On Italian earthquakes, scientists and communication

By Grant Jacobs 23/10/2012 15

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.[1] (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.”

“This isn’t a trial against science,” insists 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.”

A problem I have is a lack of clarity over just what was the experts’ brief.

Internationally geologists say the geological evaluation aspect, which self-evidently would be part of their brief, was fine. Assessment of buildings doesn’t sound to me like something that would be part of the brief of geologists. (Try building engineers, perhaps.) Similarly, preparedness sounds more the realm of civil defence and local authorities.

I seems to me that geologists can really only be held to the geological aspects. Let’s then put aside other aspects (including those that run from them). What is left then is the geologists’ communication brief.

In particular, who were they to communicate to? To local authorities or directly to the general public?

David Ropiek, writing at Scientific American blogs, has it that “In fact, the scientists didn’t communicate at all!” (I would add the qualifier, ‘to the general public’; they obviously did communicate within the commission.) According to Hall, these commissions are usually behind closed doors:

Commission sessions are usually closed, so Boschi was surprised to see nearly a dozen local government officials and other non-scientists attending the brief, one-hour meeting, in which the six scientists assessed the swarms of tremors

That the scientists left after the meeting and that these are usually closed events could be read as suggesting these experts had no brief to communicate directly to the public themselves.

Corresponding with Ropiek, I gather[2] what he intended his article to convey was (his words):

their brief did not include communications for which the government deserves the blame

the experts should have been told (by the govt) that they had an obligation to communicate to the public.

This seems to confirm my suspicions and may offer useful thoughts for the future.

For now –

Should people be guilty for not doing something that was, apparently, not part of their brief? (Even if that might have been desirable.) Should that better communication might have been helpful in hindsight make what communication did occur at the time a crime, as opposed to a lesson for the future? Should some protection be offered to those offering advice, lest a situation develop that no-one wants to offer advice?[3]


I’m curious, too, how a year-long trial has only four hours of deliberation,[4] why the judge extended the sentence asked by prosecution from four years to six and in addition, as best as I can understand, dismissed the scientists from their jobs (rather than employers doing this secondary to a sentence).

This post was written before Peter’s latest on the same topic. I haven’t read it yet, or revised content, etc.

1. Although I wish they’d delete the spam from the 2012 period!

2. He says his article makes this clear, but to honest I read mixed messages from it and still do – it’s just how it reads to me. His words point a finger of blame on the scientists at several points. My guess is that he hasn’t labelled the scientists’ brief (contractual obligations) and, separately, his tilts at what might be better practice clearer enough for my tastes, particularly given how vexed this issue is.

Furthermore, by ‘government’ I suspect he means local government.

3. Or, spare the thought, only publicity-seeking cranks!

4. According to Stephanie Pappas and LIveScience, writing at Scientific American blogs, and the BBC (cited therein). See also this Italian report. Google Translate on the section ‘The charge’ yields:

The CHARGE – The charge against them was manslaughter, disaster, and serious injury for providing assurances to the people of L’Aquila, in a meeting which took place just a week before the earthquake. Prosecutors have asked for them sentenced to four years in prison, while the lawyers of the defendants asked for all full acquittal. There was great expectation in L’Aquila on the fate of the accused. The judgment was read by a single judge Marco Billi to about 17, after four hours of deliberation. A final action to the defense attorney Antonio Pallotta, legal Giulio Selvaggi. Seven experts and scientists defendants accused of inadequate warnings given to residents of earthquake risk. Namely, you deny them that he had given “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” on the danger of shock recorded in the six months prior to April 6, 2009. The defense has focused on the inability to predict earthquakes, a view supported by international researchers. The scientific community is uncertain hours on one point: the excessive reassurance can cause people to adopt risky behaviors, but it can be worth a communication error a conviction for manslaughter?

The report goes on to offer a political angle:

POLITICAL – Surprised and disappointed even the political world. “It’s a judgment a bit ‘strange and a bit’ embarrassing: who will be called in the future to cover these roles will pull back,” said the president of the Senate, Renato Schifani. “This sentence is the death of the rule of law and a pure madness – said UDC leader Pier Ferdinando Casini -. The obligation in order to forecast earthquakes is sanctioned events. “”Judgments should always be considered – pointed Pierluigi Bersani – but the important thing is to continue to be solidarity. Justice must take its course but also the reconstruction has to do it. “

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