A worrying precedent

A judge in Italy has just convicted six scientists and a government official of manslaughter after they failed to predict a major earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009 which killed 309 people.

The area had been affected by tremors for months, but the scientists concluded that these did not indicate an impending major earthquake, so officials reassured the local population that there was no risk.  The prosecution successfully argued that it was these reassurances that convinced the victims in the case to stay in the city rather than evacuate.  They all later died when their homes collapsed.

Of course it can’t be that simple.  Mistakes were made by both the scientists and the officials responsible for communicating with the public.  The scientists could have emphasised that even though the risk of a major earthquake was low, that it was important to be prepared for the worst.  Rather than officials telling the population that there was no risk, they should have been clearer about the small risk that there was (estimated at about a 2% risk of a major earthquake), published the minutes of the meeting with scientists so residents could draw their own conclusions about the risks and how they wanted to handle them, and reminded people of the best actions to take in case of an earthquake.  However, turning an issue of poor communication from officials about an inherently unpredictable event into a prosecution for manslaughter for scientists is a appalling precedent.

The earthquake was a terrible tragedy, but these prosecutions could lead to many more ‘false alarms’, or worse, make scientists much more wary of making recommendations at all in the face of potential natural disasters, thereby putting many more lives at risk.  An excellent article in Nature News from 2011  quotes one of the prosecuted scientists, Enzo Boschi, as saying, “When people, when journalists, asked my opinion about things, I used to tell them, but no more.  Scientists have to shut up.”  To highlight the no-win situation for scientists, the article also mentions the case of Giuseppe Zamberletti, who was investigated for inciting public panic in the 1980s after ordering evacuations in Tuscany for an earthquake that never came.

This case is an important reminder that all scientists must be clear about the evidence behind any recommendations they make and ensure that their assessments are not misrepresented or oversimplified by officials and journalists.  However, it is also a warning for society – if scientists are not able to present their best assessment of the evidence without fear of prosecution, we may lose the benefit of their knowledge.  There are limitations to what can be predicted and we need to accept that.  A common analogy is apt… It is statistically safer to fly than to travel by car.  If you are in a plane crash, that doesn’t mean the risk assessment was wrong, it means that you were unlucky.

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