Much to be learned from the L'Aquila tragedy

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Scapegoating scientists for their prediction on improbability of 2009 earthquake is wrong, writes JOHN McCLOSKEY

ITALIAN SCIENTISTS have been jailed and ordered personally to pay €7.8 million in compensation for giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information before the L’Aquila earthquake that killed 309 people in 2009.

This verdict undermines science’s ability to influence disaster risk reduction (DRR) globally and needs careful consideration by us all.

The prosecution said the scientists’ assurances that there was little danger had endangered the population, encouraging them to sleep in their houses rather than outside.

The key question is: was the scientific conclusion reasonable? If so, then the scientists might be guilty of inappropriate or even careless communication but surely they do not deserve such severe punishment?

Was the conclusion reasonable? Any other conclusion would have been unsupportable. The best statistical analysis of the sequence suggests the change in probability of having a large earthquake as a result of the increased seismicity was about 0.1 per cent.

A person would, on average, have to sleep out 1,000 nights to gain any benefit, a course few would follow; would you respond to the 1,000th cry of “wolf”?

The scientists in this case made a correct call that an earthquake was unlikely given the evidence and having arrived at this conclusion, poor communication becomes more understandable.

The scientists were also criticised for not discussing the vulnerability of people who lived in old or poorly constructed buildings. Why was this discussion left to scientists in a short public meeting at the moment of crisis? Where was the planning that should be central to preparation in earthquake-prone regions? L’Aquila was not prepared for earthquakes and someone is to blame; that someone is not a scientist.

Other culpable bodies are not implicated. Italian geophysicists, two of them convicted, have identified more than 4,000 particularly vulnerable Italian buildings, yet little has been done with this information. This was the real killer in L’Aquila.

Why have the local authorities not been taken to task on this issue? Why is it that despite high-quality building codes, some new buildings collapsed? Who is being held to account for these?

Perhaps worst of all, judge Marco Billi has probably not only destroyed the lives of these men but may be responsible for those who will die because scientists have deserted DRR for fear of similar arbitrary justice.

The L’Aquila tragedy supplies three important lessons.

Firstly, citizens need targeted education to understand better the risks associated with their environment. Secondly, scientists who talk to the public about earthquakes need to be thoroughly trained in communicating uncertain messages.

Finally, science is only the first, though vital, step in disaster risk reduction.

Planning and preparation that is properly co-ordinated and resourced by government and that involves scientists as advisers is the only way to mitigate the worst impacts of future disasters.

Had scientists, well-trained in the communication of sensitive and uncertain information, been talking to people who understood the seismic hazard of their area and the nuances of probabilistic forecasting, the L’Aquila earthquake would have killed many fewer people.

And there would have been no L’Aquila earthquake trial.


John McCloskey is professor of geophysics at the University of Ulster and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

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