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The Tricky Nature Of Putting Science On Trial


It was spring of 2009, and the Italian mountain town of L'Aquila had suffered a number of small earthquakes in short order, something called a seismic swarm. One local seismology buff stirred the pot by telling the media that the big one was coming soon. Townspeople were terrified. Local officials called in a panel of scientists to try and calm the situation.

The scientists told them that a major quake in the near-term was unlikely. Within days, L'Aquila suffered a quake that hit 6.2 on the Richter scale and left almost 300 dead. Those scientists were then put on trial and convicted of manslaughter. Their appeal started this week. David Wolman wrote about the case for the online magazine Matter. He says that the language of science was on trial as much as those men.

DAVID WOLMAN: They were called in to speak to this question of risk. And the long and short of it is that they say unfortunately, a seismic swarm is not a precursor necessarily for a major event, but, parentheses, this is earthquake country. You never really can tell. You should make sure your buildings are safe, etc. And that was the end of it.

RATH: But there were also some incorrect messages that came out of this meeting, right?

WOLMAN: They explained slowly what probabilities are about over timescales of decades. But then of course in a 24-second television news clip, you just can't get all of that in there. The most toxic example of that is a misstatement by one of the gentlemen who was convicted of manslaughter in the case. He was the number two man at the Department of Civil Protection in Italy, which is like FEMA here in the U.S. And someone asked him if they should be worried about the swarm. And he said, on the contrary, the swarm is a good thing because in essence, all these small earthquakes are releasing energy that otherwise would've been building up to produce a major earthquake. And that's just totally wrong. That's not how the earth or science works.

RATH: Now there were some more alarmist messages floating around, right?

WOLMAN: Sure. One of the interesting things about this story is the role that a single peddler of pseudoscience can have in this kind of situation and really the harm that that kind of person can inflict. There was a gentleman named Giampaolo Giuliani, who for a long time had been saying that he had come up with a method for earthquake prediction based on emissions of radon gas from deep in the earth. And radon is not a tool - today anyway - that we can use to predict earthquakes.

This did not stop Mr. Giuliani from yapping, really, nonstop about earthquake hazard in the area. And because the people were so starved for information, they took to him and his message. And so this was the reason why they had to bring in the luminaries of seismology. And then of course, they say these things that to scientists are accurate but to the public were comforting, and we now know in hindsight, were perhaps too comforting.

RATH: You write about a language problem here. That when people are discussing risk - or when scientists are discussing risk, they aren't necessarily speaking the same language as the rest of us. Can you explain that?

WOLMAN: We have incredible difficulty understanding probabilities. They said a major earthquake was improbable in the short-term. And of course when a scientist uses the word improbable, he or she knows that that means in tandem that rare events do occur. But for most of the public, when we hear improbable, it's kind of shorthand for ain't going to happen.

RATH: The appeals process for these scientists who are convicted started this week. Do you have a sense of what happens next? Do you think they're likely to have their convictions overturned?

WOLMAN: Perhaps I'm foolishly optimistic, but I do think it will be overturned. Italy's justice system was embarrassed by this a little bit. Because of course when the conviction was first announced and then the sentence after that, you know, the response from the international community was enraged because everyone knows you can't predict earthquakes. And this will have a chilling effect on scientists and their input on government activity, etc. And so I hope that that very loud response from the international community will have some kind of effect on the judge.

RATH: If you want to learn more about this, you can read David Wolman's piece for the online magazine Matter. It's called "The Aftershocks." David, thank you.

WOLMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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