Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Go directly to jail.

Well, not quite directly. In 2009 on the 6th of April, after a series minor quakes and a shock of 4.1 on the 30th of March,  there was an earthquake in Italy. People died. In this case though there had been a meeting of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The commission included several geophysicists. In the meeting there had been disagreement amongst the scientists, some thought that the minor shocks might have relieved tension and that no more shocks would be forthcoming. Some disagreed. The conclusion "was anything but reassuring"

A press conference was held ostensibly to report the commissions findings, though in fact to counter the publics unease  being caused by predictions being generated using an unreliable and unproven technique. The press conference reported that the "seismic situation in L'Aquila was certainly normal" and that there was "no danger".

Saying there is was no danger is the only point that I would find fault with the commission. If they had said "no danger other than what there normally is" I don't think I'd have any problems with their press conference. It doesn't follow though that the scientists who concluded that "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded"* should then be held accountable for the deaths caused by people not leaving their homes (supposedly because they were comforted and reassured by the commission).

I've been told that the idea that these scientists are being prosecuted because they didn't predict the earthquake on the 6th of April is stupid. It's not. The people who are finding fault with the commissions public statements acknowledge that the scientists cannot predict earthquakes. "People aren't stupid," he says. "They know we can't predict earthquakes." [1].

So when a commission comes out and says that there is no danger, i.e. that there is no chance of an earthquake then the only sensible interpretation is that there is no danger over and above the normal danger. Yes, the commission could have spelt it out better. To throw your normal precautions to the wind after a lifetime living in the area, because of the commissions statements is an abrogation of responsibility. It requires the assumption that the geophysicists are now capable of forecasting when there isn't going to be an earthquake. Which is the same thing as predicting when they will strike as well. On the assumption that people aren't stupid, if they know that the geophysicists can't predict quakes then the whole argument falls apart.

Which leaves the only reasonable interpretation that I can see being one big blame game that isn't going to help anyone. It might even end up hurting people in the long run by reducing scientists willingness to engage in public assessment of risk.

[1] John Mutter seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who declined to sign the open letter circulated to support the Italian scientists.

10 comments:

  1. "It requires the assumption that the geophysicists are now capable of forecasting when there isn't going to be an earthquake."

    I find the quibbling quite bizarre. Like it or not, the civil defence guy, De Berardinis, spoke for the commission when he told the Aquilani to relax and have a glass of wine. He told them out right that there was no danger after a period of sustained seismic activity. *He's* the one who claimed that scientists could predict that there was no earthquake. And the rest of the commission is jointly responsible because, well, they are, it's a statutory thing.

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  2. (That Nature piece is the best thing I've read by far in the non-Italian press, though, I must say. I'd been wanting to scream at the near totality of the reports.)

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  3. I'm just assuming that forecasting when an earthquake is going to occur is the same as when an earthquake isn't going to occur. They are essentially the same thing. So telling people you don't expect scientists to be able to predict when they occur, then slam them for not predicting one when it does is nonsensical.

    I concur that De Berardinis screwed up in his wording, but to take his words at face value again assumes the whole being able to predict thing when quakes are going to hit.

    As far as the communication being the problem goes, there's possible a (poor, in my opinion) case against De Berardinis, but not the rest of the scientists. The scientists weren't there as communicators. From the nature article:

    "Commission sessions are usually closed, so Boschi was surprised to see nearly a dozen local government officials and other non-scientists attending"

    They might be part of the commission but their role was assessment of the risk, not the communication of that risk to the public. The system screwed up and they're wearing the can.

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  4. "So telling people you don't expect scientists to be able to predict when they occur, then slam them for not predicting one when it does is nonsensical."

    Nobody is slamming them for failing to predict an earthquake. Some people are slamming them for predicting that there wouldn't be an earthquake, and for failing to give the basic advice that the population ought to have been given at this time. There are scientists who didn't sign the petition to our President who are quite clear on this.

    "They might be part of the commission but their role was assessment of the risk, not the communication of that risk to the public."

    In that case I would suggest Mr Boschi is being incredibly disingenuous. And he really never stopped to ask himself why the meeting was being held in L'Aquila, and why the Mayor was there?

    "As far as the communication being the problem goes, there's possible a (poor, in my opinion) case against De Berardinis, but not the rest of the scientists"

    That's what the other defendants would like us to think. Clearly the judge didn't think they had a good enough argument that De Bernardinis and Barberi acted independently of the rest of the commission, or misrepresented their view.

    (It's worth noting that the legislation was updated since the earthquake, and that now the only form of lawful and binding public communication from the commission is a written report produced at each meeting. However the new wording also recognises that sometimes the commission as a communications role.)

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  5. "Some people are slamming them for predicting that there wouldn't be an earthquake"

    Which goes back to Mutter's point about people not being stupid. If you assume people basically aren't then knowing that a quake couldn't be predicted, then they have to infer that the risk is as per normal for a high risk area. Just to be explicit here, I'm equating failure to predict with predicting that there wouldn't be one. It's the same thing. If you can predict when one isn't going to happen you can predict when none are going to happen. Which was one of the points I was trying to make, sorry if I haven't been sufficiently clear on that.

    "and for failing to give the basic advice that the population ought to have been given at this time"

    only required if you assume people are stupid. According to Mutter at least.

    "And he really never stopped to ask himself why the meeting was being held in L'Aquila"

    that's actually a good point. If the meetings are normally held in Rome, then the change in venue combined with the unusual openness of the meeting should have signaled something was up. Hrm, he said.

    Poor communication all round, I suspect everyone agrees on that. Jail time for not predicting one and not reiterating basic quake advice still relies on assuming the population is stupid though.

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  6. Then again, the minutes of the meeting have the geophysicists specifically stating that another earthquake can't be ruled out. Not sure how that translates to them predicting that there would be no quake.

    So you go from a meeting where the scientists said can't rule it out, to a local official who said there was no danger. Which would indicate that what the scientists communicated to the officials at the meeting was that there was no danger over and above the normal levels.

    I'd quite like to see the actual minutes from that meeting. Or a translation rather. As well as job descriptions.

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  7. "So you go from a meeting where the scientists said can't rule it out, to a local official who said there was no danger. Which would indicate that what the scientists communicated to the officials at the meeting was that there was no danger over and above the normal levels."

    De Bernardinis and Barberi (an engineer and a volcanologist, respectively) weren't local officials - they were members of the commission. De Bernardinis said he had been told by his colleagues that the risk was in fact lower due to the quakes 'venting' the energy from the faultline. I think calling the citizens of L'Aquila stupid for trusting the representative of a panel of experts who told them that they had nothing to fear is quite wrong.

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  8. Which is where a conflict becomes apparent. From the nature article : "The scientific message conveyed at the meeting was anything but reassuring, according to Selvaggi."

    "De Bernardinis and Barberi weren't local officials - they were members of the commission" Fair enough. Still doesn't gel to me, if what Selvaggi said was true. I would draw from that, that De Bernardinis and Barberi were at fault.

    I'm most definitely not calling the residents stupid, my argument relies on the residents not being stupid. I'm saying that assuming the residents interpreted "no danger" as there was no possibility of another quake is calling them stupid. The residents live in a high risk area. They have drills for earthquakes they have been using their whole lives. They know earthquakes. I don't see how residents could then assume that the scientists are capable of predicting there wouldn't be a quake. To do so would be stupid.

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  9. "I don't see how residents could then assume that the scientists are capable of predicting there wouldn't be a quake. To do so would be stupid."

    The victims get ridiculed twice in this whole affair: once, for listening to the radon guy instead of the scientists; then, for giving too much credit to the scientists. Make up your mind, people. Really.

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  10. I wouldn't ridicule the residents for either. The whole radon thing has enough superficial plausibility that it should have been properly explained by the commission or someone exactly why it wasn't a valid prediction.

    And I don't think a population used to living with earthquakes would have that much faith in a prediction of no quakes. If the majority of the population actually gave credence to such a prediction, I would be well and truly dumbfounded. And I'd have to entirely rethink everything I've said.

    Which is not to say that there might not be some small groups of people who are hurting and want someone to blame and have used the whole communication cock up to push all this.

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