Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Six scientists convicted of manslaughter

The following is a guest post from Sara Pratt. Thanks for the quick turn around on the story!

Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images
Can 6 scientists be convicted for manslaughter for deaths due to an earthquake? In Italy they apparently can! After I posted an article about this tragedy to Facebook, accompanied be a very elegant Noooo!!!!!, Chad figured I had strong opinions about the subject and asked me to write them up.

If you want to get a good background on the earthquake and prosecution, I highly recommend this nature article. My history is condensed from that article. L’Aquila, Italy is very seismically active and was destroyed in both 1461 and 1703 by earthquakes.  In October 2008, many small tremors shook the area. A local man predicted an impending major earthquake in March 2009 based on a scientifically invalid radon tracking method.

The alarmed public prompted the scientists on the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks to assess the risk and calm the public. Before the meeting, one member implied that the small tremors released energy and reduced risk for a larger earthquake. Most others disagreed, but they determined that the risk, even with the extra tremors going on, was really small (~2%). Still they knew that in this seismically active area, a major earthquake can never be ruled out. Unfortunately, in a press conference after the meeting two members said that the current tremors posed no danger (rather than a small danger) and one told the residents to relax with a glass of wine. Tragically, a larger earthquake happened shortly thereafter in April that killed over 300 people.

Photograph: AFP/File, Andreas Solaro
When I first read about the indictment of the committee members for manslaughter in 2010, I thought they were being indicted for not predicting the earthquake, which would be absolutely ridiculous. Predicting the time and place of an earthquake is impossible. I’ve since learned that they were indicted for providing "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" by which the prosecution means that they were only worried about calming the public and thus they downplayed the risk too much, didn’t take into account the weak building structures when analyzing risk, and didn’t remind the citizens about proper safety precautions during an earthquake. Many community members said they didn’t take normal earthquake precautions because of the committee’s reassurances.

Could they have conveyed their findings more clearly? Maybe. But that doesn’t warrant convicting them of manslaughter. There really was not a greatly increased risk of an earthquake. Someone shouldn’t go to jail for not mentioning commonsense precautions every time they talk about earthquakes.  Sending your top scientists to jail for 6 years isn’t going to stop future earthquakes or get better risk information out to the public in the future. Rather, it’ll probably prevent other scientists in the future from speaking for fear of being wrong and prosecuted. A USC earth scientist said "We know that the system in Italy for communicating risk before the L'Aquila earthquake was flawed, but this verdict will cast a pall over any attempt to set up a better one.”
What do we learn from this? When presenting scientific findings or predictions, make sure to communicate to the public in a manner that neither downplays the risks too much nor incites an undue level of panic. Sometimes that’s a hard balance to strike, especially when confronted with an already panicked population led on by pseudoscience. The ChristianScience Monitor asked “What would have happened if [they’d] said ‘there is a high probability of a major earthquake at some point in the next year?’ Would the city of 70,000 have been evacuated? And what if no earthquake came in a year? Would [they] have been sued for damages?”  Given the current trial, they might have been!

Might someone actually be at fault? Those who failed to pass, follow, or enforce building codes could have prevented so many causalities. The building codes in that area of Italy aren’t ideal, but they do have higher standards than are enforced. Sadly, “50 percent of schools are not in compliance with earthquake codes.” The codes can also be improved to reduce risk of death during an earthquake. An Italian official said “In California, an earthquake like this one would not have killed a single person.” California is also very seismically active, but they have better building codes and enforcement.

Would fewer people have died if the risks commission had been more clear and cautionary in presenting their risk assessment? Possibly. Would fewer people have died if building codes were up to date and enforced? Most definitely. The Italian government should not be wasting time and resources prosecuting these scientists for manslaughter. They didn’t communicate perfectly, but they also didn’t do anything criminally wrong. If you prosecute anyone, prosecute those who actually broke the law! But really, I think that might be a waste too. They should instead use those resources to invest in earthquake safety for buildings and disaster training for residents, so that no one dies next time. 

Editor's Note (Because it's my blog and I can do what I want):
What really worries me about this story is that it's not an isolated incident. Italian courts have also recently decided that the MMR vaccine causes autism, despite all science pointing in the opposite direction.
On the other hand, anyone peddling pseudoscience has free reign to make fanciful claims and quacks like Andrew Wakefield (who caused the MMR vaccine scare) are at least indirectly responsible for the death of thousands.

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