Science, Art, Litt, Science based Art & Science Communication
Science communication series - part 15
Scientists take lots of risks while coming out in public regarding their work. And sometimes they will have to comprehend with incomplete data, unproved conclusions while connecting things and making models. We hear complaints about climate science, GM crops, Ebola virus clinical trials, weather and several other things. Climate scientists are undoubtedly facing these legal challenges (3). Earth quake predictions are one of these things scientists will have to stick their necks out because of the developing phase of the subject. And if seismologists go wrong in communicating their predictions, if people die because of this ... then they will be prosecuted and sent to jail. Prosecuted?
Yes, this was what had happened in 2009, when an earthquake devastated the Italian city of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people. Seven Italian earthquake scientists faced criminal charges for failing to predict the earthquake — even though pinpointing the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term remains, by scientific consensus, technically impossible!
The scientists had ended up in court as a consequence of botched communication in a highly stressed environment. In the months before the major earthquake struck, the region around L’Aquila had been subject to frequent, mostly low-magnitude tremors, known as seismic swarms. Residents were confused and increasingly alarmed by public statements made by a local amateur earthquake predictor, who claimed he had evidence of an impending quake — although geologists dismissed his methodology as unsound. A commission of experts met on March 31, 2009 to assess the scientific evidence and advise the government.
According to the prosecution, a press conference after that meeting — attended by the acting president of the commission, volcanologist Franco Barberi from the University of Rome ‘Roma Tre’, and government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy head of the Italian Civil Protection Department — conveyed a reassuring message that a major earthquake was not on the cards.
Moreover, in a television interview recorded a few hours before the meeting but aired after it, De Bernardinis, who is now president of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection in Rome, said that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” during the seismic storms.
According to the prosecution, when the earthquake struck on April 6, 2009 some people chose to remain at home instead of stepping outside as they otherwise would have done, and died in the collapse of their homes. All seven members of the expert commission were found guilty of manslaughter in October 2012, after a 13-month trial that transfixed the international scientific community.
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. According to them the scientists were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all the factors at L'Aquila site. A persistent message from authorities of "Be calm, don't worry", and a lack of specific advice, deprived them of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. That's why we feel betrayed by science, they say, 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 trial has had a chilling effect on scientists' willingness to share their expertise with the public. Now scientists in the areas where it is very difficult to predict things are keeping mum. When the Earth roars, scientists are falling silent! Yes, they are worried! The charges serve as a "dangerous" warning to researchers, who may find themselves in legal trouble because of the way that non-scientists such as public officials or journalists translate their risk analyses for public consumption. This would largely discourage giving honest opinions by scientists.
Scientists involved in disaster assessment everywhere anxiously watched the 13-month-long trial that led to the geologists' original conviction. Many felt it was unfair to hold the geologists accountable for not predicting the earthquake. So when the verdict finally arrived, for these scientists, it felt like an attack on science as a whole.
Scientists often struggle to quantify their uncertainty for laypeople. In the time following the trial, many wondered whether it was possible to work with the government to accurately relay their findings — and include their uncertainty. Some wondered whether it was worth trying to communicate with the public at all in uncertain conditions. This verdict seemed to indicate that scientists could be punished for information that they had gathered and their interpretations. There is no doubt that this has had a very negative effect on the willingness of scientists to communicate their insights into natural phenomena to the press and politicians.
The seismologists appealed against the earlier ruling as they had initially been convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the earthquake that ravaged the Italian town of L'Aquila and a 30-day trial started on October 10 this year in the L’Aquila courtroom, before a three-judge court. Over the course of six hearings, the scientists’ attorneys argued that no clear causal link had been proven between the meeting and the behaviour of the people of l’Aquila. They also argued that the scientists could not be held accountable for De Bernardinis's reassuring statements, and that the scientific opinions given by seismologists during the meeting were ultimately correct.
Now although the six geologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on November 10, 2014 - an appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them, this fear remains in the hearts of the scientists. Because the ruling of the appeals judge can still be overturned. Lawyers for the families of the deceased have announced that they will challenge it in the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome, the country's court of last resort. That court could invalidate the findings and call for new appeals proceedings.
And the scientific community is waiting with bated breath. The case will continue to affect scientists for years to come. And the world will have to suffer as a result.
The truth is there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be used reliably to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable. Experts went on to warn the dangers of a conviction. They worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby… discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance. One of the accused, Enzo Boschi, actually started warning other researchers to stay away from risk assessment inquiries altogether!
The conversation surrounding scientists’ willingness to share their expertise continued well beyond the geologists’ conviction. To arrest and convict scientists because they cannot forecast earthquakes and to blame them for the earthquakes happening sets a pretty dangerous precedent and it might discourage people from actually trying to address that problem in the future.
Science is still in its growing phase like I mentioned earlier (1). I always tell people science is still in an infant stage. It has to grow a lot to provide answers to all your questions and give you full proof replies. That doesn't mean you cannot predict things. You can, based on the knowledge available but they need not be full proof. But whatever little can be done should be done to help people is the motto of science.
Science is also uncertain. It's based on statistics, probabilities, and error margins. Numbers produced in studies look precise, but there's always room for interference. The most rigorous results tend to be correct in very controlled environments, which look nothing like the world in which we live (2) discussion over interpretation of results is often heated. To most researchers, this uncertainty is normal, and maybe even reassuring — the world still has the power to surprise us as we don't know much about it. All most all scientists agree on this. But in 2009, the uncertainty of scientific research backfired for six geologists and one hydrologist in Italy. While many saw the defense of science as the best way to appeal their manslaughter convictions, their lawyers decided against arguing that case. Instead, their lawyers argued that the defendants were right all along.
The Italian case has emphasized the importance for seismologists to be very careful in communications with the press and public. They also now have a responsibility to quickly correct any misstatements they hear on the news, or through any other influential media.
Scientists have to be a lot more careful about what they say now because people sometimes alter their message. Some are particularly concerned that young people might refrain from specializing in seismology and other difficult subjects because of the trial.
The verdicts have introduced a level of uncertainty in terms of what scientists can and cannot say that will take some time to resolve. But maybe this new development of clearing the scientists of manslaughter in Italy will give them back their courage now to actually speak up about the risks and hazards that they sense with regard to natural phenomena.