Risk communication, Anglo-Saxon lessons

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The L'Aquila verdict, which sentenced the members of the Major Risks Commission in office at the time of the earthquake in 2009, to six years in prison is making headlines, even internationally. Pending the judgment reasons - which are required by law (we say this for the benefit of the Nature columnist who is peremptorily asking the judge to deliver them) - and before expressing a considered judgment on the merits thereof, we should get to know the opinions of those abroad who are quite knowledgeable on this matter, while being obviously less involved in it. In order to draw an initial, albeit temporary lesson.

We hereby propose three very relevant opinions, without making any claim as to their exhaustiveness, indeed, boasting the subjectivity of our choice.

The first refers to the editorial that the American David Ropelk, an expert in risk communication, wrote for Scientific American, which is considered - rightly - the most prestigious popular science magazine in the world. Ropelk's opinion is already made clear in the title: The L'Aquila Verdict: Not a Judgment against science, but against a Failure of Science Communication. According to Ropelk, the American Association for the Advancement of Science - the prestigious Association of American scientists which, among other things, publishes the journal Science - is wrong in condemning the verdict as a judges' misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities. The thesis of the American scholar is that, contrary to the majority of news coverage, the judgment is not a punch in the face of the scientific community. The trial and the verdict were not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes, but about the ability or inability (rightly or wrongly, is to be seen also on the basis of the judgment reasons) of six scientists and a public official to communicate risk.

The point is not whether the Major Risks Commission in March and April 2009 did a good or bad job in terms of science. The question is whether it did good or bad job in terms of risk communication.

Another interesting point of view is that of the English David Spiegelhalter, a trained statistician and Winton professor of public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, who presented it to Gaetano Prisciantelli in an interview that you can listen to on Radio3Scienza website. Spiegelhalter also argues that the sentence is not about the science of earthquakes, but the communication of uncertainty. But what is important is the lesson drawn by the British mathematician, expert in risk communication: if scientists intend to continue engaging in public issues (a relationship from which it is impossible to withdraw, in the humble opinion of the writer) they need to become much more aware of the impact of their words. "They need to choose and measure the words incredibly carefully when making statements to the public. They need to think of their strategies for communicating risk. I think this was not done well in L’ Aquila"

A third view is that of another American seismologist Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California. Jordan, by the way, considers the judgment unacceptable. But, in an another interview to Gaetano Prisciantelli says: "I was asked by the Italian government to chair an international commission to investigate what had happened during the L’Aquila earthquake and what recommendations we would make to improve the system for the risk communication. We convened one month after the earthquake (of 6 April, Ed. Note). In October of 2009 we released a set of recommendations to the Italian Government on how risk communication could be improved in this kind of situations".

Question by Prisciantelli: Are you aware of what happened next? Whether that was implemented? Answer: "To my knowledge, our recommendations have not been implemented by the Department of Civil Protection".

These three views are quite insightful. They teach us three things.

First, we can not ignore the facts. Second, the facts are that, rightly or wrongly, it was not science that was called to the bar in L'Aquila, but the communication released by the Major Risks Commission. Third, that in spite of everything, in Italy, after the disastrous emergency management of the Irpinia earthquake in 1980, a good Civil Protection system was put in place. That this system worked perfectly well in many cases (although recently, under the Bertolaso management, the Civil Protection was used improperly and for inappropriate tasks). A Civil Protection that, however, never adopted a risk communication structure of the type indicated by Spiegelhalter and Jordan. A structure that could do three things: effectively communicating risk during an emergency; training technicians and scientists to risk communication so that they "know how to measure their words carefully when making public statements" and, more generally, so that they can engage in a good and essential relationship with non-expert citizens in accordance with their roles; doing scientific research on risk communication, because this is a decisive factor in an emergency.

All this is done in Britain or the United States or Japan. This is not yet done in Italy. And the consequences are now, plain for all to see.

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