Tagged: L’Aquila

Oct 29

Galileo convicted by Italian court. No wait, it was seismologists convicted for not being psychics.

Apparently not much has changed in Italian understanding of science since the Inquisition tried Galileo Galilei in the 17th century on charges of heresy for championing the case of heliocentrism. This time around, it was an Italian court that convicted seven members of the Great Risks Commission for manslaughter on the basis that they bloody well should have known that an earthquake was going to strike L’Aquila and kill 308 people. These seismologists and disaster experts are once again at the center of an anti-science Inquisition. The L’Aquila Seven are Bernardo De Bernardinis, Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Franco Barberi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce and Gian Michele Calvi.

The journal, Nature, states: (A very good read.Check it out! This is the best article I could find on the background of the case)

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.

This case is based on a serious misunderstanding of just how much certainty which with we can predict earthquakes, but perhaps more importantly., how important risk communication is when the public lacks scientific literacy.

This is also an example of how NOT to communicate with the public about risk and natural hazards. People are afraid, and are looking for reassurances that they and their loved ones will be ok. We know that sometimes is not the case, but that is what we all want. So it is somewhat baffling when I read the following…

From the Financial Times:

When Bernardo de Bernardinis was asked whether tremors in the Italian city of L’Aquila foreshadowed a major earthquake, his reassuring message to the public was not so much black-and-white as red-or-white. There was no need for evacuation, the civil protection officer assured the press: fretful citizens should go home and sip a glass of wine. His preferred vintage? “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano D.O.C.”

This shows a particular lack of concern for the public’s valid concern for safety. But is it grounds for a six year sentence? Not really, in my opinion.

The experts were specifically charged with giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about the swarm of smaller tremors preceding the 6.3 Mw 2009 earthquake and whether they should have constituted grounds for an earthquake warning. The punishment for not being able to predict earthquakes with the precision of a Vegas charlatan will be six years in prison and $10.2 million in court costs and damages, unless sanity prevails and their verdicts are overturned in a higher court.

  • Enzo Boschi, the former head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, “I am dejected, desperate,” Boschi said after the verdict. “I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”
  • “I consider myself innocent before God and men,” said another convicted defendant, Bernardo De Bernardinis, a former official of the national Civil Protection agency.

Reaction from inside Italy
From the Christian Science Monitor:

  • La Repubblica, one of Italy’s most respected dailies, said: “The Italian scientific world fears that they will no longer be able to work without risking a confrontation with the judiciary.”
  • Gianfranco Fini, a center-right politician and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, said the sentences were unfair and needed to be reviewed.
  • Pierferdinando Casini, the leader of the UDC, a conservative Catholic party, said the courts should put on trial builders responsible for shoddily constructed houses and apartment blocks that collapsed in the quake, rather than independent scientists.

But a closer look tells us that the verdict wasn’t so much on the scientists’  predictive ability, but on how well they communicated that risk. In L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, a meeting was held to discuss the recent rash of small earthquakes and to assess the liklihood of an increased chance of a larger earthquake occurring. Any rational seismologist will tell you that just about any earthquake scenario is a low probability event. The Great Risk Commission told the assembled audience that there was an increased possibility, but they could not with any certainty state a prediction. The resulting press conference by the civil authorities reassured the public that smaller earthquakes do not raise the risk of larger earthquakes and there was no need to evacuate. When it comes to communicating ideas, is not what you say, but what other people hear. What the fearful people of L’Aquila heard, was that it was safe to stay in their homes. Because that was human nature. We want certainty, we want reassurance.

Adding to the emotional miasma, a local man named Giampaolo Giuliani, was predicting a earthquake based on radon readings taken on his home-made devices. The scientists were placed in a nearly impossible position of needing to refute the basis of Giuliani’s unfounded assertions. This set them up for needing to refute crazy-town.

This case shows that those of us in the natural hazards field have a long way to go in refining our approach to communicating risk. The public wants reassurance they they will be safe. But we know that natural hazards are a fact of life and will occur whether we are prepared for them or not. The question becomes how do we communicate that risk in such a way as to engender positive protective action by the public. And do this in such a way as to avoid the Chicken Little Syndrome.

The researchers were accused of incorrectly assessing the likelihood that a major quake could happen in L’Aquila given the large numbers of small earthquakes in the region in the months before the deadly event. As a result of this assessment, argued the prosecutor Fabio Picuti, residents and officials failed to take steps that could have saved lives. In particular, he said that some residents remained indoors on the night of 5 April when the tremors returned – followed by the early-morning earthquake.

“I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes,” the Italian public prosecutor Fabio Picuti told Nature last year. Picuti was surprised by the six year sentence handed down by the Judge, Marco Billi, who has up to three months to provide information in his ruling.  Picuti had requested a prison term of four years.How very generous of him. I’m also assuming that there will only be thumb-screws, not the Iron Maiden in store for these men of science.

The quake killed 309 people, injured more than 1,500, and left 65,000 people homeless and no one argues that it wasn’t a tragedy. The people who lost loved ones or property are understandably distraught and seeking an outlet for that emotion. This is sadly very common after natural disasters. Sometimes there is a culprit, and sometimes there are scapegoats.

The world’s largest multi-disciplinary science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, condemned the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.

AAAS sent a letter, signed by 5000 scientists, to the President of Italy, Giorgio Napilitano. <http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2010/media/0630italy_letter.pdf>

The American Geophysical Union states,

“The verdict and prison sentences delivered on 22 October in the trial of six Italian scientists and one government official charged with manslaughter in connection with the L’Aquila earthquake are troubling and could ultimately be harmful to international efforts to understand natural disasters and mitigate associated risk.

While the facts of the L’Aquila case are complex, the unfettered exchange of data and information, as well as the freedom and encouragement to participate in open discussions and to communicate results, are essential to the success of any type of scientific research. For scientists to be effective, they must be able to make good faith efforts to present the results of their research without the risk of prosecution. Outcomes such as the one seen in Italy could ultimately discourage scientists from advising their governments, from communicating the results of their research to the public, or even from studying and working in various fields of science.”

Luciano Maiami told Italy’s ANSA news agency that he had quit as head of the Major Risks Committee because “there aren’t the conditions to work serenely,” a day after the watershed ruling that sent shockwaves through the international scientific community.

As a member of several seismic commissions myself, I am somewhat perturbed by the outcome, even if it is half a world away. This type of anti-science mentality lurks (or laughs maniacally in the case of Texas and other deeply-Red states) and it not a far stretch to think that this type of Inquisition could take place in the U.S. The Pacific Northwest faces its own seismic hazard in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which will impact the entire western United States.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the last 5000 years of Italian history knows that it is a seismically active area. Just ask Pliny the Elder. What I want to know is when the city officials who did not retrofit public buildings, or the landlords who allowed tenants to live in un-safe buildings are going to be put on trial. Because all the scientific knowledge will do us no good, unless we take action in our built environment and infrastructure to make our cities and cultures resilient to these types of disasters.

Just as scientists have a responsibility to identify and characterize hazards and risks, politicians have a responsibility to ensure risk is minimize through sound public policy, and the public has a responsibility to take responsibility to take protective action becoming educated on risk and by seismically retrofitting their homes. Sadly, people lost their lives because of a broken system.