October 28, 2012

“Mis-quake” in Communication

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A magnitude-6.3 earthquake shook the town of L’Aquila, Italy, leaving 309 people dead in its wake three years ago on April 6, 2009. Though the natural disaster may seem like old, albeit tragic, news, an Italian court ruling on Oct. 22, 2012 has brought the earthquake back into the public eye while causing controversy throughout the scientific community.  That’s because the court charged six Italian scientists and one government official with the deaths of the L’Aquila citizens who perished in the quake, sentencing the group to six years in prison.

The court made its ‘medieval’ ruling, reminiscent of those seen in Galileo’s time, because the scientists in question had stated at a meeting less than a week before the quake that large seismic activity was “unlikely” to occur in the near future.  Their prediction though, as many seismologists have noted, was hard to make with complete certainty.  At a post-meeting press release Bernardo de Bernadinis, a town official and the nonscientist defendant in the case, went on to inform citizens that there was “no danger” of an earthquake.

Bernadinis, had misconstrued the scientists’ message; the danger was in fact real.

Prosecutors in the case portrayed Bernadinis as a victim of bad information from the seismologists and asserted that the scientists failed to adequately assess the risk of a large earthquake. The defense called it a case of miscommunication.

According to Prof. Rowena Lohman, earth and atmospheric Sciences, the scientific community is outraged by this case.  He wrote in an email that the court ruling may cause fear among other seismologists and could have “a chilling effect on the sort of research that can actually make real progress towards making people safer during earthquakes when they occur.”

Professor Richard Allmendinger, earth and atmospheric sciences, wrote a similar view in an email:“The Italian case sets a terrible precedent, (at least in Italy) with, potentially, far reaching consequences: I think it is safe to say that we would like scientists to engage more with the public, but this case will have just the opposite effect.”

According to both Professors, earthquakes, like all natural events, are extremely hard to predict. A key point of the Italian case is that several small earthquakes preceded the deadly earthquake in April, and though the small tremors may seem like warnings of a larger quake to come, many times this is not the case. Lohman said that if warnings and evacuations were issued after every small earthquake, the public would become less receptive to future warnings.

“The important thing for the public to know is that individual natural events are very hard to predict, but general trends are not,” Allmendinger said. People need to understand that while scientists know what they’re doing, at this point in time it’s impossible to accurately predict major earthquakes.The case brings up a larger issue in the scientific community: trying to increase communication and education with the general public.

Allmendinger said that if scientists are threatened with similar consequences for failing to predict disasters – or having their predictions miscommunicated – they are likely to either offer no advice and retreat into the havens of academia where their work is better understood, or  overestimate the danger of every potential hazard until the economic repercussions of false-positive reports become too great. Such consequences would obstruct natural disaster safety education for the public.

The Italian seismologists, with the support of many of their fellow scientists, plan to appeal their sentence. For now the scientific community has had a strong reminder of the potential penalties of having their results misconstrued.

“This appears to have been a complete miscommunication, but it does reinforce the importance of careful dissemination of scientific information to the public,” Lohman said.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter