22 October 2012

Mischaracterizations of the L'Aquila Lawsuit Verdict

Today in Italy 6 scientists were convicted of manslaughter in an Italian court based on their provision of allegedly faulty information. Nature reports:
At the end of a 13-month trial, six scientists and one government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The verdict was based on how they assessed and communicated risk before the earthquake that hit the city of L'Aquila on 6 April 2009, killing 309 people.
There is a popular misconception in circulation that the guilty verdict was based on the scientists' failure to accurately forecast the devastating earthquake.

For instance, in an article with the headline, Italian court convicts 7 for no quake warning, the AP reports:
Defying assertions that earthquakes cannot be predicted, an Italian court convicted seven scientists and experts of manslaughter Monday for failing to adequately warn residents before a temblor struck central Italy in 2009 and killed more than 300 people.

The court in L'Aquila also sentenced the defendants to six years each in prison. All are members of the national Great Risks Commission, and several are prominent scientists or geological and disaster experts.

Scientists had decried the trial as ridiculous, contending that science has no reliable way of predicting earthquakes. So news of the verdict shook the tightknit community of earthquake experts worldwide.
The Christian Science Monitor went further:
An Italian court sentenced scientists to jail time for not having a functioning crystal ball ahead of the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila. The arguments of science and reason fell on deaf ears.
Similar interpretations of what the lawsuit was about were published by the New York Times and Fox News.

Based on such characterizations members of the scientific community are offering strong reactions:
"We are deeply concerned. It's not just seismology which has been put on trial but all science," Charlotte Krawczyk, president of the seismology division at the European Geosciences Union (EGU), told AFP. 
The verdict struck at scientists' right to speak honestly and independently, she said in a phone interview from Germany.

"All scientists are really shocked by this," said Krawczyk. "We are trying to organise ourselves and come up with a strong statement that could help so that the scientists do not have to go to jail.

"People are asking, 'Is this really true?' 'What does it mean for us?' And, 'What does it mean for talking in public about risks?'"

"People are stunned," said Mike Bickle, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Roger Musson at the British Geological Survey (BGS) said the verdict was "unbelievable". He and other seismologists said it was impossible to forecast an earthquake, and scientists pressed to give a black-or-white answer could unleash panic or lose all credibility if nothing happened.
Unfortunately, such characterizations of the he lawsuit are simply wrong: the scientists were not on trial for their failure to predict the earthquake.

In an article published October 12, Science explained that the trial is far more complex than that:
The trial in L'Aquila has drawn huge international attention, as well as outrage and protests. In 2010, more than 4000 scientists from Italy and around the world signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, calling the allegations “unfounded,” because there was no way the commission could reliably have predicted an earthquake. Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS (the publisher of Science) called the indictments “unfair and na├»ve” in a 2010 letter to Napolitano.

Yet as the trial unfolded here over the past year, a more complex picture has emerged. Prosecutors didn't charge commission members with failing to predict the earthquake but with conducting a hasty, superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete, falsely reassuring findings to the public. They have argued in court that the many tremors that L'Aquila experienced in the preceding months did provide at least some clues about a heightened risk.

Meanwhile, a recorded telephone conversation made public halfway through the trial has suggested that the commission was convened with the explicit goal of reassuring the public and raised the question of whether the scientists were used—or allowed themselves to be used—to bring calm to a jittery town.
I discussed some of the dynamics at play in my Bridges column of October, 2011 (here in PDF):
On March 31, 2009, in L’Aquila, six days before a deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 308 people, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department , and six scientists who were members of a scientific advisory body to the Department (the Major Risks Committee) participated in an official meeting and press conference in response to public concerns about short-term earthquake risks. The public concerns were the result of at least two factors: One was the recent occurrence of a number of small earthquakes. A second factor was the prediction of a pending large earthquake issued by Gioacchino Giuliani, who was not a seismologist and worked as a technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

The deputy chief and scientists held a short one-hour meeting and then a press conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. For instance, De Bernardinis went so far as to claim that the recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: "[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy." When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis acted as sommelier: "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important." . . .

. . . in L’Aquila, the government and its scientists seemed to be sending a different message to the public than the one that was received. Media reports of the Major Risk Committee meeting and the subsequent press conference seem to focus on countering the views offered by Mr. Giuliani, whom they viewed as unscientific and had been battling in preceding months. Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.

If officials were expressing a view about authority rather than a careful assessment of actual earthquake risks, this would help to explain their sloppy treatment of uncertainties.
The case is likely to be appealed, so the current verdict is not the last word. While the verdict rests on finer points of Italian law and jurisprudence, the issues at play are not accurately characterized as a failure to accurately predict an earthquake, or even more broadly as science vs. anti-science. The public responsibilities of government officials and the scientists that they depend upon are too important to characterize in such cartoonish fashion.