The Risks of Trusting Experts

I'm not sure what to think about this story:

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

These were all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, and some of Italy's most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts. Basically, the problem was that they failed to hedge their bets against the earthquake. In a press conference just before the earthquake, they incorrectly assured locals that there was no danger. This, according to the court, was equivalent to manslaughter.

No, it doesn't make any sense.

David Rothery, of the UK's Open University, said earthquakes were "inherently unpredictable".

"The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game," he said.

Even the defendants were confused:

Another, Enzo Boschi, described himself as "dejected" and "desperate" after the verdict was read.

"I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of."

I do. He was convicted because the public wanted revenge -- and the scientists were their most obvious targets.

Needless to say, this is having a chilling effect on scientists talking to the public. Enzo Boschi, president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Rome, said: "When people, when journalists, asked my opinion about things, I used to tell them, but no more. Scientists have to shut up." Also, as part of their conviction, those scientists are prohibited from ever holding public office again.

From a security perspective, this seems like the worst possible outcome. The last thing we want of our experts is for them to refuse to give us the benefits of their expertise.

To be fair, the verdict isn't final. There are always appeals in Italy, and at least one level of appeal is certain in this case. Everything might be overturned, but I'm sure the chilling effect will remain, regardless.

As someone who constantly makes predictions about security that could potentially affect the livelihood and lives of those who listen to them, this really made me stop and think. Could I be arrested, or sued, for telling people that this particular security product is effective when in fact it is not? I am forever minimizing the risks of terrorism in general and airplane terrorism in particular. Sooner or later, there will be another terrorist event. Will that make me guilty of manslaughter as well? Italy is a long way away, but everything I write on the Internet reaches there.

Oddly enough, there is a large of amount of case law in this area, with weathermen as the target. This two-part article, "Bad Weather? Then Sue the Weatherman," is fascinating.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Here is an article in "New Scientist" that gives the prosecutor's side of things. According to the prosecutor, this case was not about prediction. It was about communication. It wasn't about the odds of the quake, it was about how those odds were communicated to the public.

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 6:27 AM • 58 Comments

Comments

wiredogOctober 25, 2012 6:38 AM

Italy is a long way away, but everything I write on the Internet reaches there.
Fortunately you live in the US which isn't a member of the ICC (although Romney has recently started supporting it), and we tend not to allow extradition for things which aren't crimes in the US.

And, yes, there are some severe double-standards here.

TomOctober 25, 2012 7:05 AM

I don't think its as cut-and-dried as that. It's not about experts getting a forecast wrong, its about experts using their position to rubbish (and attempt to silence) someone who disagreed with them and questioned their expertise. A scientist at the national nuclear research facility made a prediction that a major earthquake was due in L'Aquila, saying that the 'experts' - those with formal qualifications in the field - were wrong. The experts convened a press conference to rubbish his forecast. It's not as simple as suing the weatherman because he got the forecast wrong - the experts tried to use their position to silence someone they disagreed about the science with.

Of course, the amateur turned out to be right, with devastating consequences. That may have been co-incidence, but there is little doubt that the experts inappropriately played down the likelihood of an earthquake, not on the basis of the science but in an attempt to preserve their standing as experts. In the course of doing that, they assured the public that they should relax about the earthquake risk - six days before a major quake.

Whether that amounts to manslaughter is another question, of course. It seems doubtful to me. What they did was certainly unethical, but blaming deaths on them seems to be going a bit too far. It seems to me more a firing offence than a go-to-gaol offence.

And, @wiredog - too bad the US has demanded the right to extradite citizens of other countries for "crimes" which are not crimes in the jurisdiction where they were "committed", on minimal evidence.

WilsonOctober 25, 2012 7:07 AM

Actually the prosecutor said they failed to do their duty (as "Big Risks Commission", officially set on the issue) of analyzing risks & vulnerabilities and make a fair picture of situation (it was very bad, because of bad preparation and ill-made buildings in a seismic area. There were obviously no reason for predict a big earthquake).
They make instead a lot of "you cant predict earthquake" (true, but not the point) speech (and even a few "there will be no earthquake" ones), so some people stop to sleep in cars, go back to houses and died there.

So you have to be afraid to be sued only if you are asked to do your professional answer to "what my happens to my if someone steal my every-use and very long password and what can I do about it in the next 5 minutes?", you accept and answer "it's very long and random, so they can't force-brute it" AND they where lucky and ruined the life of your costumer (it's still unfair, but not SO unfair).

I've find a English written post with a few details: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/...

MichaelOctober 25, 2012 7:13 AM

Sure, those scientists could appeal against the conviction, but it would be a long, drawn-out process, and I fear the precedent has already been set in that country now.
It's conceivable the same thing could happen to those held to be 'cyber experts', given the extent lives already depend on the Internet, but I doubt it. For a start, roughly 70% (ballpark figure) of infosec professionals are management and policy people. I'd say a minority are competent enough (i.e. understand the technologies at all layers of the OSI model) to provide a technical analysis or prediction for a given network.

PJOctober 25, 2012 7:14 AM

Cue Italian scientists predicting earthquakes every day of the week to cover their asses.

wilsonOctober 25, 2012 7:15 AM

@Tom: only a detail it's wrong: "The experts convened a press conference to rubbish his forecast."
All the thing was made by the italian Civil Protection Department who summoned this official commission (for the reasons you attributed to "the esperts", at least many people here think so).

Snarki, child of LokiOctober 25, 2012 7:23 AM

With all the above, yes, and it's more complicated than that.

The seismologists made clear in their reports that they could not predict an earthquake, and that the micro-quake swarm might or might not be a precursor. In typical scientific cautious language.

A NON-seismologist then transmitted his own take on the seismologists report, leaving out all the caveats, just a "don't worry, no risk".

The seismologists were convicted for NOT publicly beating down the non-seismologist (a public safety official) for misrepresentation.

This really shows the need for a scientific "stand your ground" law.

tobias3October 25, 2012 7:32 AM

This has nothing to do with the ICC, which is only for severe crimes against humanity and it is a bad example the US is setting by not recognizing the authority of that court.
As a matter of fact Italy and the US do have an extradition treaty, but it has to be a offence in both countries for it to come into effect.

The affair is really annoying. Most people misinterpret probabilities and it seems judges misinterpret them as well.
Then good journalists strive to make you say definite things (better headlines) and are quite good at it, especially if you are a hapless scientist and not a politician.

ChrisOctober 25, 2012 8:02 AM

Well....seems like the weather guy is next up on the block after the next lightning strike eh?

AlanSOctober 25, 2012 8:11 AM

Brought to you by the same judicial system that brought you the Amanda Knox witch trial last year.


LiamOctober 25, 2012 8:18 AM

"I don't think its as cut-and-dried as that. It's not about experts getting a forecast wrong, its about experts using their position to rubbish (and attempt to silence) someone who disagreed with them and questioned their expertise. A scientist at the national nuclear research facility made a prediction that a major earthquake was due in L'Aquila, saying that the 'experts' - those with formal qualifications in the field - were wrong. The experts convened a press conference to rubbish his forecast. It's not as simple as suing the weatherman because he got the forecast wrong - the experts tried to use their position to silence someone they disagreed about the science with.
Of course, the amateur turned out to be right, with devastating consequences. That may have been co-incidence, but there is little doubt that the experts inappropriately played down the likelihood of an earthquake, not on the basis of the science but in an attempt to preserve their standing as experts. In the course of doing that, they assured the public that they should relax about the earthquake risk - six days before a major quake."

A *Lab Tech* at the national nuclear research facility made the prediction.

This obviously means that the seismologists needed to defer their judgement to the lab tech in a tangentially related field, who's jumping around like chicken little predicting quakes left, right and centre. This lab tech, by the way, had been BANNED from making public predictions because he had incited panic in the past by running around with a loudspeaker predicting earthquakes that didn't come.


FFSOctober 25, 2012 8:34 AM

Embrace the insanity, and arrest the 'NW-SE trending normal' fault for murder.

Physicists going to prison for bad predictions and not psychics, really? I mean REALLY?

Stop the planet, I want to get off.

ChristianOctober 25, 2012 8:40 AM

What Snarki, child of Loki said.
The results of the scientists were misreported and the scientists didn't give off alerts for that misreporting.

Its usual even for diffamation if you don't fight against it you will have a bad stand fighting it in the future. This is just a more extreme case.

The question is: do you as scientist expect that your results get correctly reported in public media?

Snarki, child of LokiOctober 25, 2012 8:52 AM

@Christian: "The question is: do you as scientist expect that your results get correctly reported in public media?"

Ask a few, I think you'll find that most scientists would be AMAZED if their results were reported accurately, because they've never seen it happen before.

But I would be greatly in favor of a law that gave (for example) economists the right to beat the shit out of politicians that misrepresent their work. No chance of such a thing ever passing, of course.

YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR SOMEONE ELSE'S WORDS.

It's a "freedom of speech" thing.

WilsonOctober 25, 2012 9:05 AM

AFAIK they are accused not of "fail to predicted the earthquake", but to "fail to point out they knew that 555 buildings out of 752 where not fit to a seismic area and other not so reassuring fact".
I think this is a good point and that it should be punished (maybe by firing the commission member), but that it have not caused the 32 death, so there is no manslaughter.
ps: I think that multiple manslaughter is a offence in the USA, also ;)

jwOctober 25, 2012 9:17 AM

How many times have we heard the "experts rejects data that disagrees with his theory, endangers the world, world saved by outsider/non-expert" plot device? It's so cliche.

Antonio RodriguezOctober 25, 2012 9:24 AM

If we were to hold politicians to those same standards, what proportion would remain out of jail?

I understand it to be a case of "crying wolf" on one side, and "the band continued playing" on the other. Nothing was done properly by anyone involved, but only a small subset is held responsible, and in my view, it's the wrong subset.

aaawwwOctober 25, 2012 9:29 AM

actual italian here. my view may be biased, -or- may be closer to the facts :P

there are wiretaps of the commission leader asking them to patch the report to make it look reassuring.

this had a ripple effect: people wasn't ready to cope with the quake. first responders were removed from the territory (cost cutting). etc.

now, thee is another side to the question: are earthquake unpredictable?
I believe so. scientist all over the world believe so.

everyone there seems to believe it. so why the report stated otherwise? that there were low risks for big activities?

now, may I remind you these were not ordinary scientists; they were part of a tasks force instituted to guide the political actions over natural disasters. they *had* responsibility. they *choose* the responsibility.

too easy to say now that quakes are unpredictable: they didn't say unpredictable, they said low risk.

AlessandroOctober 25, 2012 9:48 AM

I am greatly concerned by this news, so lets explains some things:

* @Tom: only a detail it's wrong: "The experts convened a press conference to rubbish his forecast." Not only wrong, but terribly misleading, this amateur "Giampaolo Giuliani" can be considered a fear monger in the best cases, first his radon analysis/animal behavior are invalid methods with no true predictive power (not better than random chance) as explained by the seismic community before and after this earthquake as you can see in this PDF paper over L'Aquina incident.

* His "warning" was for March 29 (one week before the event) for the the city of Sulmona (this city suffer NO damage for the quakes of L'Aquina incident), 50km from L'Aquila, would cover an earthquake "disastrous" scheduled for the afternoon of March 29 (which did not happen), as you may know, those false alarms cause great public concern/panic and are expensive, for this the gag orden was emited.

* On March 30 the biggest foreshock occur in the surrounding Abruzzo region, culminating in this magnitude-4.0 quake (very very minor in seismic standarts), The meeting was convened by the service to ask the scientists whether a major earthquake was on its way.

quotin some news reports:

Immediately after that meeting, De Bernardinis and Barberi, acting president of the committee, held a press conference in L'Aquila, where De Bernardinis told reporters that "the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable". No other members of the committee were at the press conference.

...snip...

"These are the only sensible statements any scientist could make at that point," says Susan Hough, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey in Pasadena, California. But Hough does disagree with some of the things said at the press conference. "The idea that minor earthquakes release energy and thus make things better is a common misperception. But seismologists know it's not true," she says. "I doubt any scientist could have said that."

...snip...

De Bernardinis, Boschi and Selvaggi said that they were unable to comment on the case because of the ongoing investigation. Before the indictment, Boschi had criticized the Civil Protection Agency's handling of the 31 March meeting. "Such a meeting", he stated in a letter on 16 September 2009 to Guido Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Agency, "should have lasted hours if the Civil Protection Agency really wanted to consider all the data. Instead it only lasted one hour, and it was not followed by a joint statement but by a press conference about which we were not informed."


reference here emphasis mine.

* The earthquake of the 6 April 2009 hit the city of L'Aquila and the story is served.

Skylar GraikaOctober 25, 2012 10:10 AM

This is very interesting indeed. The first thing that came to my mind was religion. Science has developed through trial and error, and there will always be uncertainty. I'm curious...would the major religions around the world be held accountable, if for example, aliens were discovered or the "big bang" could be confirmed.

Experts and public officials are in place for a reason - the public needs the feel reassured. Whether it be reassurance related to disaster, humanity, or society.

The point of this reply is that we accept the opinions from these experts not because we have to, on the contrary, we desire relief...relief from being reassured by someone who portrays both confidence and integrity in a given expertise. Don't blame the experts when something goes wrong, because rarely do they receive a thanks when they are right.

Stephen PolleiOctober 25, 2012 10:10 AM

I am in the middle of reading The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—but Some Don't and they mention the Earthquake in L'Aquila.

"Never Mind that Giuliani had not actually predicted the earthquake. His prediction had been very specific: Sulmona, not L'Aquila, was at greater risk, and the earthquake would come in March rather than April. In fact he had suggested to a local newspaper that the danger had passed ."

Also his theory has implausible elements not just radon gas, but the planet Venus.

WilsonOctober 25, 2012 10:26 AM

Giuliani was a fraud and was right to make it clear.
The problem is that the situation was very dangerous beyond his foolish "prediction": the area was highly seismic, the structures were bad (and some were weakened by previous little quakes) and the people was scared, tired and not prepared.

Expert and officials knew it all and they preferred to make that meeting-for-the-media and go into the will-it-happens-or-not debate, instead of say: "the situation is dangerous and since a long time ago, we must try to prepare ourself before a big one comes".

ps: for not italians: be aware that the power of the earthquake was not so high, compared to what they have in Japan or California

Dena ShunraOctober 25, 2012 10:31 AM

So, let me get this straight: the Italian justice system repeatedly finds Berlusconi's conduct fine and dandy, but sentences geologists & seismologists to prison for failing to predict an earthquake.

Not only do I see retribution, as Bruce suggests, but a thoroughly broken system.

vwmOctober 25, 2012 10:33 AM

@aaawww: the fact that an Earthquake did happen is not contradicting the statement that there has been a "low risk".

derpOctober 25, 2012 11:02 AM

Italy has a very long history of jailing scientists, banishing them or executions. Totally unsurprised in that country you can still serve life in prison for insulting the vatican

WilsonOctober 25, 2012 11:15 AM

@vwm: true, but the reports various experts made in the previous few years contradicted it very well:
1) One of the most active zone in Italy
2) 555 out of 752 building in L'Aquila not fit to a big earthquake
3) prediction of 4.000 – 14.500 victims in case of repeat of maximum historical earthquake in the area
4) Some building showing signs of damage from the minor quakes
This is no "low risk", this is a medium-high risk ignored for a too long time (not a particularly urgent one, but not low).

gianlucaOctober 25, 2012 11:47 AM

@derp: please be assured that there is no way even in Italy that "insulting the vatican" would result in serving life (actually, most "insults to religion" would be simply fined with no time served in prison) :-)

Petréa MitchellOctober 25, 2012 12:02 PM

In addition to the blog post Wilson linked to, here's an editorial in New Scientist also calling on the scientific community to see this as a lesson about poor communication. There have been a few others, but those two are the highest-profile statements I've seen so far.

Nacnud NosmohtOctober 25, 2012 12:06 PM

@aaawww wrote: "too easy to say now that quakes are unpredictable: they didn't say unpredictable, they said low risk."

Could you explain why you think "low risk" and "unpredictable" are not totally consistent? Why can't something be unpredictable and at the same time be considered a low risk? For example, lightning strikes are unpredictable. But if there are no clouds in the sky, I can conclude that the risk is low. And if a thunderstorm forms suddenly and you get hit by lightning, that doesn't mean I was wrong, does it?

John David GaltOctober 25, 2012 2:00 PM

Low risk doesn't mean no risk.

This is as bad as witch trials. If Italy's government or populace allow this to stand, we should treat them like China and advise our people never to visit there.

WilsonOctober 25, 2012 2:38 PM

@Nacnud: the "not so low risk" of most of central Italy is something geologist are repeating all the time since I can remember. Risk of devastation by earthquake, but also by landslide or flood.
In your metaphor is like a place notorious for lightning and with no (or not well made) lightning rod. If someone tells you that you'll be stroked in five minutes, he lies, but if someone else say "no, it's low risk" he's lying also (and if he's a professional consultant...)

AlanSOctober 25, 2012 2:45 PM

The problem with the "they're guilty of bad communication" argument is that there's an assumption that there is a receptive audience for the clear communication of evidence and reasoned argument by experts and once the information is transmitted people will act on it. Among those who study public reception of science this is known as the empty vessel or deficit model. It's not a very good model.

Vittorio RomanoOctober 25, 2012 3:01 PM

Please note that the court has just sentenced, but we have to wait a few months in order to read the document where the court explain the reasons that led to that sentence.
We are talking about the words of the prosecutor (and the press)

@Dena Shunra: the difference between Berlusconi and the Scientists is that the firsts one was able to change the law in progress. Otherwise the story would have been different.

Anyway, what you have described is only part of the story: the heads of the italian Civil Protection Department have been fired and accused (in court) of being more interested in doing business with a few friends rather than preventing disasters.
That Department knew (and knows) that a lot of buildings in Italy are not earthquake-resistant.
The head of the Department asked the scientists to say "Don't worry, no risk" instead of saying "We are unable to predict the big one, please be careful, check the status of your houses" and organizing assistance (just in case).

Vittorio RomanoOctober 25, 2012 3:26 PM

Trying to compare the italian scientists with Bruce.

When Bruce talks about terror he says:
1) You can't prevent all possible types of attack
2) Try with investigation
3) Try with intelligence
3) Invest on emergency response

He doesn't say:
1) Don't worry

That's our big problem here, in Italy: we have a lot of people that will help in case of emergency, but very few are working to build a safer future when the emergency is over.

TimTOctober 25, 2012 5:24 PM

@Skylar Graika:

I'm curious...would the major religions around the world be held accountable, if for example, aliens were discovered or the "big bang" could be confirmed.

Actually, did you know that one of the people who looked the evidence of the expanding universe and came up with the theory later called the "big bang" was Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest?

mkOctober 25, 2012 6:48 PM

Do people really understand probability?

I tend to think I understand it, but even I often catch myself thinking thoughts like "10% major showers" => "definately drizzle".

If a scientist says there is a 10% chance of a major earthquake, and they say this ten times... well, one of those times will feature a major earthquake.

You can't judge them on a single event. You have to judge them over their history of predictions.

RobertTOctober 25, 2012 7:51 PM

Just a thought, but is this any different to the so called IT security experts that expressly stated that it is impossible to infect a standalone computer system (such as a process control system). Their statements were definitive, especially those statements issued by the sales and marketing departments. I remember reading advertising blurbs, for industrial control systems from a large maker, that contained statements like, absolutely impossible to infect and complete immune to virus attacks....

Anyone with the audacity to suggest that air-gaped systems were still vulnerable to viruses was labeled a "clueless crank-pot". It was a great theory, problem is it just didn't survive the release of Stuxnet.


We have a similar situation today WRT many Card and Pin payment systems. There are plenty of "experts" that will swear under oath, that it is impossible to subvert their payment systems. They are so certain of their facts that they have had legislation passed that makes it impossible for the victim to ever prove that the banks security systems are faulty. As a matter of fact, in some jurisdictions, the banks security systems are so perfect that they are not even open for independent analysis. Better still are those laws that make it a felony to reveal details of potential vulnerabilities.

From my experience there is no shortage of IT security experts with strong opinions on their system's security, especially if a large sale is expected. Where does this leave them when a real disaster occurs? For a long time now IT security has hidden behind the fig leaf that Zero-Days can not possibly be known about, nor protected against. But this judgement does seem to put such experts, on notice that they are accountable for the damages that result from their overly optimistic opinions.


Boarding Pass HackOctober 25, 2012 7:55 PM

Boarding Pass hack to change bar code changes your ticket and TSA screening. They just read your ticket, it is not attached to any database so you just change your tick and go through. on BoingBoing and /.

Glyndwr MichaelOctober 25, 2012 9:35 PM

This is what leads to experts (and the public) constantly overreacting to everything like a bunch of children.

Johannes RexxOctober 25, 2012 9:39 PM

Right now there must be a huge sigh of relief at the offices of Michael Mann and James Hansen that the American system of justice is a lot more reasonable than the Italians. The scale of global climate disaster these guys are foretelling is unprecedented.

Nick POctober 25, 2012 11:03 PM

This isn't a risk of trusting experts: it's a risk imposed on experts by the Italian legal system & the power of public opinion.

SeanOctober 25, 2012 11:04 PM

Simple solution to the whole thing would have been the release of the following statement:

Unreinforced Masonry kills, just add an earthquake.

You live in earthquake country.

If you are within unreinforced masonry structurs or near where structural elements of unreinforced masonry structures may fall, you will be crushed and probably will die.

The building may have been there for 600 years, but when the ground shakes, may be using its weight to reinforce your acknowledgement of the laws of physics.

Clive RobinsonOctober 26, 2012 6:45 AM

@ RobertT,

Anyone with the audacity to suggest that air gaped systems were still vulnerable to viruses was labeled a "clueless crank-pot".

The problem with their argument was that it was 100% known as being a false premise from before the 1980's, even during the 1980's the predominante method of malware infection was via "sneeker nets" where removable media was carried from machine to machine. Further since the days of early OS it was known that they would need to be upgraded or have security updates added always from removable media.

In otherwords with even the tinest bit of due diligence they would have known their claims were false and thus they were at the very least committing fraud...

WilsonOctober 26, 2012 7:37 AM

New development: afew hours ago there was a 5.0 earthquake in southern Italy (on another seismic zone), there was in the past few months a lot of smaller earthquake (like in L'Aquila) and the same commission was asked to analyze the situation.
This time (it was before the sentence, but well after the trial started) they've done their job: they have said that a mayor earthquake was not a lot more probable then before, but it's always been probable, have done a report about possible improvement in data management between agencies and a list of prescription for facing the danger with the right level of alarm (moderate).
First time I see good consequence from a thing like this

Emilio MordiniOctober 26, 2012 11:19 AM

Actually things are a bit more complex, even if they are not more reassuring. The reason why they have been senteced is that they have been tapped while the chief of the civil protection ordered them not to divulge details that could alarm the population. There are at least two controversial issues heer, 1) the use of wiretapping not to control criminals but to control scientists and civil protection; 2) to what extent it is legitimate to mitigate information in order to avoid panic. The latter is the real big issue. The court has judged that they have trespassed the limit of legitimate mitigation, to enter into the risky game of mitigation for political reasons (say, to please the powerful chief of the civil protection).

Petréa MitchellOctober 26, 2012 11:51 AM

mk:

Do people really understand probability?

I tend to think I understand it, but even I often catch myself thinking thoughts like "10% major showers" => "definately drizzle".

"10% major showers" doesn't mean 10% chance of rain showers and 90% chance of no rain at all, anyway. It means close to 100% certainty that approximately 10% of the forecast area will get major showers.

This doesn't mean you have any difficulty with probability; it means that meteorologists ought to try explaining things using words and phrases which have the same meaning to laymen as to meteorologists.

wkwillisOctober 26, 2012 6:00 PM

Well, you can put the contractors (and the politicians and building inspectors they bribed) into jail, or you can put the scientists into jail.
What do you think?

emkOctober 26, 2012 9:15 PM

Holding scientists and other experts to account is long overdue. Doctors, construction engineers, even financial advisers have been living in this world for years now.

These Italian scientists were not just any scientists, they were public servants employed to specifically warn the public about things like earthquakes. That was their job.

The question is not really whether earthquakes are predictable or not. Its whether these public servants did their job to the legally applicable standard of care.

NobodySpecialOctober 26, 2012 9:43 PM

"Holding scientists and other experts to account is long overdue. Doctors, construction engineers, even financial advisers have been living in this world for years now."

I don't think many Doctors are held accountable for failing to predict your death years in advance, or financial advisers who will tell you the date of the next crash.

What seems to have happened here is that some crank claimed to be able to predict earthquakes. The italian equivalent of Fox news spun this into "nuclear scientists says we are all doomed"

Some local civil servants dragged some scientists into a meeting and told them to issue a statement saying there is no particular risk. An earthquake strikes somewhere else and they get blamed

Clive RobinsonOctober 26, 2012 11:09 PM

@ Petréa Mitchell,

... it means that meteorologists ought to try explaining things using words and phrases which have the same meaning to laymen as to meteorologists

It's funny you should say that, because somebody from the UK Met Office did just that on a very recent science program on probability chance and chaos for the BBC.

If I remember correctly the main issue they have with 5day weather forcasts is the sensitivity of the models they use to initial starting conditions (ie chaos) [1]. That is the data from the field measuring instruments is less acurate than the deterministic model sensitivity [2].

As described by the person from the Met Office being interviewed, they actualy run fifty or so runs of the weather forcast on their supercomputer with fractionaly different starting conditions [4] and the 10% figure is actually the percentage of the runs that indicate rain...

[1] This part of the program was given in close association with a piece on the origins of the Monte Carlo Method that came out of Los Alamos (apparently Monte Carlo is the name of the casino where Stanislaw Ulam's uncle gambled away the family fortune).

[2] Like all measuring instruments the field measuring instruments will have various modes of error and limitations on accuracy that can be reduced to an error probability distribution. See any good work on the practical aspects of "metrology" for details of the limitations, errors and biasis [3] (not a book on Meteorology but it might explain as well ;-).

[3] Have a look at the Refrences section towards the end of http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrology it has a number of links to various National and International Standards Institutes with explanatory documents.

[4] Although from memory it was not specificaly said these "inputs" would have been randomly selected across the field measuring instruments input error probability distribution.

emkOctober 27, 2012 8:58 AM

@NobodySpecial
The article that Bruce linked to gives only one side of the story the defense side. Nothing is said about why these people were prosecuted.

There is an article in New Scientist (Italian earthquake case is no anti-science witch-hunt) that gives the prosecutor's side of things. According to the prosecutor this case was not about prediction. It was about communication. Its not about the odds of the quake, its about how those odds were communicated to the public.

If you are hired to warn people over life and death matters and you accept that responsibility, then you must communcate clearly and accurately. Lives depend on that.

DavidOctober 27, 2012 10:26 PM

All I can say is: Whoever ends up on the losing side of the global warming argument, look out!!!

Dirk PraetOctober 29, 2012 7:30 PM

Just imagine bankers and traders being held accountable for the unbelievable havoc they have wreaked on hundreds of thousands of people. Or politicians. This entire story reminds me of the Steven Seagal movie "Under Siege" where the CIA operative who screwed up tells some other guy "If this goes wrong, we can always blame the cook".

AutolykosOctober 31, 2012 8:14 AM

@emk: I fail to see how this makes the scientists responsible. Communication with the public is not their job or their responsibility. I find it patently absurd to punish someone for another person's misrepresentation of his statements.
Sure, they were present and knew it was wrong, or at least grossly inaccurate. Just like pretty much everything politicians and bureaucrats ever say about science. If you demand them to step in there, they should never allow any non-scientist to speak for them, talk about their findings or even quote them lest they be misrepresented.
Still, everything done is the politicians' decision and responsibility. The scientists were asked to give their opinion, not make a decision. They can not be responsible for a decision that wasn't theirs to make. Even if the scientists were mistaken in their advice, it's the politicians' job to judge different positions by merit of the evidence presented, take the responsibility and make the decision. I would understand blaming the scientists for faking evidence - but nothing else.

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