October 25, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

The impact of earthquakes on making science public

Many articles have been written about the case of three seismologists, two engineers, a volcanologist and a public official who have been sentenced to be jailed for six years on 22 October in L’Aquila, Italy (although this sentence may be reduced on appeal).  These members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were found guilty of  manslaughter for ‘falsely’ reassuring or ‘over’-reassuring people in the Italian town of L’Aquila about the likelihood of a major earthquake at the end of March 2009. Soon after the announcement, on 6 April,  the town was struck by a major earthquake and more than 300 people died. Prosecutors and victims‘ relatives claimed that 29 of those who died would have left their houses if they hadn’t felt reassured by the authorities and that these lives could therefore have been saved.

Scientists, scientific organisations and politicians have protested against this verdict by an Italian judge. Many stress that predicting earthquakes is near-impossible; some stress that this was not the issue but that being overly reassuring was.

In the context of the ‘Making Science Public’ project this verdict poses many questions and raises many issues, mainly around science, risk and uncertainty communication, the role of scientists in public policy, the role of scientists working for government advisory services, the division of labour between advice providers and advice communicators and many more. I shall highlight some of these issues here in a cursory fashion, but will focus on the impact of this case on impact, (openness) and the communication of uncertainty.

This jail sentence has shaken the scientific community (where many work as scientific advisors, for various reasons). Some see it as a return to a medieval witch hunt and the dark ages, some as returning to the days of Galileo’s trial. Some fear that it will lead to more lives being lost, as seismologists will no longer work in Italy or, indeed, for the Italian state, and as risk communication will be compromised (many more earthquake warnings might be issued in the future, just to be on the safe side, for example). Many worry that it will deter scientists, at least in Italy, to engage with the state as scientific advisors, not only with relation to earthquakes. Some, like the UK’s Royal Society and the US’s National Academy of Sciences, see a danger in this verdict becoming a legal precedent which, “could lead to a situation in which scientists will be afraid to give expert opinion for fear of prosecution or reprisal” (others think this is less likely, at least in countries other than Italy).

In general, however, after this verdict, many scientists, natural and social, are beginning to rethink what it means to give scientific advice, what it means to communicate science, uncertainty and risk, in short, what it means to make science public, especially in high-risk situations and in situations of public confusion about risk.


One issue that has not yet been discussed is the impact that this verdict may have on what we here in the UK call the ‘impact agenda’, A few days ago, Patrick Dunleavy asked us in his advice blog on how to achieve impact in the current REF exercise: “Did your contacts or involvement continue over a period of time? Can you show that your impact was not a one-off, but something that lead to continuous consultation, advice-giving or involvement? Did the research lead (even indirectly) to consultancy or contracts or other applied work? Did it perhaps lead to an appointment to a government or professional advisory committee?”

In the context of the l’Aquila verdict academics writing ‘pathways to impact’ will from now on have (to put it somewhat dramatically) the spectre of a prison sentence hanging over the end of the path, the point where impact is really achieved or achieved in the so-called ‘real world’. Coming forward to give (albeit in this instance, in hindsight, bad) scientific advice may not rank so highly anymore in the scramble for impact. We may have to think long and hard about whether influencing government policy is necessarily a ‘good thing’, that is, we have to think about the ethics of impact.


Another hot issue at the moment is openness (open source, open access, open data, and, of course, greater openness about uncertainty etc.). What will this verdict mean for openness, most importantly for openness about uncertainty?


In an article entitled ‘A disaster that science brought upon itself’, Brendon O’Neill of spiked-online makes one remark that I think deserves further thought: “The trial effectively criminalised uncertainty, with the prosecution arguing that the men’s information about the earthquake was ‘generic and ineffective’ and ‘incomplete, imprecise and contradictory’.”

Scientists are generally exhorted to be honest about uncertainties. This is difficult in situations where certainty is what people expect to hear. So how do you navigate between the Scylla of being open about uncertainty and the Charybdis of public and political expectations regarding pronouncements of certainty, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, between the rock of scare mongering and the hard place of ‘complacency mongering‘?

In August last year, Peter Sandman and Jody Lanard listed some emerging issues on their risk/uncertainty communication website, amongst them the German E. coli outbreak and the l’Aquila trial. They then went on to dissect issues around failures in risk and uncertainty communication with relating to the German E. coli outbreak. However, the advice they give about communicating uncertainty is well worth reading by anybody who in the future still wants to communicate about risk and uncertainty in any situation:

“If you’re going to communicate about risk, you will need the courage to talk when your information is uncertain. And you will need the skill to express uncertainty in ways that guide your audience’s decisions and minimize the cost (to you and your audience both) if you turn out mistaken. […] And the soul of risk communication is explaining uncertainty humanly, empathically, and respectfully, in a way that shows you share the universal yearning for a certainty you are unable to provide.”

But will we still have the courage?

Some sound advice for communicators

Perhaps — if we follow some of the advice provided by David Spiegelhalter. Here are the personal lessons he learned from this episode:

“1. Never to give advice unless I am confident that the findings will be communicated either by myself or a trusted professional source, using a pre-determined plan and appropriate, carefully chosen language that acknowledges uncertainty and does not either prematurely reassure or induce unreasonable concern. [A tall order, I have to confess!, BN]

2. Not to engage in informal communication using social media on that issue.

3. Ensure proper indemnity arrangements are in place. Apparently this is true for official government advisors, but in my experience I have found that establishing advisors’ legal position was not a high priority for the people asking for advice. And indemnity could not be taken for granted when advising agencies such as NHS Trusts (not being an NHS employee). Of course, even in the UK one would not be covered for criminal prosecutions such as the one on Italy.”

This is sound advice and at least provides some signposts of how scientists and science communicators can move forward post-L’Aquila in making science public and regaining public trust. More lessons for  earthquake forecasting and risk communication will surely still be learned from this episode.

Added on 28 October, 2012: One of the most detailed accounts of the earthquake and its implications for risk communication from 2011 (HT @Stephen_Curry)

Added on 17 January, 2013: a longer blog post by myself on the issue in I, Science

Added on 19 February, 2013 good article on  communicating uncertainty and risk by Helene Joffe

Added on 17 August, 2013 great article by David Wolman for Matter (HT @jameswilsdon)

Added on 21 October, 2014 academic article on this whole affair by Michael Yeo

Added on 10 November, 2014: Seismologists cleared of manslaughter:

Added on 13 August, 2020: An article on science and policy relating to l’Aquila by Frederico Brandmayr


Image: Wikipedia Commons

Posted in riskScienceScience and GovernmentScience CommunicationTrustUncertainty