May 30 2011

Seismologists Charged with Manslaughter

The Italian Government has charged their top seismologists with manslaughter because they failed to predict the devastating 2009 earthquake, which killed 308 people. The scientists, and the seismology community, are stunned – primarily because it’s impossible to predict earthquakes.

On it’s surface the story is pretty sensational and downright silly:

Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella said that the seven defendants had supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in a press conference following a meeting held by the committee 6 days before the quake, reported the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

That may have something to do with the fact that earthquake science is imprecise, incomplete, and often produces contradictory information. The scientists and their colleagues are calling this a witch hunt and warn that it will have a chilling effect on scientists, a very real concern.

I have to say, however, that I get the uneasy feeling that I am not getting the entire story. The media (at least the English-speaking media) are telling one story – the government is going after scientists for not predicting the impossible to predict. This may, in fact, be the actual story. But I wonder if there are some nuances here that we are missing. For example, did the scientists make any irresponsible statements that had nothing to do directly with their ability to predict the quake? I’m just speculating, but this is a story I would not take at face value until more information comes to light.

Regardless of how accurate the report is, it raises some interesting points, the most obvious of which is how should experts be held accountable for their performance. We often call upon experts to give us their expert opinion, and sometimes the stakes are very high. This happens in medicine every day – in any applied science. We cannot fault experts for not being perfect, for not foreseeing the unforeseeable, and for not having crystal balls. We do expect them to be honest and transparent about their uncertainty.

We can require that they meet minimal standards of competence. In medicine, this is the “substandard care” criterion. We don’t blame doctors for bad outcomes (many of which are unavoidable) or for the limits of our current knowledge and technology. In order for a doctor to be held liable for their practice they had to have been practicing demonstrably below the standard of care.

We can apply this here – did the top seismologists of Italy commit scientific malpractice in their assessment of the risk of a large quake? By all accounts, the answer is no.

Another relevant issue here is the balance between warning the public about credible risks, while not panicking them. In this case the Italian seismologists said, in effect, that the recent tremors were not necessarily sign of a big quake in the near future. There still might not be a big quake for years. But, they warned, a big quake is coming eventually. That sounds like a fair assessment of the science.

We don’t want to cause unnecessary concern, or disrupt society with constant warnings about potential disasters. At the same time, we do want people to be prepared for possible disasters. There may also be times when we can predict that a catastrophe is imminent, and then we will want to get the information out along with specific instructions.

Apparently, the judge did not like the balance that these scientists struck:

The charges filed by the prosecution contends that this assessment “persuaded the victims to stay at home”, La Repubblica newspaper reported.

But defense for the scientists claim that they never said anything akin to – there is no risk.

Again – this is a case study in how such risks are to be presented to the public. The way I see it you are always at cross-purposes and have to compromise – the more you warn the public, the more prepared they will be, but the more panicked they will be. The less you warn them, the calmer but less prepared they will be.

I think scientists, especially a consensus of recognized experts, should be free to express their scientific assessment to the public, without fear of being the target of later litigation (unless they really did commit scientific malpractice). Politicians and regulatory agencies should take their cue from the scientific community, but may want to also add their own spin in order to tweak the balance between reassurance and preparedness.

Perhaps what we have here is the government covering their butts by blaming the scientists, when no one was to blame. It was an unpredictable natural disaster. Learn from it for the next time.

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