Six Italian seismologists and one government official are on trial for manslaughter charges for what authorities claim was a failure to warn the public about the 2009 earthquake in the central city of L’Aquila. In early April of that year, L’Aquila experienced a strong earthquake that left 309 people dead, more than 1,500 injured and destroyed some 20,000 buildings.
Six days before the quake, a panel of prominent geophysicists had met with local and national officials to address the “seismic swarms,” low-level tremors that had been occurring for the past six months. The vice director of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection had concluded that there was “no danger” and the seismic activist was “certainly normal.” A few days earlier, that department had censured an amateur scientist who had said that he could predict earthquakes by measuring levels of radon gas.
The six scientists and the public official are on trial for negligence, for their “generic and ineffective” assessment of the danger and for providing “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information about the nature, causes, and future developments of the seismic hazards.” They could face up to 15 years in prison.
5,000 scientists have signed a letter supporting the defendants. In a letter to Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said that the charges are “unreasonable… unfair and naïve” in light of the impossibility of accurately predicting earthquakes and could have a “chilling effect on researchers.”
Crisis Communication and Disaster Management
The charges against the Italian scientists highlight the challenges of translating the specialized language of science to the public. Lee Clarke, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, says that the L’Aquila case perfectly demonstrates “elite panic,” a term that he and others have coined to refer to “a tendency by experts and government authorities to downplay genuine dangers out of exaggerated fear that the public will overreact to them.” The geophysicists seem to have oversimplified their assessment and not sufficiently translated their findings into the kind of vernacular, practical language that would have informed and more fully warned the public to take the necessary precautions.
In the 1980s, risk communication emerged as a subfield of public health in the US. In the wake of the attacks on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the need for effective emergency and disaster management rose, as did the imperative of explaining what is going on to the public and what people should do. California has a system for communicating risks to the public regularly, says Thomas H. Jordan, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center — but it’s not perfect:
Just a few weeks before the L’Aquila quake, an analysis of an earthquake swarm in Southern California showed an increased likelihood of a major earthquake near the southern end of the San Andreas fault. While the probability was small, it was high enough that a scientific group decided to advise the state’s emergency management agency. (In the end, no quake occurred.)
In an internet age, people demand “much more information, in particular quantitative information,” says Jordan. The public, able to access information at a moment’s notice on phones and computers, has “a rising public expectation that scientists will deliver, in a transparent way, basically everything they know.”
Vaccines and Solyndra
The scare over vaccines, and the MMR vaccine in particular, as possibly causing autism occurred in part because of communication challenges between scientists and the public, as Dr. Paul Offit writes in Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For a Cure. Those who contend that vaccines contributed to their child becoming autistic have repeatedly demanded that scientists offer “100 percent proof” that vaccines, beyond the shred of a doubt, cannot cause harmful side-effects. Scientists have felt obliged to defend science and speak honestly about the fact that, yes, such side-effects are not impossible — and then they are horrified to see their precise explanations metamorphose into fodder for claims that “vaccines harm” in the mass media, blogs and other social media.
Some have criticized US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu on similar grounds over the Solyndra affair: Have his “laboratory smarts and Silicon Valley background” impeded his ability to function in the political climate of Washington politics? Today, scientists are called to address an anxious public about everything from global warming to food safety: The need for effective and sufficient communication is greater than ever. Surely scientists need to hone their public communication skills — though we also need to do our part and make sure that students and the public are more than adequately educated about science.
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Photo taken in August of 2009 by wolfango