Italian Earthquake: A fair trial against bad science communication?

“Photo composition of L’Aquila ruins after the earthquake in 2009 and the National Institute of Geophysics (Ingv).”
Copyright: Alessandro Giangiulio and Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (Ingv) – Sezione di Napoli.

On the 22nd of September 2011 at L’Aquila, a town in the southern region of Abruzzo, Italy, began the trial against the government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, and six scientists. The trial was examining the events which occurred before the devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake that hit L’Aquila city and its province on the 6th of April 2009, killing 300 people and injuring more than a thousand.

About a year later, on the 22nd of October 2012, the seven defendants were all pronounced guilty of manslaughter, condemned to six years in prison, ordered to pay court costs and damages and barred from ever holding public office again. The charges for the scientists, initially aired by the public prosecutor Fabio Picuti, have nothing to do with their inability to predict the earthquake, but with having neglected and underestimated the seismic swarms and historical risks of the area, giving a far too reassuring message to the population of “being calm and not worried”.

This trial, and even more its first verdict, had its own earthquake effect among Italian scientists as well as the international scientific community. Luciano Maiani, one of the most outstanding Italian physicists and current president of the ‘Commissione Grandi Rischi’ (Serious Risks Commission) has resigned not because his involvement in the trial, but as a result of his open polemics against the Italian justice. Many Italian politicians have shown solidarity with the scientists and De Bernardinis. Italy is facing complete paralysis of the Civil Protection, which might return to its original role of pure emergency assistance, without any involvement in prevention and risk assessment.

The reaction from the foreign press was tuned on the mood of the Italian politicians and scientists openly demonstrating their dismay. The Washington Post refers to a ‘medieval’ style of proceeding by the Italian justice, while the Guardian, The Times and the Independent focus all on the dismay from the international scientific community and the geophysicists, who claim that the trial itself had not reasons to exist.

I am also baffled at the criminal conviction of the scientists in reading the most recent news, and I still think manslaughter is a far too strong criminal charge for the scientists. Knowing the complex Italian justice system, it is likely that the present verdict will be overturned in the next two levels of the trial; ‘appello’ and ‘cassazione’(appeal to the Supreme Court). These two are appeals that allow the indicted people to notify the initial verdict.

A year ago, in September 2011, Nature published Stephen S. Hall’s touching and lucid analyses of the complex issues involved in the trial: ‘Scientists on trial: At fault?’).

Reading through the article again, I think that the Italian and international scientific community are wrong to judge this trial as naïve, medieval with no reasonable basis. The fundamental misunderstanding among the scientists around the world is that it is a trial against science and scientists as technical experts, while this is clearly not the case. The action is against bad science communication and the big failure of scientists in exercising a public role and communicating risks to an understandably frustrated population.

The scientists involved in the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” that night on the 5th of April 2009 were the head of Serious Risks Commission, the president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanoes, the Director of the National Earthquake Centre, the Director of the European Centre for Earthquake Engineering, the Director of the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office and a seismology professor at the University of Genoa. The non-scientist, De Bernardinis, was the vice-director of the Department of Civil Protection.

It seems to me that these members were almost all at the top of public institutions, funded with public taxes and had, therefore, a great responsibility in talking to people and addressing the questions and doubts expressed by the population in the most precise and pertinent way. This responsibility is even higher in such a dramatic and risky circumstance as the protracted repetition of seismic swarms in a historically seismic region. From this point of view, none of the institutions did their job properly. Conversely, they did it badly (the Department of Civil Protection) or did not do it at all (the above mentioned institutions).

The commission, usually taking place in Rome, gathered in L’Aquila, as requested by a situation of emergency, but failed to communicate the risks to the population in an appropriate way. Scientists did not even communicate with the people and left L’Aquila straight after the meeting. A quick press conference was held by De Bernardinis just afterwards, during which he superficially invited the population to stay calm, not to worry, go back to their homes, while giving wrong scientific assertions. All seven members of the commission neither listened to the worries and doubts expressed by the population, nor showed prudence and expressed concerns about the relevant risks underlying the facts at the time.

Indeed, there is a scientific publication that supports the extremely low probability of a big earthquake happening after continuous seismic warms, but this would not make the scientists giving doubtless asserts and statements such as those presented by De Bernardinis in the press conference; at least, not without concerns about an historically seismic territory and buildings which did not satisfy the modern anti-seismic criteria.

Actually, what makes the trial relevant is the fact that scientists did not even participate in the press conference and did not talk to the people. They cannot dismiss their responsibility about the incorrect scientific content in the De Bernardinis’ words and not care about it. This behaviour would not be consistent with their careful interest and apprehension in confuting the non-scientific hypotheses advanced by the technician Giuliani at the time, which were alarming the population. If spreading a false alarm is rightly a concern, the same should also apply to superficial reassurances such as those presented by De Bernardinis.

Using perhaps a bit stretched analogy, this trial is not about a failed diagnosis of a doctor towards her/his patient. It is about the utter negligence of the doctor in listening and talking to the patient and addressing her/his concerns in a responsible way.

This case evokes in my memory other failures in science communication such as the UK controversial cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE crisis) and the high level of radioactivity in the Lake Districts due to Sellafield nuclear power station. In both cases there was a communication gap between scientists and the  population in assessing and discussing risks. These issues have been well presented by Brian Wynne and Alan Irwin in the book Misunderstanding Science? (1996, Cambridge University Press: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=M5gN-ku_yEkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=misunderstanding+science+brian+wynne&hl=en&sa=X&ei=lkqKULzRDeLB0QWX14HACQ&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=misunderstanding%20science%20brian%20wynne&f=false ). Just as in the Italian Earthquake, the historically accumulated lay knowledge of the people in dealing in these cases was debased by simply bad and superficial communication, either in terms of statistics, causes or risk factors.

Scientists are not isolated in their laboratories. They are members of society and have a duty to communicate with it, especially when they fill public institutional roles as in the case of the six indicted members of the commission.

Interestingly, not all scientists signed the open letter at the time of the start of the trial and some of them such as Professor John Mutter from Columbia’s University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Doctor Takashi Imamura from the Global Task Force on Building Codes and Professor Benedetto De Vivo from University of Napoli pointed out the wrong and superficial behaviour of the six scientists in addressing the risks concerns expressed by the population.

This trial and its first verdict have caused another earthquake within the scientific establishment and will have many repercussions for the communication between scientists and the public, especially in the field of risk assessment. Furthermore it has shaken the sense of reciprocal trust between scientists and public. Both parties will have much to lose without a proper understanding of the social responsibility of scientists and the importance of open dialogue with the public.

Antonio Torrisi is currently studying an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.

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5 comments

  1. Antonio,

    Thank you for these excellent thoughts on L’Aquila. I believe this fascinating and sobering case demands careful reflection to draw out the lessons for all parties. There is – rightly – great concern in the scientific community about the outcomes of this case. Yet I feel there also seems to be a slightly knee-jerk defensiveness about the conduct of those experts at the time. I agree strongly with you that “If spreading a false alarm is rightly a concern, the same should also apply to superficial reassurances such as those presented by De Bernardinis.”

    As part of my dissertation, I studied media responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and was struck by parallels concerning the nature of public scientific assurances given there, and the remarks made in L’Aquila. To me, there seems to be a risk of scientific advice adopting an excessively calming approach to public communication in early crisis – sci comm as an “anaesthetic” to ease perceived public panic. This may well be appropriate in some cases – however, I feel that a default towards this approach risks science becoming a mere mouthpiece for political imperatives, and also serves as ‘boundary work’ to demarcate science as a uniquely privileged domain, where expert knowledge naturally tends towards rational calm rather than irrational excitement. I believe this to be an implicity rhetorical narrative.

    Thank you also for linking to the excellent background article in Nature – IMO a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complexities of the case. See also the useful links and comment given by Stephen Curry here :- http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/occams-corner/2012/oct/29/simon-jenkins-laquila-earthquake?CMP=twt_gu

  2. Very thoughful reflections Steve. I agree with you that in situations of emergency the reassuring rationality offered by science might not give much help to the people. It is also very interesting the point you make in your comment about how often, in these situations, science tends to get close to governmental statements and strategies. In the case things turn well this can be an advantage for science but it is when things go wrong that the public perceives science as a betrayer.
    It’s a particular entangled issue: either science stays away from social issues and risky territories (and the public sees it as indipendent and therefore believable and respectable), or, when exposed to real emergency, it tends to follow governmental institutions and political imperatives, becoming in such a way more suspicious to the public view.
    It’s then the role of the cinema and media to re-establish the image of a “popular”, friendly science, through narratives in which indipendent scientists, often out-siders who take open distance from official policies, take the part of the public concern in their mission to save the world from imminent dangers and catastrophes (Chinese Syndrome, The Fugitive, The Day after Tomorrow, etc…). This image of scientist as a hero almost never occurs in real life emergencies.

  3. Thanks again for your comment, Steve. You make a good point. It is very true, that sometimes scientific calm rationality finds itself either uncomfortable or difficult in speaking about risk assessment. I think that it might be even more fear of being misunderstood in the future after this case.
    But, as your discussion proceeds further, you point out also another very interesting point: sometimes scientists called (often by institutional authorities) to speak and reassure, do just what in line with governmental policies.
    If things turn well everybody is quite happy, but if things turn badly this is the precisely when people feel betrayed by science and look at scientists skeptically. The paradox, in my opinion, is that feel respect and trust scientists locked in their academic research activities, which is often too far from the reality and real situations of emergency. This is a “comfortable sofa” for scientists, who are in this way not disturb and distracted from their research activities, they do not expose themselves in speaking and still they receive all the maximum respect and trust from people. Problems arise in controversial research but, even more, in real case/emergency situations. The majority of scientists might be unprepared to speak and give opinion in a way that is appropriate to the context and the real situation and far from the “laboratory life”. Maybe this is why Aspinall’s article on Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/pdf/477251a.pdf) is right and brave in calling scientists for a more commitment in exposing themselves even to legal persecution.
    I have the feeling that media have for years played a role in repairing the figure of the scientist as independent voice and position from political interests and voices, standing by the people and acting as a hero to save them from dramatic risky and emergency’s situations. This is often not the case and maybe it is not the figure of scientist we as a society really need. It would be probably much more useful a human figure who still takes the responsibility and the effort to give opinions and expose her/himself to the public, searching for a dialogue with it. From this point of view I do spouse the point made by Steve Curry’s interesting article, that you suggested in your comment.

  4. Yes, isn’t that mythical screen scientist fascinating! The idea that this mythology compensates for, or in some way ‘cleanses’, the entanglement that ensues when science meets reality is an interesting one. Who controls this flattering mythology? Who judges its utility? And who is ultimately answerable for its effects?

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