Science the Messenger Gagged

COSTAS SYNOLAKIS, professor of environmental enginering, Viterbi School of Engineering.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

It is impossible to predict earthquakes with the precision that would have helped the 300 people who died as a result of the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, on April 6, 2009. It is equally difficult, apparently, to predict court decisions.

After a 13-month trial, six scientists and one government official were sentenced to six years in jail Monday for giving authorities information that was “too reassuring” about the possibility that an earthquake would take place in the wake of a series of small earthquakes. The defendants will also have to pay compensation to the families of 29 of the 309 victims who, swayed by government reassurances, did not evacuate their homes, according to relatives.

Scientists around the world greeted Monday’s verdict in Italy with incredulity. Even the public prosecutor was surprised by the severity of the sentences. If upheld, the verdict will have a profound influence on how, and indeed whether, scientists communicate knowledge about natural hazards.

When presenting advice on the likelihood of any future catastrophe, scientists and engineers are always faced with the task of explaining the nuances of scientific uncertainty to a lay audience. As Daniel Kahneman has eloquently described in his best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” humans are spectacularly poor at dealing with probability and uncertainty. So perhaps we should not be surprised that, while many mistakes were made around the tragedy in L’Aquila, the scientists have provided the easiest target to attack.

But what would have been different had the accused scientists made less “reassuring” statements? A “false positive” evacuation could have lead to unnecessary deaths. Would the scientists have been prosecuted for those deaths, if they made the opposite call and no earthquake had materialized? Unnecessary evacuations also cause huge economic losses. How much attention has been paid to those, outside Italy’s Commission of Great Risks, whose voices were trying to tamp down fears expressed by the local population?

Scientists’ role is not to make operational decisions for policy makers, but to inform of best practices. If the information scientists provide is inexact, incomplete or contradictory, this is because our current understanding does not allow for anything better.

The focus on prosecuting the messengers has also distracted from the other things that went wrong in L’Aquila. Well before the 2009 earthquake, there had been a discussion in Italy about relaxing building standards, whose draconian nature had been deemed anti-development. L’Aquila had not been assigned the highest hazard level. Even so, in several instances of deadly collapses, existing building codes had not been followed, and reinforced-concrete construction common in the Mediterranean is not as forgiving as traditional wood frames.

The Italian government also did not ask for post-disaster search and rescue teams from its neighbors. Notably, a Greek team prepped to fly out the following morning was told not to. Probably dozens might had been saved either death or prolonged misery had more rescue teams been working round the clock. One wonders how many of residents in L’Aquila had asked for engineering or geology reports for their homes before buying or renting them. Allegedly even the local hospital had not.

The science of pre-planning for hazard-resilient communities is still in the making. Residents in central Japan off Tokai still await the next big one. Likewise in Kathmandu, Istanbul and Los Angeles, just as people continue their daily lives around active volcanoes. Instead of making scientists scapegoats after things go dreadfully wrong, it is important to follow common sense in our daily decisions and prepare ourselves for the unlikely possible, starting by building hazard resilience into our lives. People’s home-buying decisions around the world are often more concerned with noise levels, cockroaches and termites than with building safety, and this needs to change. If we prosecute scientists and emergency managers for giving their best-informed guesses at any given time, we will be faced with making decisions without them.

1 comment for “Science the Messenger Gagged

  1. Jeffrey
    December 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    My cousin studied environmental engineering. It’s good to see that USC is doing well.

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