Editorial: Scientists crucified

Published in The Hindu on October 30, 2012

If predicting with a high degree of confidence when and where an earthquake will strike and how devastating it will be — even in an earthquake-prone region — is impossible at this point in time, how can the attendant risks be communicated to the public with a high degree of certainty? That has been the central issue surrounding the risk evaluation and public messaging prior to the 6.3-magnitude L’Aquila quake that killed 309 people in Italy on April 6, 2009. Communicating the hard facts of science to the public is a challenge, and bureaucrats entrusted with this job often end up diluting and incorrectly communicating the information at hand. That was precisely the case in L’Aquila on March 31. In a committee meeting convened to assess a series of tremors, all six scientists of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks unanimously and unequivocally agreed that the possibility of a major earthquake was unlikely but could not be ruled out. But the message conveyed to the media by a government official was completely different — “the scientific community tells us there is no danger … the situation looks favourable.” This misinformation was never corrected by any of the six scientists. A local court has now convicted all seven of manslaughter and slapped a six-year jail term and €7.8 million fine on them.

The verdict will have a chilling effect on the way scientists use their expertise to assess and communicate risks at the most crucial times. This is particularly of great concern as the Apennines which cut across Italy have numerous faults that produce dozens of earthquakes every year. If stringent building codes were absent before the 2009 quake, the new codes approved in Italy after the tremor “show no improvement,” notes Nature. In May this year, two earthquakes that struck northern Italy turned many buildings into rubble and killed about 25 people. Who then is responsible for these deaths — scientists or poor building codes? Of course, the message conveyed to local residents should have included a precautionary note, but people who live in Abruzzo, a very high-risk seismic area, surely cannot be completely ignorant of the fact that the science of earthquake prediction is grossly inadequate. The litigiousness of modern society has unfortunately ended up targeting the wrong people. Unless the verdict is reversed on appeal, Italians at large will end up paying the price. Without an environment conducive for scientists to assess and communicate risks directly to the public, the entire system of disaster management and civil protection in the country might end up getting paralysed.