The Risk-Monger

Like many, I am still in shock that Italian courts have handed out six-year prison sentences to the six seismologists and one official for giving inadequate advice to the residents of L’Aquila days prior to the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed 309 people on 6 April 2009. The Italian courts stated that the scientific committee underestimated the risks of the potential for a major earthquake following a series of tremors (thus not an error of science, but an error in communications). They also have to pay millions of euros in damages.

This is an outrageous precedent and I must confess I had to wait a day to write on this as I was both bewildered and too angry to keep a civil tone. For Italian officials to make scientists scapegoats for something that was far from certain (last I checked, predicting earthquakes was not an exact science) shows not only how low the sense of responsibility of Italian public officials has fallen, but also how low they believe the public perception of scientific advice has tumbled. The Risk-monger is saddened that it appears that only the scientific community is outraged at this court decision (the Avaaz campaign to give the scientists a fair trial has only garnered 384 votes of support as of 26 October 2012).

If this stupidity is not overturned on appeal, what would be the consequences? First of all, there would no longer be hope at all of getting any qualified scientific advice. Scientific panels are already struggling to get strong, unbiased academic support; if you implicate scientists for their advice and make them liable for any unintended consequences, don’t be surprised if they stay home. Scientists are not public figures – they have no obligation to advise and often do so out of a sense of civic involvement.

Furthermore, any scientists who dare to give advice (at gun point, no doubt), would likely be overly precautionary. Should there be similar tremors in Los Angeles or Tokyo, seismologists with an interest in maintaining their personal liberty would likely advise on mass evacuations. A couple well-publicised false alarms would lead to a significant loss of credibility in their advice. As with hurricane warnings, people will simply chose to ignore the experts’ advice. It would not be the first time in this blog that we see the expression: Precaution (as a principle) kills.

What happens when scientists disagree? Will they continue to debate in public if being wrong comes at a greater price than their reputation? An example: scientists were advising that it was dangerous to fly aircraft through volcanic dust clouds. After a prolonged period of flight cancellations, airlines started producing their own experts saying it was perfectly safe. If the experts were liable, then no one would come forward or take a strong position in a healthy debate. It would be left to the market to take responsibility.

Bottom line is that policymakers must take advice from scientists and lead. Yes, lead – something politicians used to do back in more courageous days. That involves taking a decision on the basis of the best available evidence (even if there is no clear consensus) and communicating it. If the advice is inadequate, then get better advisers, take precaution, or in the case of predicting earthquakes, simply accept that there is no adequate advice that could ever have been given. Charging the experts in a courtroom for your own failings is nothing more than cowardice.

Is this an indication of how lame we have become? If my weather forecaster makes a bad call and I get wet, do I now have a right to sue? If my financial adviser recommends a fund and I lose some money, should I expect him to pay me back? If I have a bad day, should I blame the astrologer? The decisions we take every day involve risks – we have to re-learn that we are responsible for the consequences of our decisions, and this must start with our leaders exemplifying this and showing some courage themselves. Sometimes in risk taking, we get things wrong.

As the Risk-monger relishes in the counter-intuitive, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to see how the Italian court decision could be played out on other decisions. It is indeed a tragedy that 309 people had died in L’Aquila, but that is about the same number as those, mostly children, who died today in Uganda from malaria (and around 3000 died today across Africa from this preventable disease). Perhaps the courts should go after those well-intentioned advisers who campaigned to ban DDT – manslaughter would be an understatement for the millions of sacrificed children. What about NGOs like WWF who advised policymakers to promote biofuels? Should they spend some of their hundreds of millions in cash reserves compensating those who had lost their livelihoods in the great African land grab? Perhaps Greenpeace, after three decades of campaigning to ban chlorine, should undergo litigation for being a menace to humanity.

Hmm, I am beginning to see some logic to this court decision after all!


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  1. You are rightly built up your opinion by reading the press or heard some TV comments; as often happens writers hype on the news to entice readers.
    I suggest that we wait for the sentence official papers before formulating a judgement.
    I heard this morning that scientists gave the correct info to the head of “protezione civile” (population’s protection authority) and Mr. Bertolaso (the head) suggested or recommended to the scientific team to conceal the truth…. “not to cause an uncontrolled civil disorder” but the whole matter is still in the process of being verified.

    1. Thanks Elio. As others mentioned as well, it is a crime of communications, not of science (their advice did not rule out the possibility of a major earthquake – usually scientific committees are very careful not to rule anything out). The more I reflect on this, the more wrong it seems. If the head of the civil protection authority is held, and maybe his motivation was more for civil order than public safety, why are the six seismologists in jail? Even the prosecutor was surprised by the judge’s ruling. We are judging people on hindsight? Should we judge officials who over-react on false alarms in the same manner (for eroding public trust)? This was a tragedy … in trying to blame the experts, the Italian officials are trying to portray it not as a tragedy but as a scandal. That, in itself, is scandalous.

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