Scientists as scapegoats?

Day one of the trial of several Italian seismologists facing manslaughter charges for allegedly failing to predict an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila in April 2009 kicked off today.

Nature has been following the situation closely and this piece gives great background on the situation the scientists have found themselves in.

This is the interesting bit – what can we expect the impact to be on science as the trial plays out?

“Although the outcome of the trial may not be known for months, if not years, the events leading up to the earthquake are already being viewed as a sobering case study in risk assessment and public communication – a scenario that might easily be replayed in a future that includes not just ‘conventional’ natural disasters (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis), but also extreme weather events (such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and droughts) perhaps cooked up by climate change.
The trial has already had a chilling effect on scientists’ willingness to share their expertise with the public.”

Scientists in New Zealand are naturally watching the case closely and no doubt, in some cases, reflecting on how scientific information on risk from natural hazards is disseminated and interpreted by the public here. Here’s the letter of support for the Italian seismologists many New Zealand scientists joined others around the world in signing.

Here’s what Dr Mark Quigley of the University of Canterbury had to say about the trial:

’To me this highlights the importance of effective science communication; it is important to provide the public with probabilistic earthquake ‘forecasts’ but it is equally important to contextualize these assessments (e.g., earthquake probabilities in the midst of an aftershock sequence compared to ‘background’ probabilities) and to provide sufficient information on the methodology and limitations of these forecasts.

’And finally, it is important to emphasize to the public that no precursory phenomena (e.g., gas release, micro-earthquakes, thermal anomalies, animal behavior, strain rate changes, electrical phenomena, lunar phenomena) have produced a successful and reproducible short-term earthquake prediction scheme. This is not for lack of trying, and these methods should continue to undergo scientific testing and scrutiny. However, the holy grail of earthquake prediction, as defined through specification of a defined geographic region, depth, time window, and magnitude range, remains elusive at present.

I couldn’t agree with him more. It would set a pretty dangerous example to have the experts we rely on for scientific advice made criminally liable if the advice they give is wrong or ineffective, particularly in areas of science that are incredibly uncertain. We listen to the scientists because we respect them and their track record and fund them to do the best research possible, knowing that in many areas of science certainty is elusive. Criminal and civil cases against, say,  doctors accused of medical misadventure are a different deal completely.


  1. aimee whitcroft

    It looks pretty simple – the scientists spoke relatively accurately. The government spokesman did not. Therefore, if anyone is to be punished, it should be him.

  2. Grant Jacobs


    You might like to read other scientist’s responses. They include, for example Dr David Rhoades, Principal Scientist & Geophysical Statistician, GNS Science writes:

    “In my opinion, the most scientists can do is to estimate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a given space-time-magnitude window. Giving any kind of warning, or advice to the public of what to do in the light of such information, is the proper responsibility of government authorities, and not of their scientific advisors.”

  3. johann

    Being careful and scientific may not be enough. Another challenge in science communication is that scientists are sometimes not in control of the agenda. For me the most illuminating statement in the Nature article was Enzo Boschi saying “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that until later on.”
    Some of the most damaging pronouncements (“no danger”) were made by a government official, Bernardo De Bernardinis claiming endorsement of his views by “the scientific community.” I don’t know if there were ethical failures in the scientists’ contribution to the calamity, but filtering their assessments through political spokespeople did not help.

  4. Michael Edmonds

    I think it comes down to scientists being careful about what they do say, and being careful to explain the probability behind anything they say. Look at it as due diligence.
    The is quite a difference between a suitably qualified scientist saying “don’t worry, there is no chance of an earthquake happening” and saying “There is a small chance, around 10%, of a major quake, so we should be cautious be not give over to fear”.
    I’m not sure what exactly was said in the Italian case but if their comments we careful and based in science then the prosecution is a waste of time.

  5. johann

    Perhaps if senior scientists were paid like lawyers QC or medical specialists, they wouldn’t mind being legally accountable for their professional advice. They’d be able to afford liability insurance.

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