This is a big deal: several Italian scientists were convicted for multiple manslaughter after a 2009 earthquake. And in amongst the cries and straw-men about “You can’t try someone for not being able to predict an earthquake!” there’s an interesting story. I recommend this summary, and this article in Nature (if you can get past the paywall). They do a better job than I could, largely because I am in no way a geophysicist or seismologist. But it provides an interesting segue into science communication and clarity when talking to the public and public officials, because that’s what the fight seems to actually be about.
The basic issue, as I understand it: in early 2009, the town of L’Aquila was wracked with continual (as in, several times a day) earthquakes of moderate severity. Nothing to knock down a building but enough that people were getting very concerned about an upcoming “big one”. In addition, a local started ‘predicting’ earthquakes using fluctuations on radon levels: something that hasn’t actually been shown to be correlated with earthquakes. Public officials called in a bunch of experts to analyze the risk, but their goal seemed to be mostly to calm down residents. The scientists spoke to the science: which is that while risks of a severe quake can increase by many orders of magnitude during one of these ‘swarms’, absolute risk remains generally low (less than 2%). Public officials pointed to the scientists and said “See? Everyone calm down. Go have some wine.” Then a big quake hit, in a city full of very old buildings, and 300 people died.
So, is anyone to blame? Should the scientists have been clearer to public officials and the press about the risks, which are – and have always been – quite high in that area of Italy? Was it the job of scientists to take into account the age of the architecture? Did the public officials intentionally misinterpret scientific warnings in order to calm down a panicked city? And, basically: at what point is it the job of every scientist to be their own public advocate and an effective communicator?
Because at base, that’s what’s going on here. In a certain way, it puts me in mind of this (comedic) story in which the press focuses in on one tiny portion of a science PR video and creates, seemingly out of thin air, a dream-reading machine. Most science is difficult to explain to lay-people, and often the only people who actually understand the realities of a situation are the very people who investigated it – not even others in the same field. And when the risk of misinterpretation is that people will think Inception is a little more realistic, it’s one thing. But when the risk of misinterpretation is that people die, it’s quite another.
As usual, I don’t really have an answer to this. It concerns me that in the Nature article, there are several pull-quotes from the seismologists in question saying that scientists should respond by not talking about their work, since they could face such severe consequences. I can understand where that’s coming from, but to go as far as say “Scientists need to shut up”? No. Scientists need to speak up, in a way that actually gets the point across. Which is very difficult for those of us so steeped in the details that we can’t see the simple, clear-cut story that will resonate with people. But communication is a skill that can be learned as surely as memorizing amino acid structures for a biochemistry exam, and it is probably much more important. Or, from another perspective, just as it’s important for every educated layperson to have a grasp of basic scientific realities, it’s important for every scientist to be able to present a convincing, colloquial, argument. And those two are impossible to separate.