On the 6th of April 2009, a devastating earthquake struck the medieval Italian city of L’Aquila. In the town and others nearby 309 people were killed, more than 1,500 people injured, 20,000 buildings destroyed and 65,000 people left homeless.
In the wake of the earthquake 6 Italian scientists and one government official, members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, were charged with manslaughter on the basis that they provided misleading and confusing information. Information that, prosecutors alleged, directly led to people deciding to remain in their homes after a minor earthquake which happened just hours before the fatal shock hit.
Just under three weeks ago the magistrate found all seven guilty prompting massive criticism from scientists worldwide.
I’ll post my own commentary below but I thought I’d survey some of the best analysis on the web:
- Some of the best reporting has come for the eminent science journal Nature. This piece, published on the eve of the trial commencing, provides an excellent background on the facts of the case. The backlash from scientists, in Italy and abroad, after the verdict was handed down is covered here
- Also in Nature, the legal implications for scientists providing hazard assessment advice are examined.
- Scientific American also examines the case, agreeing that poor communication did occur but arguing that it should have been the responsibility of the Italian Government to ensure that the committee included an expert in communication and that the scientists were made aware of a responsibility to communicate risks to the public.
- Colin Miller on EvidenceProf Blog examines court treatment of expert opinion in the US to speculate whether a similar case could succeed there.
- Michael Eburn on his blog Australian Emergency Law, suggests that a similar case would be extremely unlikely in Australia.
- Ian Pollock, on Rationally Speaking, looks at the difficulties of risk communication and the dangers of succumbing to hindsight bias.
- The Disaster Accountability Project examines the case in the context of greater accountability for decision makers in disasters. The article characterises the committee’s communications as primarily trying to reassert the its authority in the face of unscientific predictions from a local amateur seismologist.
- New Scientist Magazine reveals new evidence which suggests something altogether different than poor science communication may have been going on. We may need to wait until the appeal to get the full story.
- New Scientist also surveys the current state of science in the controversial field of earthquake prediction (paywalled).
Communicating information about disaster risk is hard, even professional disaster educators don’t always get it right. Dealing with a nuanced topic, small probabilities, devastating consequences and many well-known cognitive biases make it a veritable minefield. Scientists in advisory positions or otherwise involved in natural hazards research would do well to familiarise themselves with some of the literature on the communication of natural hazard risk, learn some of the pitfalls and strategies to get a clear and accurate message across.
People rarely panic, usually the worst thing that will happen with a dire prediction is that you’ll be ignored. Scientists, public officials and other communicators need to be frank about what they do and don’t know and try their best to communicate uncertainty. The one thing we know reassures people is knowledge and ability that allows them to take control of the situation; advice on preparedness measures and what to do in the event of a disaster can never go astray. All communication on risk (even from scientists) should follow the 3 Ws: What’s the risk; What we’re doing about it; and What you can do about it. If you’re not sure about preparedness advice direct people to advice from official government sources or well-respected NGOs like the Red Cross. It’s always a good idea to give people additional sources of information.
Emergency managers and community educators need to make better efforts to involve scientists in ongoing and targeted community resilience programs. The benefits of this dialogue are twofold: scientists better understand the communities their research affects and communities get more direct access to experts.
And if you’re community, field or situation involves the natural hazard science equivalent of a quack? Then my above comments still hold and doubly so.
Meanwhile in the L’Aquila case the magistrate has up to 3 months to publish his findings from the trial. Expect more when that happens.