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.
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.