What if…and “Scientists on Trial”

As discussed here and in more detail here, six Italian seismologists are on trial for manslaughter stemming from alleged miscommunication of seismic risk.

Early on April 6, 2009, after a series of increasingly large rumbles, a 6.3 earthquake struck the city of L’Aquila, killing 308. When news of the prosecutions first broke, the story was one of scapegoating. The scientists were seen as being prosecuted for failing to predict the earthquake, despite the lack of any short-term prediction methods. But when charges were filed, the prosecution’s case is instead focused on the scientists’ failure to adequately evaluate and communicate risk to the citizens of L’Aquila.

In January 2009, L’Aquila experienced increased seismic activity (it should be noted that L’Aquila sits in a tremendously seismically active area). Additionally, earthquake predictions by a local resident (and technician in a physics lab) were widely reported despite the fact that his predictions were based on scientifically unsound theories and two of his predictions had already proven false. Amid this uncertain environment, Italy’s Department of Civil Protection (DCP) convened a meeting of its Major Hazards Committee on March 31. The meeting concluded that “There is no reason to say that a sequence of small-magnitude events can be considered a predictor of a strong event” (a scientifically true statement). But at a later press conference, DCP vice-president Bernardo De Bernardinis, who is neither a seismologist or a member of the Major Hazards Committee, said, “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable” (a scientifically untrue statement). Even worse, he joked citizens relax with a glass of local wine. About a week later, the earthquake struck. Shortly after, De Bernadinis and six scientists were indicted.

In all likelihood, the press conference was indeed convened to calm citizens. But this was an impossible task for the scientists because they could not be certain an earthquake would not hit. Looking at the data they had at the time, although the chances of a major earthquake had increased, “the probability of a false alarm (if an alarm were raised) exceeded the probability of a failure-to-predict (if an alarm were not cast) by a factor of more than 100.” Such data is not only difficult to communicate, but it also does nothing to calm worried citizens. Instead of attempting to do so anyway, the authorities made reassuring statements that many citizens viewed as categorical. Authorities also chose not to emphasize the increased risk of earthquake, what citizens should do to prepare for an earthquake, or what they should do if an earthquake strikes.

What makes this story so compelling is the mix of fear, anger, sadness, politics, pseudo-scientific claims vs. scientific claims, scientists’ inability to communicate with the public, and/or the public’s inability to understand scientific conclusions (all the more reason to learn your statistics!). It will undoubtedly become a case study for scientists (How do you communicate your findings to the public? Do you? Should you?), risk managers (Do you err on communicating risk and danger or do you focus on calming potential panics?), and politicians (is a false alarm or a failure to predict more likely to result in votes against you in the next election?). It is also useful for writers.

Is this what a modern scapegoating looks like? Or is this the equivalent of calling a neighbor a witch because your crops failed? What if the politicians and risk managers had called for mass evacuations, but no earthquake occurred (besides a less interesting story)? What if the scientists had held their own press conference later? Would the citizens have believed the scientists over the politicians? Why would citizens believe pseudo-science (especially after two failed predictions)?

What do you think? How can writers draw from this when writing about a new plague, the rise of magic or mutants, or first contact with an alien species? What stories does it spark in your head?