Posts Tagged ‘science and society’
By: Rebecca Cerio
One of the more scientifically bizarre stories lately has been the conviction of Italian scientists and engineers in the L’Aquila earthquake trial. To summarize, during a swarm of small earthquakes, a government-sponsored panel told the people of the L’Aquila region that the tremors were nothing to worry about and that they were believed to disperse energy and reduce the chance of a larger earthquake. (In the past, such swarms preceded only a tiny fraction of large earthquakes.) Six days later, a large earthquake hit the region, killing over 300 people. The scientists were tried for the deaths of about 30 of those people, who–reassured by the scientists’ words–stayed in their homes when the quake struck, instead of rushing outside to more open, safer ground.
Scientists, predictably, have shook their heads in dismay at the Italian court’s verdict (convictions of manslaughter and 6-year sentences). They have, understandably, pointed out that there was no way that the scientists could predict an earthquake and that they should not be punished for giving the best advice they could given the data they had. The prosecution has pointed out that the defendants were not being charged with incorrectly predicting an earthquake but instead incorrectly communicating the RISK of an earthquake. In essence, the scientists were charged and found guilty of giving people a false sense of security that convinced the victims to change their behavior in an ultimately lethal way.
Whether the scientists gave people bad advice or whether they gave them good advice that simply turned out to be wrong is still unclear and is perhaps something that only Mother Nature would be able to testify about, but it gets right at the crux of a very pointed issue: how should scientists convey risk and uncertainty about their data to the public, particularly in life-and-death scenarios? How much responsibility do scientists have to convey that risk accurately? And what legal blame do scientists have to accept when people interpret and use that data to justify acting in ways that lead to injury or death? Read the rest of this entry »