Italian ‘Earthquake’ scientists charged with manslaughter…failure to adequately evaluate, and then communicate potential risk to local population.

Sockeye circle2Here is a very curious story… scientists — “well-informed professionals” — charged with manslaughter following April 2009 earthquake in the Italian town of L’Aquila. If one searches the term “L’Aquila Seven” a whole range of media stories and otherwise pop up. I became aware of this story through the Dec. 2012 newsletter produced by Simon Fraser University “Centre for Natural Hazard Research“.

[of which in addition to the article on the convicted scientists are very interesting articles on the earthquake and tsunami that hit Haida Gwaii this past October]

As stated in the newsletter:

In October of this year, an Italian judge sentenced six scientists and engineers and a civil servant to six years in prison for manslaughter in connection with the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on April 6, 2009, which devastated L’Aquila. Much has been written about the decision and the international reaction to it, with many learned groups decrying the verdict and the court sentence. This reaction seems to stem from the assumption that the scientists were being condemned because they failed to predict the earthquake, which every geologist knows is not possible.

The story,however, is more nuanced – the decision was based on the scientists’ failure to communicate the risk not predict the earthquake.

There’s another interesting blog article published in October 2012: The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication. This article seems to take the opposite tack of many, which is to try and be clear about why the sentence was so harsh – it had nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes accurately, but, more to do with the communication that the professionals engaged in (based on their predictions – right or wrong).

The article states:

A court in Italy has convicted six scientists and one civil defense official of manslaughter in connection with their predictions about an earthquake in l’Aquila in 2009 that killed 309 people. But, contrary to the majority of the news coverage this decision is getting and the gnashing of teeth in the scientific community, the trial was not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes. These convictions were about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have as citizens to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices.

The article continues:

…That is what this trial was all about; the poor risk communication from Dr. De Bernardinis – one of those convicted – and the NON-communication by seismic experts, who would certainly have offered more careful and qualified comments. Did that poor communication cause those tragic deaths and warrant manslaughter convictions? Certainly not directly, as the defense attorneys argued.

Did it fail a frightened community looking to the scientific experts for help, for guidance, for whatever insights they could offer…a community so scared by the tremors and that lab tech’s prediction that hundreds of people were sleeping outdoors? Yes, the poor communication was a serious failure, although scientists share the responsibility with the Italian national government.

While these scientists were there for their expertise in seismic risk, not as communicators, they also knew full well how frightened people were, and how important their opinions about the possibility of a major earthquake would be, and how urgently the community wanted…needed…to hear from them. But they just left town, and let a non-seismologist describe their discussions. For his failing to do so accurately and without appropriate qualifications, the scientists themselves are also surely to blame.

There is another interesting article on the incident at Earth: The Science Behind the Headlines, which argues in the scientists favor, against the judgement: Voices: Judged unfairly in L’Aquila – roles and responsibilities should have been considered.

The case centers around these statements [statements of the scientists saying the chance of major earthquake was small]. According to a story in Nature [Scientists on trial: At fault?], Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer who represented some of the civil plaintiffs, said: “You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town. It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”

“That phrase,” one L’Aquila resident said in the Nature story, “was deadly for a lot of people here” — largely because local custom had been to go outside when earthquakes struck, even if that meant spending the night outside. Instead, according to plaintiffs, due to the reassurances from De Bernardinis, people stayed inside where they were then killed or injured when their homes collapsed.

The Nature article was written when the indictment was filed against the seven scientists and has some key interesting suggestions:

The indictments have drawn global condemnation. The American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), both in Washington DC, issued statements in support of the Italian defendants. In an open letter to Napolitano, for example, the AAAS said it was “unfair and naive” of local prosecutors to charge the men for failing “to alert the population of L’Aquila of an impending earthquake”. And last May, when Italian magistrate Giuseppe Gargarella ruled at a preliminary hearing that the scientists would have to stand trial this September, the Italian blogosphere lit up with lamentation and defence lawyers greeted the decision with disbelief. “On the one hand, he’s stunned,” Francesco Petrelli said of his client, Barberi. “On the other, he’s very pained and sad.”

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.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

There is much written on this case from a variety of sides and opinions — scientists quite naturally are up-in-arms; however as the last quote suggests and other info on the case — the focus is on the wrong issue.

The issue is not the accuracy of predicting earthquakes (or tsunamis or super storms, etc.) its on the communication surrounding these events and the risks involved, and how those are communicated.

Now maybe its events such as these that will give supposed “experts” pause when making various prognostications about risk… such as with oil pipelines and tankers, for example.

Or, how about government appointed scientists and decisions surrounding the impact of dwindling resources such as wild salmon…

The decimation of wild salmon runs throughout their historic range has led to things such as starving bears having to be shot, starving eagles falling out of trees, and who even wants to begin to tally the losses to human communities – First Nation and settler alike.

Now maybe this is a bit of a stretch for some… however, something to ponder. “Scientists”… the “experts” may need to be held more accountable for recommendations, and especially of their communication about risk — whether human community or otherwise.

However, that seems to maybe… putting us back into a spin cycle of ‘absence of evidence and evidence of absence‘… and… my science vs. your science… our ‘expert’ vs. your ‘expert’

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