Friday, March 16, 2012

Indictment of seismologists: Has Italy gone too far?

Ernest Dempsey — Last month, the question of accountability in our knowledge system came to public attention in the interesting case of a tragedy that shook Italy in 2009. That year, a panel of seismologists and civil servants in the country concluded at the end of a meeting that the Abruzzo region of Italy was safe from any major earthquake and its citizens should “relax with a glass of wine” (quoted in Popular Science, February 2012).

Within a week, L’Aquila city in the same region saw 300 people dead in a disastrous quake that struck the region all of a sudden. The public in the country was outraged and demanded an investigation into the ‘knowledgeable’ message of the panelists to the public—a case of misleading the public into inaction and leading to the loss of lives that could possibly have been avoided. Last month, after nearly two years, a court in Italy charged the concerned panelists, including the scientists, with manslaughter. If convicted, those under trial may face up to 15 years in prison.

The indictment of the seismologists and a government official for failing to save people, or carelessly preventing them from saving themselves, equating manslaughter has incurred conflicting responses from scientists and others watching the matter. There are academicians like Thomas H. Jordan who believe that the scientists gave a scientifically correct statement which was conveyed to the public in wrong, unscientific words; and thus there is no merit in prosecuting these scientists, even though their “failure to highlight the hazard may be regrettable”. On the other hand, we have senior seismologists like Lalliana Mualchin of California who testified against the accused scientists in the hearing that resulted in their indictment. Mualchin was open in his criticism and would not sign a letter of support signed by thousands of scientists in favor of the indicted seismologists. Mualchin held the scientists responsible for taking the wrong approach to risk prevention in case of seismic disasters.

Given the above situation, the question bothering both a scientist/academician and a neutral observer is whether the Italian court taken the matter too far by hearing the case like a murder trial. Perhaps yes; but then, is it not a matter of putting life (not a single life here, but a shocking 300 lives) at risk for failing to predict the disaster properly?

For some reason, earth scientists in general and seismologists in particular seem to have been hiding behind the cloud of uncertainty that still covers them from hard-core accountability including incrimination. Doctors risking the lives of patients are frequently tried legally for criminal negligence; and is that for the reason that we believe our medical knowledge is more sharply defined and its categories of success and failure for a practitioner are distinctive—if you can’t place a doctor in one, you can place them in the other.

This is not the case with seismology. The whole discipline has a blanket excuse of ‘no certainty’ when it comes to prediction of an earthquake. They never come even close to answering whether any particular region will be shaken by a quake of a particular intensity, let alone predict the exact time in terms of days when ‘predicting something’ (if anything at all). But if such prediction has never been possible with accuracy, why do we have all these seismologists working as professional scientists, responsible for predicting something which their very discipline denies as a scientifically predictable possibility?

The Italian court’s decision to indict the scientists has opened a case in history of science that makes us realize what value to place on the applicability of disciplines like seismology that lie in shadow of uncertainty about their fundamental concepts. Such disciplines have shirked the ethical obligations of strict accountability that apply to other fields of science that impact public safety directly. Here, we see “probabilities”—more a matter of opinion than objectively verifiable scientific variables that unambiguously translate into “yes” or “no” options and can be held responsible if placed in the wrong category. The recent case of the indictment of seismologists in Italy can therefore be seen as a cry for making fields like seismology more scientific in terms of their core concepts and applicability to public good.