The l’Aquila trial: Getting the big picture

In April 2009 a devastating earthquake hit the town l’Aquila in Italy. Destroyed buildings leave 308 persons dead and over 22 thousand have to flee to government funded shelters. This as it is, is a tragedy on many levels, but this week the aftermath pushes l’Aquila back into the media and leaves the world wondering about the Italian justice.
The Royal SocietyStatement of the Royal Society on l’Aquila trial and the American Geophysical UnionStatement of AGU on l’Aquila trial issued statements, while the European Geophysical UnionTwitter Discussion on l’Aquila trial asked the Twittersphere to discuss about the decision in court.

l’Aquila, Italy after devastating earthquake. Picture by wolfgango on flickr. CC-BY 2.0

Six Italian scientists have been convicted of manslaughter and are sentenced to six years in prison, reimbursements to the families of the deceased in the range of 130.000 per victim and a ban from official positions. Throughout the trial prosecution tried to make it clear that this case is not about earthquake prediction but about “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” Scientific American on l’Aquila trial.

This verdict is very complicated and I think it is important to try and illuminate all sides to it. Now in general this is a nice idea, but there is already one problem to it, the judge Marco Billi did not yet publish the verdict. However, we might want to start looking at the juridical side.
When I read comments on the sentence there were a couple comments stating that this verdict is a retributionThey would rather use vocabulary like “revenge” and “deserved”, but I take the freedom to rephrase it.. Now those comments were mainly posted by users from the US, which is not a coincidence. In law theory there are different basic principles these are combined in different ways. One of the main motivations in the US is retribution. Whereas, in Italy they use a principle called “Social Defense”.

Social Defense is supposed to provide a form of special and general prevention. Special prevention to encourage the culprit not to repeat the crime and general prevention in the form to prevent others from doing the crime. Retribution (in theory) takes the smaller part in Italian jurisdiction. However, this leaves us with the problem that manslaughter has the prerequisite of intent in any jurisdiction I know. This should eventually lead to the case being dismissed. (Please remember I am no expert on this, I just read up on this matter for this article.) Additionally, we need to keep in mind that the verdict can and will be appealed by the defense.

The damage is done.

[e ]The guardian draws an interesting parallel to the Galileo trial in 1633Guardian compares l’Aquila trial to Galileo verdict. This also was a trial about communication but had a long-lasting effect on science in Italy for the next hundred years. Although an appeal on the verdict will probably save the scientists from jail, the message is sent out that scientists who do not communicate the risk of certain hazards clear enough will face charges.

Now there is a problem with communication and also with possible guidelines. The seismologists did not communicate at all.Scientific American on l’Aquila trial The government official did and this leaves us with the question:[e ]The European Geosciences Union asked:[e]and Chris Rowan suggested:[e]Personally, I think this is a good idea for risk communication. But this communication will not be worth anything if we don’t raise awareness.

Education is key.

We cannot overcome hazardous traditions and prejudices against scientists, if we don’t start to educate people about the risks concerning natural hazards. There are some projects out there that I would like to show to you. The USGS has built some resources for educating kids: Earthquakes for Kids but there are also even more playful ways: Stop Disasters Game. One project I find very good was created by the US Red Cross for smartphones.

There are people that see it like this:
[e]and as a reaction decide to be very careful or even stop risk communication at least temporarily. I am not sure if this is the right way. The verdict is a mistake and I personally hope it will not stand a chance. Scientists should still be able to talk about earthquake risks and natural hazards. We need to find a sensible way to convey our message, keeping our scientific integrity intact. I think this Tweet sums it up pretty good:
[e]One part of this message should be that scientists have no influence on the turn of events. The guardian published an opinion pieceGuardian – Italy earthquake and banknotes that is pretty bad. The subtitle states “Of course it is outrageous to jail scientists for honest errors, but it is legitimate to hold them to some account “. The article goes on with:

When a forester fails to predict that a tree might fall and it kills someone, he is arrested. The same goes for a train mechanic who fails to repair a carriage, a cook who poisons a customer and a builder whose house collapses. They didn’t mean to kill, but they failed to forecast what might ensue from their defective expertise.

First of all, the forester, train mechanic, cook and builder have one thing in common. They can influence the events with their skills. The mechanic for example can actively prevent brakes from failing and didn’t do his job when they do. The seismologist in turn can not prevent an earthquake from happening. The seismologist can solely analyze and provide information to enable decision-makers to base their decisions based on scientific knowledge.
Granted if a scientist does not provide all the information necessary for a reliable decision, I would agree that the scientist should be held accountable for this, but if and only if he would be able to provide this information. In the case of earthquake prediction the information is less than sparse and natureNature News – New twists in Italian seismology trial suggests that the government official used wrong information:

“The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy,” a statement that most seismologists consider to be scientifically incorrect.

And we should keep in mind that:[e]

Predicting earthquakes

Another important part is getting across the difference between forecasts and prediction.
A risk assessment of an area, under consideration of different factors would account for a decent forecastAnnals of Geophysics ? Earthquake Forecasting. For example we can look at the history of a certain area. We can consider the local stress field. In the end we will get something like this map:

Seismic Hazard map issued by USGS

This map will give us the general seismicity of an area but we will not be able to predict an earthquake within a reasonable time frame. There are people who try, but this is part of the esoterics apartment:
The Twitter account Quakeprediction is one of this kind and in the last 6 months 1 of 64 “predictions” were correct. Now just imagine you lived in a certain area and you were ripped out of bed or taken away from your house 63 times without anything happening. Would you go the 64th time?

The problem with prediction is that there are several ideas that work sometimes, but none of them are reliable. A study conducted in 2011 after the l’Aquila earthquake revisits the different methods that are said to work in some cases and applies a thorough analysisAnnals of Geophysics ? Earthquake Forecasting. A quote from the paper is:

In particular, the search for precursors that are diagnostic of an impending earthquake has not yet produced a successful short-term prediction scheme. The Commission has critically reviewed the scienti?c literature on phenomena proposed as diagnostic precursors, including strain-rate changes, changes in seismic wave velocities, electromagnetic signals, changes in groundwater levels and ?ow, radon anomalies, and acoustic emissions. In wellmonitored regions, retrospective analyses of data collected prior to large earthquakes, including the L’Aquila mainshock of 6 April 2009, show no convincing evidence of diagnostic precursors.

What are we going to do?

This leaves us with the question how to communicate earthquake risks in a safe way. The study of 2011 gives the following suggestions:

  • Encourage basic research on earthquakes and their predictability.
  • Continue a directed research program on the development of long-term seismic hazard maps in order to provide a basic reference model against which others may be judged for predictive power.
  • Sustain the development and implementation of capabilities to integrate seismic and geodetic data streams collected by different organizations to provide a real-time processing infrastructure, so that basic data and information derived from it can be provided consistently and quickly.
  • Gain experience from the exercise of forecasting aftershocks as the best current example of a relatively skilled, low-probability forecast, and anticipate the potential use of other forms of forecasting based on observation of earthquake clustering.
  • Encourage the relevant agencies to participate in global testing programs to quantify reliability and skill in earthquake forecasting with current knowledge.
  • Continuously inform the public by providing accessible, appropriate and timely information on the current status of earthquake hazard based on probabilistic forecasting.

I say that we still need to communicate risks. We need to raise awareness and we need to educate and start with the young.

Earthquakes are incredibly interesting but dangerous at the same time. To increase the impact of our communication we need to be transparent about what we do. The pseudoscientific way to “predict earthquakes” by looking at nervous animals is easy to understand. Rising radon levels are just as easy to get into your head. How understandable can you make probabilistic forecasting?

This is the point where science communication might just save lives.
This is where transparency will change how people listen to you.

What is your take on risk communication?

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... is a geophysicist by heart. I work in seismic interpolation. My interest extend to data security, software engineering, geology and science comm. After work I love to go rock climbing and lift some heavy weights. In the evening I endulge in board games with friends and my wonderful partner. The Way of the geophysicist.
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    • “Another lesson is that deebtas over forecasts and uncertainty often overshadow knowledge that is far more certain. … ‘no action has yet been taken against the engineers who designed the buildings that collapsed and caused fatalities, or the government officials who were responsible for enforcing building code compliance.’ “In related news, there is in North Carolina against the prospect of land-use and building codes that would require coastal development projects to take account of risks associated with rising sea level. Opponents over forecasts and uncertainty.

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