaints were over not getting risk information from the scientists (and what they did from a local spokesperson being inaccurate). Leaving aside the ‘crime’ aspects, which seem at best vexed, was communicating directly to the public ever part of the scientists’ brief?
This 2011 background piece in Nature by science writer Stephen Hall is a good starting point for this story. It covers many aspects well and many of the comments that follow are worth pursuing, too. (NewScientist has briefly looked at the earthquake prediction angle.)
Communication to the general public is pointed at as being the key question, for example this passage from Hall’s 2011 Nature piece:
The view from L’Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.
“I’m not crazy,” Picuti says. “I know they can’t predict earthquakes. 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.” Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. “They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,” he says, “and they did not.”
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