As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is currently barreling up the east coast and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find something to watch on television without being interrupted by some Ollie Williams wannabe telling me “It’s gon’ rain!” Alright already, I get it. I’ll go stock up on some Chunky™ Soup.
With current advancements in science and weather prediction we tend to take it for granted that we will be promptly alerted to any potential natural disasters headed our way. Nevertheless, in 2009 an earthquake struck central Italy without warning and killed over 300 people. This past Monday, October 22, an Italian court convicted seven experts of manslaughter who were deemed responsible for failing to give that warning. The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological and disaster experts, were sentenced to six years in prison. However, convictions in Italy aren’t definitive until after at least one appeal, so it was unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.
“It’s a sad day for science,” said seismologist Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. “It’s unsettling.” Earthquake experts around the globe denounced the convictions claiming it was practically impossible for anyone to have predicted the 6.3-magnitude killer.
“The trial began in September 2011 in the Apennine town of L’Aquila, whose devastated historic center is still largely deserted. The defendants were accused of giving ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory information’ about whether small tremors felt by L’Aquila residents in the weeks and months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have been grounds for a warning.” Prosecutors in the case argued that the L’Aquila disaster was “tantamount to ‘monumental negligence’” and likened the devastation to the damage in New Orleans resulting from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Relatives for some of the victims of the quake said they felt “justice had been done” and the defendants deserved their punishment for “taking their job lightly.” The scientific community is fighting back, however, “condemn[ing] the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.” Geologist Brooks Hanson explained, “There are swarms of seismic activity regularly in Italy and most do not end up causing dangerous earthquakes … if seismologists had to warn of a quake with every series of tremors, there would be too many false alarms and panic.” On the other hand, some experts are arguing that the trial had nothing to do with whether scientists can accurately predict earthquakes. Instead, the trial was about communicating risk to the public.
Which leaves the question, is it better for society to get a possibly premature cautioning by experts or is it better for the experts to wait until they are absolutely sure of an imminent disaster? Does the risk of unnecessary public panic outweigh the risk of a delayed warning? Who should make that decision? Finally, should society be able to hold scientists, seismologists, meteorologists, etc. criminally liable for false, inaccurate, or missing predictions?
SOURCE: Seven Experts Convicted for Not Warning of Earthquake Risk
For sure, it would be better to have false warnings about earthquakes, or any natural disaster for that matter, rather than no warning at all. This being said, however, we still must consider what the geologist Brooks Hanson said about too many warnings causing “too many false alarms and panic.” At first, I could see panic in the public being a problem. But if false warnings were to become too common, the exact opposite effect, that is, no preparedness by the public in response to warnings, could be a much more devastating issue. It is foolish to hold scientists responsible in any way—morally, or in criminal or civil court—for being unable to predict when a string of false positives eventually becomes a true positive.
However, perhaps there should be a better way to communicate such risks to the public. If say, a scientist could give an earthquake a certain percentage of a chance of actually occurring, and then communicate that chance to the public (probably via some government agency), there may be a basis for a better warning system somewhere between too many false warnings and no warning at all.
The earthquake that occurred in Italy was awfully tragic. I feel for all those who lost loved ones and their homes. Despite how technologically advanced our civilization may be, we are sometimes still no match for nature. We have seismologists, meteorologists, and other scientists to prepare us for the worst, but nature is still by no means predictable. I think it is wrong to charge these scientists for providing ‘inexact’ information. If we fired every weather reporter who inexactly predicted the weather, we would not have any weather reporters. I can only imagine how terrible these scientists already felt when they were unable to warn the Italians in this region. Punishing them seems wrong. Scientists go unnoticed when they accurately predict the climate, or warn society of a pending natural disaster, because it is their job and it is what we expect them to do. They make a (drastically horrible albeit) mistake, and we look to imprison them? Due to the unpredictability of natural disasters, I think this is wrong.
To address Joe’s questions, of course it is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with natural catastrophes. However, it would not be feasible to evacuate every town and inundate the people with fear on the account of any seismic activity. Natural disasters happen.
In the wake of a natural disaster we should be uniting to help one another, not blaming one another. Imagine how frequently scientists would overreact, or then again maybe not even want to be scientists if they could be criminally charged every time Mother Nature fooled them? We need scientists to actively pursue their work to better our civilization, and to learn from mistakes to better prepare for the future.
I live by the policy of rather being safe than sorry…I tend to be a little worrisome. I think this policy should apply in the context of warning people about possible disasters. In order to avoid this possible frenzy that Mr. Verga discusses, experts should be honest with the public. Tell them the circumstances of the situation and what their opinion is of the seriousness of the disaster, where it could occur, etc… I believe this informational method may help cure the effects of false warnings but experts would need to rely on the media to deliver the news without “blowing up” the story. If it is a definite serious disaster, the media should feel free to have a field day with alerts and warnings but if it is not, it is important the media informs without sensationalizing.
Also, scientists and other experts should not be held legally liable for false, inaccurate or missing predictions. I believe this would do more harm than good. Society does not want experts afraid to warn of disasters because they could face serious criminal or civil charges. The scientific field would provide enough punishment to these scientists for their mistakes. Their careers and reputations going forward are tarnished. They will probably lose their positions and other scientists and organizations would be skeptical in their work going forward.