Given how many bloggers have already weighed in on the story of an Italian court convicting geologists of manslaughter for failing to issue adequate earthquake warnings before an earthquake that devastated the town of L’Aquila, including Steve Novella, Daniela at Skepchicks, Sharon Hill at Skeptic, and even Instapundit, you’d think that even Orac wouldn’t have anything to say about it. You would, of course, be wrong. Orac always has something to say about such things. The question is simply whether he decides he’s interested enough in the story to take the time and effort to compose and let loose one of his typical logorrheic streams of pontification about it. In this case he is, because, like the vast majority of the blogosphere, he considers the conviction of these scientists a horrific miscarriage of justice, particularly their prison sentences. He also can’t resist tweaking someone like Vox Popoli
But first, let’s go back and see what this whole story is about:
Six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter by an Italian court on Monday for failing to give adequate warning of an earthquake that killed more than 300 people in L’Aquila in 2009.
The seven, all members of a body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in evaluating the danger and keeping the central city informed of the risks.
The case has drawn condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working in seismology and seismic risk assessments.
Ya think? I know that, in the wake of this decision, if I were a geologist in Italy, I would immediately dissociate myself from any government board charged with earthquake risk assessment. The risk would be just too great. Either that, or if I had no choice I would be ridiculously cautious in my assessments, complete with weasel words to cover my posterior in the event I’m wrong. In other words, I’d do like what most geologists in Italy will probably do now, rendering scientific advice on the issue of earthquakes much less useful than it is now. It would go from being precise, clear, and accurate to being a bowl of mush. No one wants to go to jail for six years and face financial ruin.
In the wake of this unbelievably misguided decision, the Italian scientists Franco Barberi, Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Gian Michele Calvi, Claudio Eva and Mauro Dolce as well as Bernardo De Bernardis—a senior official in the Civil Protection Authority—are currently free on appeal. However, if their appeals fail, they will face six years in prison and a $12 million fine. In other words, their lives will be completely ruined for being wrong. They stand convicted of criminal manslaughter and causing criminal injury, all because the court ruled that they had been overly reassuring to the to the population in their statements that a truly devastating earthquake was unlikely. Unfortunately, whether their statements were “too reassuring” or not, at 3:32 AM on April 6, 2009, a devastating earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter schale struck L’Aquila, resulting in 300 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
While I might not always share Steve Novella’s diligence in finding what he calls the “most charitable interpretation of each side of an argument,” I do feel obligated to dispense with a straw man version of the verdict that I’ve seen floating around the Internet. That is the claim that scientists were convicted for having failed to predict the earthquake. This is clearly not the case, as far as I can tell. The central question in the case was actually the question of what is the responsibility of scientists called upon to provide a risk assessment based on their scientific knowledge if they happen to be wrong. In other words, what sort of diligence is required, and how science-based and scientifically defensible do scientific recommendations. How badly do scientists have to fail at such a task before they can be considered negligent?
As Steve Novella pointed out, these sorts of issues come up in medicine all the time. He provided an excellent example of how medicine is all about probabilities. For example, if there is a diagnosis that is 95% likely to be the correct diagnosis, that means five percent of the time it won’t be and the physician will be wrong. Being wrong doesn’t in and of itself mean that the physician failed to exercise due professional diligence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a physician committed malpractice. In actuality, many, if not most, diagnoses in medicine are much less certain than 95%, which means the physician will likely be wrong far more than 5% of the time. Of course, in the case of medical diagnoses, physicians will systematically move on down the differential diagnosis as it becomes clear that one diagnosis is not correct, which is a big difference when compared to the geologists who were convicted. They didn’t have a chance to recover from a “wrong” diagnosis and make the “right diagnosis” because once the earthquake happens that’s it.
And the science of earthquake prediction is much more uncertain than most medical diagnoses.
Another way the conviction of the Italian geologists is like medicine is that what they have been convicted of is, in essence, malpractice. Of course, there is one huge difference. In medicine malpractice is a civil offense, not a criminal offense. Physicians are not thrown in jail when a court finds that they have committed malpractice. They pay damages. If their practice repeatedly falls below the standard of care, they might end up before their state medical board, which could potentially strip them of their license to practice. Criminal charges against doctors related to their practice of medicine are much less common than civil penalties; for instance, the sexual abuse of patients.
Building on that analogy, I ask the question, “Did the Italian geologists commit malpractice”? The answer, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is clearly no. For instance, Alan I. Leisher of the AAAS writes to the President of Italy:
The charges against these scientists are both unfair and naive. The basis for those indictments appears to be that that scientists failed to alert the population of an impending earthquake. However, there is no way they could have done that credibly.
Years of research, much of it conducted by distinguished seismologists in your own country, have demonstrated that there is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be reliably used to warn citizens of an impending disaster. To expect more of science at this is unreasonable. It is manifestly unfair for scientists to be criminally charged for failing to act on information that the international scientific community would consider inadequate as a basis for issuing a warning.
But is this true? Like Steve, I’ve looked around for accounts of exactly what government officials told the people of L’Aquila. It is said that the Commission provided “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory” information on the danger of an impending earthquake after a meeting on March 31, 2009, a few days before the L’Aquila quake:
Central Italy is continuously shaken by low level tremors, very few of which precede bigger earthquakes and they are generally marked by no more than a brief statement from civil protection authorities.
Key to the dispute is the kind of cautious language, hedged by caveats and reserves which scientists typically use in predicting highly uncertain events, but which can be of limited use as a guideline for the general public.
According to scientific opinion cited by prosecutors, the dozens of lower level tremors seen before the quake were typical of the kind of preliminary seismic activity seen before major earthquakes such as the one that struck on April 6.
Instead of highlighting the danger, they said the experts had made statements playing down the threat of a repeat of the earthquakes which wrecked the town in 1349, 1461 and 1703, saying the smaller shocks were a “normal geological phenomenon”.
In a report in Nature from a couple of years ago, after it was decided that the scientists would have to stand trial, a retrospective analysis of seismic activity in Italy was cited that found that a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days only 2% of the time. As pointed out in this analysis, “earthquake swarms” are not uncommon in the L’Aquila region and tend to fade away over time without a major seismic event. Assuming that the L’Aquila region is similar to the regions studied in this analysis, it would not be unreasonable to postulate a risk of similar magnitude—with fairly wide error bars, of course. Let’s make the error bars really big, just to make the case as favorable to the prosecution as possible. So on the one hand, we have science demonstrating that the small shocks that had been occurring before the L’Aquila quake are common and only precede much larger earthquakes maybe 2% of the time, perhaps several percent of the time in the most alarmist assessments. What would you do with this information?
In medicine (again) we have a saying that the retrospectoscope is 100% accurate, but put yourself into the position of the scientists. Based on the earthquake swarms occurring at the time, there was maybe a 2% risk of a larger earthquake. What do you tell the populace? Vincenzo Vittorini, a plaintiff in the case who lost his wife and daughter on that fateful night in April 2009, claims:
“This isn’t a trial against science,” insists Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of “Be calm, don’t worry”, and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. “That’s why I feel betrayed by science,” he says. “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”
So what would he have done if the Commission had said that, to the best of their ability to estimate, there was a roughly 2% chance of a major earthquake within a few days. Would he have done what he said his parents had had him do in the past and leave the apartment and hang out in the public square overnight? How many days would he have done that before he felt that it was safe to return to his home? These are not easy questions? On the one hand, any warning issued in such a situation would have an approximately 98% chance of being wrong. Being too quick to issue such warnings would have the potential to cause a lot of disruption, piss people off, and, over time, degrade the people’s trust in science and the authorities. Yet failure to issue a warning in such a situation has roughly a 2% chance of being wrong, with potentially tragic results. No matter what the scientific panel decided to do in each case where these issues came up, sooner or later it would get it wrong. Analogies to warnings of terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11 are inescapable.
Apparently the situation was also complicated by a man named Giampaolo Giuliani, who was making unofficial predictions of an impending large earthquake based on his measurements of radon, whicha according to him fluctuate wildly right before a major earthquake. Theere’s just one problem. His method of earthquake prediction has never been validated as accurate as a short-term predictor of earthquakes, and Giuliani has never published a peer-reviewed paper describing his method. Instead, he maintained a website and issued warnings to the point where national civil-protection officials cited him for procurato allarme; in essence, instigating public alarm or panic. He was causing a lot of unease among the people of L’Aquila, and there’s little doubt that his warnings, which like the proverbial blind squirrel sometimes finding a nut, happened in this case to be right by coincidence, could in retrospect have lead to conspiracy theories and questions about whether the government really knew but didn’t say anything. Then, at the meeting of the Commission on March 31, 2009, the commission was asked specifically if the current seismic swarm could be a precursor to a huge quake like the one that leveled L’Aquila in 1703. According to the meeting minutes, Bosci said, “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.” This is, of course, a reasonable statement of the risk, but unfortunately after the meeting, something happened. Accounts differ, but according to Nature:
What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting. In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.
However, there are problems. There is no mention of any appeal to “continuous discharge of energy” in the minutes. And:
In an interview in the Rome offices of his lawyer, Boschi derided as “absurd” the idea that he in any way played down the risk to L’Aquila. Brandishing a copy of the INGV’s seismic hazard map of Italy, which shows a broad swath of the Apennines in bright hues indicating high risk, the tall, silver-haired geophysicist insisted: “No one can find a single piece of paper where I say, ‘Be calm, don’t worry’. I have said for years that the Abruzzo is the most seismologically dangerous zone in all of Italy. It’s as if I suddenly became an imbecile. I’m accused of being negligent!” He was not invited to participate in the press conference after the meeting, he says, and didn’t even know about it until after his return to Rome.
To me, this is a perfect storm. There was a crank stirring up panic, and the best scientific information available suggested that the risk of a major quake was low. What then followed was a classic conflict between the preference of scientists for nuanced, careful predictions, complete with statements of uncertainty and what we do and don’t know and a public desire for clarity and certainty. We see this conflict pop up all the time; one particular example is communicating the science of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), assessments of whether this chemical or that contributes to cancer, or whether there are any dangers from vaccines. For example, in the case of asking whether vaccines cause autism, scientists often say things such as, “As far as we can tell from multiple large studies, there is no detectable correlation between vaccines and autism.” What the public wants to hear is that vaccines do not cause autism, but it interprets a statement like this to imply that there is still significant uncertainty about the answer to the question. That’s just one example.
If there’s one thing we as scientists do a poor job at sometimes, it’s communicating findings to the public without seeming too wishy-washy. In the case of the Commission meeting regarding L’Aquila, scientists might well have gone too far in trying to calm fears, but their position was scientifically defensible. On a statistical basis, the risk was low. And, to draw another analogy to medicine, when I’m quoting risks to patients I often say something like, “The risk of complication X is 10%, but if it happens to you it’s 100% for you.” Although somewhat nonsensical from a mathematical and statistical standpoint, I find that this really does get across to the patient that, even if the risk of a complication is low, I understand the severity if it happens to her. Unfortunately in the case of L’Aquila, the 2% risk of a major earthquake ended up being 100% in retrospect because it happened.
As horribly misguided and, yes, profoundly antiscientific this verdict is, there remains the question of what scientists should do. One thing that is not an option is something that our old “friend” Vox Day says: Let Science be silent when it cannot predict future events. Vox, unsurprisingly, is being his usual brain dead, antiscientific self. His post demonstrates, again as usual, a profound ignorance of what science is and does. Science can predict some events with incredible accuracy. If it couldn’t, it would not be possible to fly airplanes, land on the moon, send probes to Mars, or predict the decay of radioisotopes. Other things can’t be predicted as precisely because such predictions are based on stochastic models that have a lot of random noise and factors that we don’t yet understand. Some things, like earthquakes, can’t be predicted very well at all because of high variability and our lack of understanding of key mechanisms by which they occur.
What Vox doesn’t seem to understand is that when public policy intersects with science, “remaining silent” is not always an option. Science is messy. Scientists understand that and in their communications to each other communicate that uncertainty. The public often does not; the best that we as scientists can do is to make our recommendations as clear as possible but with an honest assessment of the uncertainty inherent in the prediction. Ironically, the Italian verdict is very likely to inhibit that process—and inhibit it in a big way—in Italy. Scientists will likely either refuse to serve on the Commission or will become hypercautious, as I suggested above. The end result will be that throwing a few scientists in jail for having been wrong about what sort of warning should be issued is far more likely to harm the very process the prosecutors claim to be championing: More accurate earthquake predictions.
In the meantime, the Italian courts richly deserve the condemnation and ridicule directed at them. Hopefully the protests will have an effect, and the conviction of these scientists will be overturned on appeal.
66 replies on “The mistake of criminalizing honest scientific mistakes”
And next they’ll be jailing weather reporters. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Fish
I have a strong suspicion that this was done to draw attention away from either poor or unenforced building standards.
I am Italian. I have some relatives who had lost almost everything in the L’Aquila earthquake. And I do think this is ridicolous, as does the majority of Italian.
I believe there is a point, not scientifical one, peraphs, but important nonetheless, that is worthy mentioning in this idiotic sentence. I believe that a need for “revenge” is what drived people to start it to begin with. That, and a bad understanding of science.
A judge doesn’t necessary understand science better than any other, not-scientist, person. Having studied Law does not a scientist makes, after all.
That, too. And not everything is on the shoulder of government or government officials. A lot of people built their own houses with sub-par materials and such, because it is cheaper. A lot of people also lied about it in the official papers.
It is a lot like the people who have build house on the Vesuvio. Vesuvio is an active volcano, and will erupt sooner or later. People know it. Still, they build here anyway (and there is no way of making them go away, neither. The State tried everything, up to giving them money and other house. No such luck)
It is a lot a desire to keep the blame off of your shoulder (even when it was here).
My family was actually talked yesterday about this. My father is in Real Estate, and said there had been very poor-contructed houses in L’Aquila, even because, after 300 years, there was a certain apathy about the possibility of earthquakes.
The quack Orac mentioned is an important part of the problem, also.
Come to the Netherlands, where there was a lot of critique on weatherforecasters, stating there would be a heavy thunderstorm at the Dutch coast. People didn’t go there and the expected thunderstorm didn’t come either, so the owners of businesses at the coast, complained the public stayed away, because of this forecasts and politicians started to say they should be punished for making wrong predictments, which took away the income the businesses could have made, from the public that wrongfully expected a thunderstorm and didn’t travel to the beach.
Funny thing, at that time I was on vacation in Germany where there were also thunderstorms. Some where not that far from where we stayed, but we hardly had rain, just dark clouds. And in Cologne, there where areas where people had lots of rain, resulting in flooded basements , while no rain fell in other parts of the city.
It looks like we can’t live with uncertainty.
Is this really an ‘honest scientific mistake’? (The question is about the *mistake* part.)
If they said ‘This is unlikely to presage a terrible earthquake, but we can’t rule out that possibility’ then they were right, and as right as its possible to be without bullshitting.
Even if they said ‘don’t worry, go drink some wine’ I’m not sure that’s a mistake either. Should you worry about events that are less probable than a fair coin landing heads five times in a row? And of course you should drink wine!
So Italian courts does it again – without understanding of science and against the evidence they have now concluded that geologists are criminals if they can’t predict earthquakes, mobile phones causes cancer (even if it was a benign tumour according to pathologists), and that vaccines causes autism!
Where I come from there are running jokes about the political arm of Italian statehood, but it seems we’ve missed something about the judiciary…
Just to add a wrinkle to the discussion –
My understanding is that it was not in the scientists’ brief to communicate directly to the pubic (They left after drawing their conclusions) and what was offered to the public was made by non-scientists, who seem to have “softened” the risk statements (further).
One suggestion others have made is that the scientists ought to be asked to communicate directly to the public. In New Zealand, for example, the geology statements to people in Christchurch (Canterbury) where there were large earthquakes in 2010-2011 were made by geologists.
Leading from Orac’s drawing a parallel with medicine, I guess it’d be like leaving explanations of public health concerns up to local politicians, perhaps. Better to train public health spokespeople from those with appropriate backgrounds. I’m not sure how fair a comparison that is – perhaps ‘T’ can help here – ?
“mobile phones causes cancer” and “vaccines causes autism”
Seriously? If true: eaggh.
Agree with your post, but I wanted to point out one error. You say that medical malpractice is a civil matter, not a criminal offense. Under Italian law, it is both. Doctors can be held criminally liable for injuries caused to patients “due to negligence or carelessness or inexperience, or for failure to comply with laws, regulations, orders or disciplines” if the prosecution can establish a causal chain between the doctor’s actions and the injury of the patient, and argue that the injury could be expected.
If I were geologist in Italy, I’d simply add
“Furthermore, I consider that Italy must be evacuated”
(Bad pun on “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”)
to every single talk I hold and paper I write…
One data point that I haven’t seen in all the reporting – how often is that region in the 2% likelihood activity. The whole question of “they should have warned about it” becomes moot if that means the population needs to sleep in tents for half the year. On the other hand, and I apologize for this abuse of statistics, if a major quake only occurs every 300 years, and 2% means a 1 in 50 chance, then the 2% warning would only apply to a week or so every 6 years. In which case the night out in the plaza doesn’t sound too unreasonable.
Still BS to start criminal proceedings, but important for the “they were wrong not to issues a more terse warning” question.
This reminds me of the bind public health officials find themselves when dealing with newly-emergent infectious diseases (e.g. H1N1 pandemic flu) and the flack they invariably get if they are perceived to be overstating the risks (I say perceived because I dare say most of their critics are underestimating the risks, or at least woefully lacking in empathy for other humans who actually do suffer from the spread of these diseases).
I was, of course, referring to the U.S. If malpractice is also a criminal offense in Italy, that’s a good reason not to practice medicine there, as far as I’m concerned.
It all goes back to the lack of knowledge of science. As a kid, I learned a lot from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. I learned that they are unpredictable. Sure, geology has advanced a bit since then, but earthquakes remain unpredictable. Someone who doesn’t know this or is not curious enough to learn about it should not be making judgments on this.
My opinion, of course.
If malpractice is a crime in Italy, why is the cancer quack Simoncini still operating?
@Mu: I have no idea what the frequency of such minor earthquake swarms in the region is, but any time such an alert would be issued, it would be for a period of at least several days at a time, and in some earthquake-prone regions (I don’t know if Italy is among them) for a month or more. That is a big deal.
Part of the problem in Italy is that so many of the buildings were built centuries ago, before we knew how to build them to withstand earthquakes. The same was true of Christchurch when the earthquake hit there a year or two ago, and it’s also true of the Pacific Northwest (which occasionally gets M9 earthquakes, most recently in 1700). As I recall, most of the damage in L`Aquila was to these older structures. But in the Bay Area in 1989 most of the damage was limited to elevated highways and buildings built on fill.
The word that makes me sigh, and long before the event, say (unfortunately correctly) ”this isn’t going to go well,” is in the title of the commission itself: National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. There it is: a time-bomb, ticking away, the word “forecast.” Its synonym “predict” is equally bad. “… and Prevention” is just icing on the cake, a promise that simply cannot be kept.
We scientists would do well never to use those words and never serve on any official group with them in the title. I think that many of us – the scientists – may fail to understand what those words actually mean, which is to say, yes, in the case of those exact terms, the layman is right. Those words mean certainty. THIS will happen. Period. They offer zero wiggle room for being wrong. No Type II Error at all.
Medical practitioners probably understand this better than basic-science types like me, or at least, their professional jargon demonstrates that understanding. They don’t say “predict” or “forecast.” They say, “prognosis.” The patient says, “Huh? What’s that?” and the doctor says, “It’s what I think is most likely to happen.” I’m sure these interactions see their share of the patient insisting on a forecast/prediction, but at least the doctor hasn’t explicitly begun the conversation with one. He or she doesn’t have a sign on the door saying, “Step right up, get your medical fate forecasts here, all disasters prevented.”
But there go the rest of us, blithely assuming that “conclusion” in the scientific sense is the default understanding of anyone and everyone else, which is itself naive enough, but then to be so foolish as to plaster (or allow to be plastered) the words “forecast” or “predict” into the title and mandate of an activity based on scientific thinking … why not paint a bullseye on our chests? Why not say, “Hey, I’m a soothsayer, bring me your chicken and I’ll look at its guts,” and then, in complete ignorance of historical soothsayers’ skill at explaining away failed predictions, add, “… and every prophecy guar-ant-eed!”
You can piss and moan about “them” and their “scientific ignorance” all you want to. Sure, they don’t understand scientific thinking, I get that. But the words “forecast” and “predict” are not scientific thinking. They mean what they mean, which is explicitly and cluelessly a guarantee, and going anywhere near those words is like getting stuck on flypaper. You’re stuck to’em now. Anything you say, even in presenting the report much less afterwards, looks like weaseling.
I am both heartsick and cynically frustrated (talk about the worst of both worlds) about the court’s judgment, probably like a lot of people reading this blog. But let us not miss the lesson. I think that we should understand that spin matters, and billing one’s scientific work as “forecasting” is a fine example of pre-spinning oneself right into political disaster. I doubt any of the convicted scientists themselves authored the title of that commission, which makes them *its* victims just as much as they are the prosecutor’s and the judge’s.
As has been pointed out, criminal liability in Italy has a more extensive application than in those countries which have inherited the model of English Law. The effect this has on medicine is presented here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2628502/
Part of the problem is that the inheritance of the Code Civil (Napoleonic Code) which has a structure that in effect means any disadvantageous event must have a responsible agent. Ironically the French have managed a more pragmatic rendition of this principle, while Italy, perhaps because of its more fractured social history has failed to develop laws which actually reflect the real world.
Hopefully, if the Italian legal system proves incapable of correcting this absurd judgement, then ultimately the Court of Human Rights will provide a judgement that ensures scientific freedom and a judgement of innocence. Though that will be a long and arduous process for those who have been convicted.
My understanding is that his Italian medical license has been stripped and he did receive a four-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter but was released as part of a general amnesty. Last I heard, he was working out of a clinic in Utrecht.
The problem is that, to be scientifically accurate, we can’t say “There is no evidence for…” All we can say is that we have not seen any evidence for that thing. I can’t say that space aliens have never visited Earth, I can simply say that I have never seen any compelling evidence that they have. We must always allow for the possibility that new evidence might arrive which changes our view.
All people must understand that while there is an objective, definite answer to every question, our ability to know those answers with any level of certainty is limited. For those who believe, there is only one being in the universe who knows all with absolute certainty; for the rest there is none.
There is even a nonzero chance that a link may one day be found between vaccines and autism, just as there is a nonzero chance that aliens have, in fact, visited Earth. All we can ever do is act upon the best knowledge and evidence we have available at this time, while maintaining awareness of the limits of our certainty.
The Renaissance was the only time Italians were in favor of science, and they withdrew their support of science within 50 years. (See Galileo.)
I guess that’s what happens when churches sprout up everywhere. To be fair, this sort of thing will probably happen in the US as well.
Not to seem insensitive, but a magnitude 6.3 earthquake is entirely survivable if buildings are built to be safe. Older buildings can often be retrofitted to be seismically resistant. West coast residents have experienced quite a few quakes of equal or higher magnitude, and there has been an ongoing effort for most of the past century to make things safer. If the central mountainous region of Italy is a quake zone, then perhaps there will now be efforts to do this kind of retrofitting. There is a tension between doing damage to old artistically meritorious buildings vs making them safe, but this magnitude should have been survivable.
I would be interested how other countries with similar quake risks might have handled the situation…
is this something about Italy itself?
I had an engineer who returned from Haiti last year tell me that the Port au Prince building code was one and one half pages long and it was common practice for builders to switch to inferior materials when their bid was accepted.
I really should be ashamed. He is working in my home-country. But well, I suppose we have a far to liberal idea on quacks. As long as no-one is complaining, I suppose one can do what one want here. And if there is someone complaining and trying to shut down something, or make an end on someones practices, there are alway believers willing to protest against such an ‘injustice’.
I appreciate what Ron Edwards is saying about “predict”, but I really need that word sometimes. If I have two treatments for your disease, and a marker that’s either 0 or 1 I can find that “if 1, then treatment B works better on average, but if 0 treatment A is better”. I will say “You are 1, so I predict treatment B will work better”, and call the marker predictive. As scientific thinking, I don’t see any problem. I did not say “I guarantee treatment B will work better for you”. There is a difference.
What I very much would like, particularly in biomedical research: never say “predict” unless you have clearly said what you mean. It has become dead common for people to be saying it when I can’t figure out what they mean. One reason I think that is: My example of “predict” above is sometimes called “in the strong sense” in the halls near me, but often one only has a marker (or function of many markers) that is prognostic – it “predicts” who will live longer (on average). But it sounds cooler if you call it predictive. People might mistakenly think you know something instrumental, when you don’t. Abuse of the word “define” is now also flourishing. “We have defined the molecular changes between disease X and Y” – OK, write bullshitter on your forehead. It is even used in the future tense “we will define” – groan.
@ Pharmacist-in-Exile & Grant:
““mobile phones causes cancer” and “vaccines causes autism”
“Seriously? If true: eaggh.”
The Italian magistrate in Rimini, did just that….
It’s true…double eaghh!!
Bob, the buildings in that region of Italy are not “reinforceable”, they are 300+ years old piles of stone. Large old growth trees in those areas, which could give you sturdy beams for support during an earthquake, have been cut down in Roman times. It’s not like the west coast, where old is measured in decades, and most construction is some kind of filled frame.
Lest we forget, San Francisco doesn’t have many buildings that predate 1906. There also aren’t many buildings made of stone there either.
Unless you put out your garbage on the wrong day, then you’re doomed.
so many of the buildings were built centuries ago, before we knew how to build them to withstand earthquakes. The same was true of Christchurch when the earthquake hit there a year or two ago
Christchurch has not been around for “centuries”. Most of the deaths in the most recent quake occurred in the collapse of a building from 1986 which was supposedly up to modern earthquake specs; the architects, engineers and building inspectors are currently playing pass-the-parcel with the responsibility for its shoddy construction.
the Code Civil (Napoleonic Code) […] means any disadvantageous event must have a responsible agent.
According to Evans-Pritchard, a similar attitude used to hold sway among the Azande tribe — if *anything* bad happened, there must be *someone* to blame, and it was only a question of sniffing out the witch.
I believe it was Evans-Pritchard who adopted the local custom of sacrificing a chicken and inspecting its entrails (or something similar) before he decided anything. He said it was as good a way as any of making decisions. It’s probably as good a way of deciding whether a series of tremors portend an earthquake as anything our current science offers.
The problem was that the geologists wanted to communicate to the public the message that Giampaolo Giuliani is a quack (which he is). But the message the public received was: There will be no earthquake – which was partially the fault of one of the “science-based” geologists, who used words that portrayed a greater certainty than the science-based geologists could possibly had. They had to reaffirm their authority in matters or earthquakes.
So this is not a question of malpractice, but a question how to deal with quacks – and I would say that the science-based crowd would do good not to overplay the evidence when fighting with quacks.
And asking the question whether assigning a number like 2% would have helped is a straw-man. The only right answer would be: “We don’t know either way if an earthquake happens, as it is still impossible to predict earthquakes (or their absence).” But because they wanted to strike down an quack, they had to take the high road.
Would the people have done actually something different, had the geologists send a different message? Probably not. So you are right that they are probably not responsible for any loss of life or loss of property. But then again if they didn’t want to influence the behavior of the people, they shouldn’t have used words that had that effect.
Take it as a lesson how not to fight a quack.
Slight correction, it was the Azande poison oracle I was thinking of. Ideally suited to adaptation for predicting earthquakes.
Here is the quote, BTW:
“Although that meeting was followed by a press conference, it was actually an interview given before the meeting—by one of the indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department—that has gained particular notoriety. He told a television journalist that the tremors posed “no danger” and that “the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.”” http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/05/earthquake-experts-finally-testi.html
Unfortunately, Orac, when you decide to comment in snarky fashion on a subject you have no understanding about, you make a fool of yourself. The reports on this case appear to be highly misleading. I suggest that you read Prof. Roger Pielke ‘s blog (for a scientist’s perspective) and Prof. Kenneth Anderson’s blog post (for a law professor’s perspective).
In Italian Court Convicts Scientists for Failing to Warn of 2009 Quake (Updated), by Kenneth Anderson (Oct. 23, 2012),
http://www.volokh.com/2012/10/23/italian-court-convicts-scientists-for-failing-to-warn-of-2009-quake/#disqus_thread , he quotes Prof. Pielke, who is quoting an article from Science:
“[A]s the trial unfolded here over the past year, a more complex picture has emerged. Prosecutors didn’t charge commission members with failing to predict the earthquake but with conducting a hasty, superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete, falsely reassuring findings to the public. They have argued in court that the many tremors that L’Aquila experienced in the preceding months did provide at least some clues about a heightened risk. Meanwhile, a recorded telephone conversation made public halfway through the trial has suggested that the commission was convened with the explicit goal of reassuring the public and raised the question of whether the scientists were used—or allowed themselves to be used—to bring calm to a jittery town.”
The Italian criminal justice system is very, very different from the US’s. Many matters are handled in the criminal courts in Italy that in the US would be handled as tort suits for damages (if at all — however, US federal and states criminal laws are greatly expanding what is criminalized so the US may catch up with Italy and the rest of Europe in that). Moreover, the procedures are completely different. If you followed it, you may recall that the “appeal hearing” of Amanda Knox’s conviction look like a re-trial. The appellate judges called and questioned witnesses, subpoenaed evidence, and made independent evaluations and findings of fact.
A good scientist (or investigator or attorney) knows to find out what the facts really are before making conclusions. Even the little that Profs. Pielke and Anderson have reported indicate that rushing to judgment here may resemble rushing like lemmings.
It seems to me, in our current world population, there are far too many that expect everything that touches our lives to be an ‘all or nothing’ situation. If we can’t give 100% certainty about everything, then that particular item, service or procedure should be done away with. We are also too fond of instant gratitude, which in many cases, when it comes to science, just cannot be given. Science takes time to reveal the mysteries it holds. To expect instant results when a study is done is immature to expect instant results and many times it can take multiple studies done to corroborate the findings of the first study before anything can be reported. It is also irresponsible for any scientist to announce findings of a study in a manner that could potentially stir up a public panic *cough* Wakefield *cough*, or cause a false sense of security. I personally believe that more science needs to be taught in the primary school system, that will help to raise adults who can be critical thinkers and will better understand what science is, how it works and what it does. If that could happen, I think situations like these that have happened in the Italian courts, would not actually happen, because people would understand better. It might also lead to the downfall of alt meds and the supplement industry too. What a shame that would be, eh?
Prosecutors didn’t charge commission members with failing to predict the earthquake but with conducting a hasty, superficial risk assessment and presenting incomplete, falsely reassuring findings to the public.
How does that differ from Orac’s post?
While not endorsing wfjag’s extraordinarily polarizing characterization, I would say it is the difference between the accusation “these scientists did the best they could, but it wasn’t good enough, and they should be held responsible for the failure” and “these scientists did not do the best they could, and they should be held responsible for failing to do their best.” I haven’t looked closely enough at the charges of the Italian court to be able to say which is the more accurate characterization.
Roger Pielke Jr. is not a scientist.
Because political science is not a real science.
I don’t mean to demean the field of endeavor in the slightest, but he’s basically a policy guy.
Of course. Though I see there are places where he is highly criticized for some of his writings.
It doesn’t, at least not in any substantive way. wfjag clearly didn’t read my post very closely or didn’t care in his eagerness to fire off a few polemics.. One notes that wfjag also cites the exact same passage from the Nature article that I did as though I hadn’t mentioned it.
I find it most amusing that wfjag accuses me of making a fool of myself by leaping to conclusions without having examined the evidence, when that is exactly what he did with with his characterization of my post. Indeed, I rather suspect that he read the first part of it, skimmed the rest, and then fit it into his apparent desire to defend the prosecutors and the Italian justice system. Indeed, I’ll go one further. His entire characterization of my post is a massive straw man.
More importantly, even if everything wfjag says about the “nuances” of the case is true, it doesn’t change in the least my conclusion:
And personally I think that any laws that criminalize such mistakes will have horrific unintended consequences. Nothing wfjag has said is sufficient to make me change my mind.
You seem to support the misrepresentation of that they were sentenced for “not predicting”, but in fact, they were sentenced for *predicting*, namely low probabilities, on grounds of no more than their gut feelings. The public should be protected from such, how else are we to trust experts? Read here and in the comment section of that article:
I must say, I find this story truly perverse. I majored in geology (though I won’t lay claim to have ever been much good at it), and one of the most persistent complaints I heard from people who had worked in the field was of irresponsible developers ignoring basic safety. I once had an instructor who laughed when showing us a picture of a residential development at the bottom of an obviously unstable cliff face. Then there was an account I heard of a warning system for the area around Vesuvius, the same volcano that killed Pompeii: When a warning is issued, so I was tole, most of the people just stayed put, evidently mainly because looters were moving in as soon as evacuations occurred. Given this kind of horror story from Italy, it’s hard not to suspect that these scientists in the present case are being made scapegoats for problems that are fundamentally of the government and public readiness.
David N. Brown
@wfjag. quote: “The Italian criminal justice system is very, very different from the US’s.” unquote
Yes others pointed that out too . Education in the Swat valley differs from that in Iowa but the mere difference hardly allows a defence of shooting young women in the head. The fundamental problem IS the Italian legal system, which provides no reasoned basis for these scientists NOT to be guilty, having attempted to do their jobs in a manner that seemed to them appropriate in their professional judgement.
@ David N. Brown: Quote “it’s hard not to suspect that these scientists in the present case are being made scapegoats for problems that are fundamentally of the government and public readiness.” unquote
Scapegoating may be in play, however it is not necessary to explain the judgements, which could be arrived at simply as artefacts of the Italian legal system. Essentially someone has to be held responsible and having acted (irrespective of how reasonable/professional) the scientists have no defence given that loss occured. Rotten laws produce rotten results – of course they also support corruption.
You seem to suffer from the same problem as wfjag; i.e., that you appear not to have read what I wrote very carefully (or only skimmed it) and then attacked a straw man version of what I wrote. Either that, or you’re just being obtuse. See my comment to wfjag two comments above yours.
Oh, and I looked at your post. Any time I see someone using the word “scientism” and using phrases like “the pretend defenders of rationality,” I know right away that he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Your post did nothing to counter that impression, particularly the way you brought in class warfare and the war on drugs in a bit of a non sequitur.
Again, without endorsing either view, I think we have two different interpretations of the basis of the case competing:
a) the scientists and the official were placed on trial because acting to a reasonable professional standard wasn’t good enough;
b) the scientists and the official were placed on trial because they DID NOT act to a reasonable professional standard.
I have to say that in the case of the official, at least, b) DOES appear to have some traction. According to what I’ve seen in the news reporting, which I’ve not seen anyone dispute so far, the official got a simple prediction from the scientists which acknowledged some risk and turned around and told the public that the risk was almost non-existent, and invented his own sciencey-sounding details as to why the risk was so low, based on nothing the scientists had communicated to him. Based on that, I can’t confidently say “the case was based on a) and therefore the correct verdict should have been summary judgment in favor of all defendants.”
Earthquake prediction is far more sketchy than weather forecasting. There’s hardly any scientific basis beyond the statement that a specific fault might break or slip within fifty to a hundred years or so.
Thus the prosecutors in Italy have NO CHANCE AT ALL of proving manslaughter or murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Any jury here in the United States would render a verdict of “Not Guilty”, Most local, State and Federal judges would refuse to place a case like this on the docket.
The real “elephant in the room” is how the scientists were treated by the civil government. As I mentioned, there are chronic problems with “experts” being ignored even when they give very sound and clear advice. It seems all too plausible that, in some cases, the pros have simply been cowed in one way or another into keeping silent. Maybe it’s not the case here, but that’s the question that needs to be asked.
David N. Brown
I have a strong suspicion that this was done to draw attention away from either poor or unenforced building standards.
Not to mention local officials who regularly pressure experts to minimize threats in order to avoid “panic.” That was, in fact, the reason those scientists did what they were convicted of doing: responding to a panic caused by someone else warning of an earthquake and even setting a date (no word AFAIK on whether that prediction was accurate). That warning set off a panic and at least a few people running away, so the local government took action to soothe the people and reassure everyone that predictions like that can’t be trusted. So if anyone deserves to go to jail, it’s the local government (and of course the builders who built such crappy structures), not the scientists.
…but in fact, they were sentenced for *predicting*, namely low probabilities, on grounds of no more than their gut feelings.
…but in fact, they were sentenced for *predicting*, namely low probabilities, on grounds of no more than their gut feelings.
…that, and several centuries of records and the science of statistics. You know, science.
Two points, one having been made by someone else in passing:
There is a reason that the Anglo-American countries have held onto the right to trial by jury. The fact that judges become hardened and a bit cynical after a while, not to mention friendly with political and law enforcement authorities, is nothing new. Imagine if all the trial judges were like Scalia, and there were no juries?
Second, the idea that failure to be a competent scientist or even to do one’s best should be a crime is a little weird from the Anglo-American perspective. Suppose one or more of these scientists was a bit overly flippant, or didn’t take the matter as seriously as hindsight demands? So what? Does Italian law require that scientists also be seers? I own a hand calculator, but not a crystal ball.
Afterward: One commenter points out to me that the west coast of the US does not have buildings from 300 years ago, and this is one reason we withstand earthquakes better. This is of course entirely true. That does not mean that European governments shouldn’t think carefully about seismic retrofitting, upgrading building codes, and (this is the hard part) developing an effective and honest system of building inspection. Perhaps the Italians should think about a 20 or 40 year plan to upgrade habitations. Considering that Italy is home to some of the finest architects (and educators of architects) in the world, it may even be possible for Italy to review and flag some of their artistically and historically important buildings, churches, etc, and figure out how to protect most of the people most of the time.
Shorter version: I was walking around the top rows of the Roman era amphitheater in Verona about 10 years ago, looking out at buildings nearby. I can remember looking at one old building that obviously housed a large number of people, and saying to myself, “Wouldn’t withstand a 6.5.” I didn’t know about Italy including seismically active areas at that time.
Japan has buildings that are several centuries old. They are mostly made of wood, and include some interesting designs for quake resistance. Though some were not successful, and there has been retrofitting. (going one an exhibit I saw at a science museum, and this)
1. Playing devil’s advocate I can see that there are occasions when people would be at fault… such as government officials not issuing warnings in time despite having the means/information to do so. I’m not sure criminal conviction would be right even in this case, but I could understand why people would want some sort of action taken.
2. This seems like the government trying to use their scientists as scapegoats for not having better warning systems in place (granted that’s difficult to do) and/or better earthquake-resistant housing. Given their history with the town being destroyed numerous times, you’d think the architecture would be better; and you’d think the government would have a perfect excuse to try and avoid blame if the victims’ families came knocking.
3. This is not good for science. And I feel incredibly sorry for those convicted.
Chris: Thanks. That is very interesting. I would add that perhaps the difference lies in being able to learn from human mistakes and natural disasters. We have the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Kobe, and Oakland as lessons, and we continue to learn and to change our construction patterns. I remember reading that the mid-20th century california single-family home is fairly earthquake resistant because it is flexible, being of wood frame construction. This seems analogous to the japanese concept, although the two systems may simply be convergent evolution.
After the 1994 earthquake, there was a flurry of retrofitting which largely involved making sure that the frame of the house was strongly connected to the foundation — this consisted simply of making sure that the frame was bolted down and couldn’t slide off the concrete blocks that pass for a foundation in southern California.
There is one other point. If I am reading the stories correctly, major earthquakes seem to be spread out over 300 year intervals in Europe, particularly in the Aquila region. The Pacific rim countries see lots of earthquakes, ranging from the small day-to-day tremors of magnitude 2 or 3, and fairly strong quakes of 6 and higher fairly often. The attitude of the authorities is quite different too — we are always being warned to be prepared (have an earthquake kit, pharmaceuticals, pet supplies, etc) — and they use the term “the big one” to refer to the anticipated major quake along the San Andreas fault. In other words, the word from the USGS, from local governments, and from the universities is that we can’t predict the exact day and time, but the populace should understand that it could happen at any moment.
That being said, I can remember a recent flurry of small quakes in southern California and the official response. We were told that there was a small probability that these shocks were a precursor to a larger quake, but that there was a higher probability that they were not. In other words, Cal Tech and the USGS used language that was not appreciably different from what these Italian scientists (now convicts) are reported to have said.
I feel we must be missing something in translation here, because there is no way that “manslaughter” is an appropriate charge even if you were to accept that the scientists had understated the risk of an earthquake. Certainly nobody could ratoinally claim that the scientists were hiding their knowledge of a earthquake that was definitely going to happen.
And another thing…
David N Brown wrote:
Then there was an account I heard of a warning system for the area around Vesuvius, the same volcano that killed Pompeii: When a warning is issued, so I was tole, most of the people just stayed put, evidently mainly because looters were moving in as soon as evacuations occurred.
This highlights another problem. Evacuation, or other actions defending against a threat, are not without risks either. These risks are much less subject to probabilities, given that we are now talking about a statistical mass of people (and sometimes those real-but-intangibles like “economy” and “community”) that will really experience some measure of suffering. So evacuation (for example) at 100% probability has costs that need to be measured against an earthquake at 2% probability.
And of course the building codes – which should have been able to protect practically all those killed and injured in this only-moderately-severe earthquake – have already been mentioned. Those too have costs, but also typically benefits beyond mere earthquake resilience.
I don’t believe it is a straw-man version of the verdict, to say that they were convicted for failure to predict the quake. Saying, instead, that they were convicted for making statements that were too reassuring is, in this case, a distinction without a difference.
The court has taken issue with the scientists’ “reassuring” statements, such as the low probability that the swarm of minor quakes heralds a major quake, or that the swarm is not by itself reason to evacuate the town. But those statements are 100% accurate and reflect the best advice that the science could have given. The reason the court has taken issue with the statements is because the court believes that the advice given was bad advice. And the court believes it was bad advice only because an earthquake did in fact occur. In other words, it was bad advice only because the scientists failed to predict the quake.
Another way of looking at it: in hindsight, what action would the scientists had to have taken in order to avoid this conviction? It seems the only way to avoid the conviction would have been to have stated something like, “These swarms represent an unacceptably high risk of an impending major quake. Prudent residents should evacuate the town immediately.” However, without the ability to accurately predict quakes, the scientists would never be able to make such statements without lying.
The court’s and prosecutions’ long-winded arguments insisting that this isn’t about a failure to predict the earthquake are unconvincing. The scientists were convicted for failure to predict the quake (or for failure to lie and exaggerate the risks).
welp, i hope they weren’t interested in being able to have any warning on any future earthquakes, ever. period. after all, why in the world would any sane, right-minded scientists ever work for them again? maybe they can get a dog that can predict earthquakes? i heard that was a thing. and then when that fails they can send the dog to prison, too.
@mu: the buildings in that region of Italy are not “reinforceable”
Sadly, modern buildings (i.e., from the sixties and seventies) collapsed and killed many people; among them were a hospital, a large students’ dorm, a fancy four star hotel. Italy, like Japan and for the same reason, has laws about building in a quake-resistant way; such laws, like so many others, are systematically ignored.
[…] of the time.” But for downplaying the risk of a major event, the government employees have been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says what it takes to make a truly scientific […]
A minor quibble: I don’t write for Skeptic mag, I write for my own site Doubtfulnews.com
Skeptic syndicates our site as it is noted there, just duplicating the posts, they have NOTHING to do with the content. So, since we are always trying to get new eyeballs, a link to the original site is appreciated. Thanks.