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The Aftershocks
August 24, 2014 10:31 PM   Subscribe

The Aftershocks Seven of Italy’s top scientists were convicted of manslaughter after a catastrophic earthquake. What the hell happened in L’Aquila?
posted by gottabefunky (31 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
A crazy story. People are living in an earthquake zone, in ancient unreinforced masonry houses, and it's the scientists' fault for not being sufficiently precise about the odds of an earthquake coming? Doesn't do much to change my opinion of the Italian court system, this. Fortunately, I guess, the first appeal in the Italian system is a complete re-do of the original trial. Unfortunately, even if the scientists win, the prosecutor could still appeal the case to the Court of Cassation. As the article mentions, it's unlikely that some of these defendants will live to see the final outcome of the case.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:01 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


So the nub of the guilty verdict is that the seven convicted scientists, by issuing a reassuring and scientifically true statement shortly before the big quake (and after a long period of minor tremors), caused some people not to take normal precautions, so that when the big quake hit, they died in their homes when they might plausibly have left their homes instead following earlier tremors that night.

It's not as dumb as convicting them for failing to predict the big earthquake, but the prosecutor and judge don't look much better than that case. Anger and blame from the families of those who died is understandable, but for the justice system to attach a prison sentence to that seems inexcusably close to pandering.
posted by fatbird at 11:02 PM on August 24


Great article.

The problem here is that there is a category mistake here: De Bernardinis's statement appeared to be a policy statement, whereas it was a scientific statement.

A statistician modeling fires could say: "The probability of a fire in your home is very low - only about 0.1%." And this would be statistically accurate, yet a horrible statement to say on television, because laypeople will hear it as: "Don't prepare for a fire in your home". A fire marshal would say: "Make sure to always be prepared for a fire", even though this may not be statistically accurate.

The issue has little to do with the scientific veracity of the statements, but rather whether or not the scientists were acting in a capacity as policy-maker or public safety official.
posted by suedehead at 11:11 PM on August 24 [12 favorites]


It actually makes sense. It is unethical for a scientist to reassure the public where, according to the science, there is clear and present danger. It is an abuse of the public's trust in their authority. Look at a certain faction concerning global warming for a larger example.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:11 PM on August 24


Well, they issued a scientifically false statement, is the thing. De Berbardinis, a member of the commission who is not in fact a seismologist but who was given the largest platform and spoke on television with the apparent imprimature of the scientific community, stood in front of god and everyone and declared that there was nothing to worry about because little quakes are like valves that release the pressure in the earth and reduce the chance of large ones. That is scientifically false. And after reading this article, I can at least begin to wonder if maybe it was legally actionable.

This whole thing was brought on because scientists issued a frankly ludicrous public statement that was not clear in any way and was not communicated effectively to the public. Science really does have a responsibility here. Are the scientists guilty of manslaughter? I'm not sure - but De Bernardinis is guilty of something.
posted by koeselitz at 11:13 PM on August 24


We may need a new word for this distinctly modern crime. I propose 'Grand Capital Bullshit'
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:16 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Well, they issued a scientifically false statement, is the thing

"They" didn't. de Bernardini made a glib, false statement without support from either the science (of which he was not a practitioner, being a hydrologist, rather than a seismologist), or the other six, and that misrepresented the group's consensus. But the prosecutor was able to misrepresent their other scientific statements to appear as if de Bernardini was uttering a finding of experts.

Part of the irony of the situation was that Giuliani, the radon-detecting "indie" seismologist, had recently been publicly slapped down for being unduly alarming by predicting a big earthquake that didn't occur.
posted by fatbird at 11:27 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Perhaps manslaughter charges can also be brought against all those tobacco industry scientisrs who tried to hide the dangers of smoking. Then the AGW deniers who take oil company money and lie about climate change.
posted by humanfont at 11:45 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Regional government officials insisted there was no need to fret, despite chronically unenforced building codes. ... Over the centuries, the city had been devastated by several major quakes: One in 1703 killed 10,000 people, and a magnitude 7.0 quake in 1915 killed 30,000. ... The only thing you can do to protect people in such a place, he reminded her, is make sure structures are safe. ... Others recall the red cloud that quickly covered the city, caused by countless red terracotta roof tiles shaking, falling, and breaking.

You know, really, I can see that there might be some group of people at fault for these deaths. And while I don't think all buildings can be made eternally earthquake-proof, I think these few statements early in the article point at exactly who should have been on trial. And it certainly isn't the scientists who said "you know, earthquakes are entirely likely here, but probably won't happen". Because with few exceptions, basically anywhere on the Earth's crust can be described that way.
posted by hippybear at 11:45 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


"They" didn't. de Bernardini made a glib, false statement without support from either the science (of which he was not a practitioner, being a hydrologist, rather than a seismologist), or the other six, and that misrepresented the group's consensus.

Which happens all the time in science, especially with commissions etc. That's why it's such a bad precedent to set, it's already hard enough to get good scientists to work or talk on issues where there is a lot of politics and journalists involved. Now its probably impossible in Italy.
posted by fshgrl at 11:47 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


And it's not even fair to characterize what de Bernardini said as false, per se. He accurately characterized the odds as best they could be expressed at the time, and added a completely bogus explanation of the circumstances to justify those odds.

I understand how the townsfolk could feel angry and misled. But a big part of any real justice system is just to avoid translating justifiable emotions into actual injustices.

Perhaps manslaughter charges can also be brought against all those tobacco industry scientisrs who tried to hide the dangers of smoking. Then the AGW deniers who take oil company money and lie about climate change.

This is unfair. The scientists in question who actually knew and did the science came to a scientifically justifiable opinion. They didn't hide anything or distort science to serve an agenda. If I tell you not to count on winning the lottery with that ticket because the odds are really long, and you agree and hand it to a homeless person who goes on to win the jackpot, am I at fault that you don't have the winning ticket anymore?
posted by fatbird at 11:51 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Why was De Bernardinis giving a TV interview at all, though?

I see that people were in a rush to counter the crackpot prognostications, but - I guess the lesson here is, where public health is concerned, you really must have a public strategy that encompasses the whole range of outcomes and that is sensitive to what people will hear. Contrary to the authorities' apparent notions here, scientific conferences on these sorts of things aren't a cure for public concern. They only make things worse. Scientific conferences on these things ought to be held in relative quiet, so that scientists can actually talk frankly about the facts and figure things out together without being misconstrued as they were here. Meanwhile, public statements have to be coordinated: don't panic, but earthquakes are totally unpredictable, here is what to do if you sense one is imminent, etc. The public message has to be direct, careful, simple enough to be understood, and cautionary enough to be useful.

And, yeah. Reinforce those buildings. I guess this is something seismologists have given up on pushing for, since nobody wants to pay for it? Perhaps now would be a good time for renewed efforts on that count.
posted by koeselitz at 12:14 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Interesting article, thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:15 AM on August 25


Hang on, is somebody finding a government official guilty of committing bullshit?

Okay, I just felt the earth move.
posted by mule98J at 12:29 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]


Earthquake prediction is obviously not an exact science, and yet from a policy standpoint, you cannot keep people in a constant state of frenzy, nor can you mislead or under-inform them. Talk about an impossible situation. Throw in building code violations, and potential arrests, I mean, I don't even know what to say.

As far as scientific jargon is concerned. Boschi says, "A large earthquake along the lines of the 1703 event is improbable in the short term, but the possibility cannot definitively be excluded.” The problem as the article points out is that in 1995, Boschi wrote in a scientific journal that the probability of a major earthquake in L'Aquila was approaching 1. My understanding is that nobody has successfully predicted an earthquake, so I don't understand what type of assurance the public is seeking, or what kind of trap they think they have Boschi in. What he wrote in 1995 was just a theory.

If anything, De Bernardinis is alone to blame. My understanding is that it's Picuti who is going after everyone and I personally think he's skating on thin ice.
posted by phaedon at 12:56 AM on August 25


What a mess. On top of everything else, they had a judge who is scientifically illiterate and dedicated to remaining so.

"We didn’t look at the details of the model. We only looked at what he [Boschi] wrote — that is, that there was a probability of 1 that L’Aquila will have a major earthquake. That’s all. It’s Boschi’s words!”"
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:16 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


We need better education in statistics. It's the same thing with floods: you get a bunch of people saying "I've lived here 40 years and its never flooded like this" - well yeah. It's called a 100 year flood. But it could happen any year. It could happen 10 years in a row. It's statistically unlikely but it's possible. People hear the "unlikely" in the near future part and they run with that. In reality these things are a certainty to happen some day.
posted by fshgrl at 1:49 AM on August 25 [8 favorites]


I think it's worth emphasizing that the De Bernardinis interview was filmed before the meeting, but was broadcast after it, with an implication that it was his summary of the discussion. That's the TV people creating a false image of events. They should be on trial, along with the building inspectors and "regional officials," as hippybear pointed out. The scientists are being scapegoated for the malfeasance of others.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:25 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]


Is Dr Oz syndicated in Italy?
posted by shothotbot at 5:15 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


When this story was first reported in England language media is was spun along the lines of "Italy prosecute scientists for failing to predict earthquake!" So I am glad that the actual situation is more subtle and complex. Even if the prosecutions and sentences are unreasonable in themselves, the question at the heart of the problem--how do scientists communicate with the public and what duties do they have--is very real. The unpredictability of earthquakes and the pressure for a "reassuring" statement only complicate the problem further.
posted by Thing at 6:07 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I feel like there's also an aspect going unexplored here, namely: the people of Aquila have, for their whole lives, been experiencing earthquakes, been developing "here's what you do when an earthquake hits" responses, and generally already have ideas about how predictable or not earthquakes really are. It's not like Godzilla came out of the ocean and de Bernardini said "don't worry, he's just like a big puppy!" The public reassurance and its supposed effects didn't come out of nowhere.
posted by fatbird at 8:13 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


If we're going to start prosecuting people who claim expertise and make predictions that turn out to be wrong and others are hurt, the prisons will be full of economists.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:03 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


If you apply this to the US, at what point do you tell people not to live in certain areas where people have been living and want to live? There's a reason government officials are supposed to ask for reports and ask for help understanding the reports. I have a family member who's a respected scientist in his field, but the 1 time i saw him on a news show, well, they didn't ask him back.

Also, building codes and people ignoring them. If you live in an earthquake area, you should spend some time making sure your home is up to code. Did people die because the scientists were bad communicators, or because of lax enforcement of building standards?
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Seems to me that the journalists who abbreviated the scientists' comments are guilty if anyone is.
posted by harrietthespy at 12:54 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Also, building codes and people ignoring them. If you live in an earthquake area, you should spend some time making sure your home is up to code. Did people die because the scientists were bad communicators, or because of lax enforcement of building standards?

The buildings collapsed because they were grandfathered into the building standards, L'Aquila being a a mediaeval city.
posted by ambrosen at 12:59 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I guess the lesson here is, where public health is concerned, you really must have a public strategy that encompasses the whole range of outcomes and that is sensitive to what people will hear.

Yes, absolutely. It's not about probabilities or scientific truth, but risk assessment, policy and logistics.

A meteorologist saying "There is a 10% chance of a Cat-3 hurricane" is not a public strategy.

An public health official saying "Everyone in flood zones A, B, and C needs to evacuate to shelters, which are at locations X, Y, and Z" is.
posted by suedehead at 1:18 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


The buildings collapsed because they were grandfathered into the building standards, L'Aquila being a a mediaeval city.

Same reason there was so much damage in Christchurch- grandfathering in old buildings. If you live I'm such a building, it's a risk.
posted by fshgrl at 3:11 PM on August 25


The buildings collapsed because they were grandfathered into the building standards, L'Aquila being a a mediaeval city.

Some of the worst hit buildings were modern structures where the builders had cut corners with materials, the student dorms and hospital springing first to mind, the latter being only six years old at the time if I recall correctly.
posted by romakimmy at 3:16 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


This is by far the most intelligent and measured conversation about my story I've yet to see or hear. Thanks all. Also, I was in Christchurch recently for another assignment. People outside NZ have little appreciation for the level of devastation there--and the resulting permanent changes to the city's geography. Then again, rebuilding is well underway. L'Aquila's city center, in contrast, still looks like the earthquake happened three weeks ago.

Building codes, people. Building codes.
posted by pdxsouthpaw at 4:02 PM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Welcome to Metafilter, pdxsouthpaw. And thanks for an excellent story. Even if it does leave me unnecessarily worried about living in a masonry building on top of a (totally insignificant) fault.
posted by ambrosen at 12:01 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Building codes, people. Building codes.

Adding it to my list for my forthcoming opus: What Has the Government Ever Done for Me?
posted by shothotbot at 12:11 PM on August 27


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