Convicted for poor science communication

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They were convicted with a harsh penalty: 6 years imprisonment. They were all convicted, the members of the Major Risks Commission which met in L'Aquila shortly before the earthquake of 6 April 2009. The Court convicted all of them, Civil Protection senior officials and distinguished geophysicists such as Franco Barberi and Enzo Boschi, not for "bad science" but for "poor science communication".

It is the first time ever. And - without going into the merits of the legal case - the judgment may have perverse effects on citizens' rights to full and complete access to scientific information, in the knowledge era.

Let's see why. Everything started with the earthquake swarm that hit the Abruzzo region in December 2008, heavily affecting the regional capital, L'Aquila. Shocks followed one another for months. Every now and then there was a stronger one. Some people feared the arrival of a devastating shock. To take stock of the situation, the then head of the Civil Protection, Guido Bertolaso, on 31 March convened a meeting of the National Major Risks Commission, in L'Aquila. The commission, chaired by the deputy chief of Civil Protection, Bernardo De Bernardinis, is composed of engineers and scientists, and has the task of "delivering technical and scientific opinions on questions asked by the Head of Department and providing guidance on how to improve the assessment, prediction and prevention of the various risks".

At the end of the meeting De Bernardinis held a reassuring press conference. The L'Aquila inhabitants can be reassured and remain in their homes, the swarm is dissipating energy and thus there will not be a stronger shock.

What happened next is well known. The stronger shock came a week later, claiming many lives. The families of some of L'Aquila inhabitants who died accuse the Commission: our loved ones wanted to leave L'Aquila. You reassured them and they decided to stay. You are to blame for their death.

This thesis is taken up by the prosecution, which accuses the Commission of poor communication of the seismic risk; of not having told everything the experts knew, based on their knowledge and judgment. That is, that a swarm which lasted for months generally ends with an attenuation of the intensity of the shocks. Well, generally. But not always. In other words - the judges argue - the Commission took for granted something that was just very likely. Misinformed, people remained in the city and died under the rubble of a devastating shock. If you had provided the correct information, many of those people would still be alive. Therefore we accuse you of multiple manslaughter.

Mind you. The charge is not that they did not predict the earthquake. Because earthquakes cannot be predicted with deterministic precision. But that they provided an incorrect statistical picture.

No one in the world had ever charged with manslaughter engineers and scientists of a Commission that only issues advisory opinions because of a communication judged incorrect. And the world paid great attention to this story, perhaps more than Italy itself. The debate in court was closely followed by the international scientific journals. The first-instance judgment issued yesterday upheld the prosecution's case and is already causing uproar, even outside Italy.

Let us be clear once again, we are not judging the verdict. But we are predicting the effects. From now on, many engineers and scientists will no longer be careful about properly informing the public. To avoid any misunderstanding, they will rather remain silent. They will not lay themselves open to attacks. Thus depriving citizens of the right to be informed. Of course it is not the courts' responsibility to pronounce judgments that take into account the cultural and social effects. But it is up to politics to regulate the forms and manners in which the new rights of scientific citizenship should be fulfilled.

Source: L'Unità 23 October 2012

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