Italian earthquake verdict exposes rifts between science and society

Sometimes a little shake-up is exactly what scientists need to make a major breakthrough. Other times it can send them to jail.

Six Italian researchers and one government official have each been sentenced to six years in prison for their role in communicating — or failing to communicate — seismic risks in L’Aquila, Italy. That beautiful medieval town was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the wee hours of April 6, 2009. More than 300 people died; the aftershocks reverberated not only across Italy but also throughout the global network of seismologists.

“We’ve all been taken aback by what happened in L’Aquila,” says Thomas Jordan, a seismologist at the University of Southern California and chairman of an international commission on earthquake forecasting that was set up after the disaster.

To many, “L’Aquila” has become a code word for scientific advice offered in good faith but hounded to injustice. The verdict drew swift condemnation from such august organizations as the American Geophysical Union. The decision “could ultimately discourage scientists from advising governments, communicating the results of research to the public, or even in extreme cases discouraging people from working in these fields,” said AGU president Michael McPhaden.

But often lost in the outcry is the fact that the people of L’Aquila felt that they trusted science and were betrayed. This perception — far more than the fate of any particular researcher — is what should have all scientists deeply worried.

Central Italy is no stranger to earthquakes. The L’Aquila quake happened smack in the middle of Italy’s highest seismic risk region, where the Apennine mountains are pulling themselves apart. All through the winter and spring of 2009, residents felt the ground shake in a series of tremors. An amateur scientist started issuing predictions of future quakes based on measurements he took at a handful of radon gas detectors in the area.

Finally, the tremors got so strong that officials convened a gathering of the local risks commission. Meeting minutes show that scientists talked about how a large earthquake in L’Aquila could not be ruled out. But at a press conference held afterward, involving only two of the commission members, one of them said that the ongoing tremors helped release seismic energy in the region.

Hearing that, residents of L’Aquila felt relieved, and many decided to stay put even as the ground kept shaking. So lots of people were inside the night of April 5, and many were crushed by collapsing buildings.

Jordan says that the convicted researchers got distracted from their main job, which should have been advising the public about measures they could take to protect themselves from ground shaking. Commission members “got snookered into answering a kind of simple yes-or-no question: ‘Will we be hit by a large earthquake?’ ” Jordan says. “Seismologists can’t provide an answer to that type of question.” Instead, scientists can provide information to authorities, who must juggle various risks and decide what a particular community should do.

In L’Aquila, residents thought science could tell them what to do. It couldn’t, and so perhaps more people died than otherwise would have.

There is some good news among the bad. Jordan and his colleagues proposed some ways to improve operational earthquake forecasting, such as providing the public with openly available information about short-term seismic risks. That could be as simple as a regularly updated website, which people could get familiar with well before a big earthquake strikes. “You don’t want to just strike up a new conversation with the public in times of seismic crisis,” Jordan says.

Another approach is to be open about earthquake risk even if scientists aren’t sure about the implications of recent seismic activity. In California not too long ago, a magnitude 4.8 quake struck near the southern San Andreas, the biggest so close to the fault in the history of seismic recording. The state earthquake evaluation council nervously released a statement that the probability of a large quake on the southern San Andreas had risen to between 1 and 5 percent per week. That quake didn’t happen, but California officials were at least prepared. All this took place in March 2009 — two weeks before L’Aquila.

Members of the California council have statutory immunity from prosecution, which protects them from what the Italian scientists just went through. That’s one way to help fix the distrust that often lingers between the public and scientists.

Society desperately needs the information science can provide. The L’Aquila experience contains valuable lessons for both parties in how that information should be communicated.

SN Prime | January 14, 2013 | Vol. 3, No. 2

Alexandra Witze is a contributing correspondent for Science News. Based in Boulder, Colo., Witze specializes in earth, planetary and astronomical sciences.

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