Climate Risk Management Lessons From A Most Strange Quake Trial

As if to underline how its bias on climate change ruins its reporting on the topic, Nature magazine has come up this week with an incredibly good couple of articles about the upcoming L’Aquila trial against the “experts” who (allegedly!!) failed to predict the 2009 quake (or actually, who didn’t communicate risks properly to the population).

In the following, some memorable quotes (and lest we forget, again from Nature: “Researchers failing to make raw data public“, with “The findings come amid a growing push for sharing raw research data — both to facilitate further research and to better prevent fraud or error“).

First of all, from “Scientists on trial: At fault?“:

Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population. The charges, detailed in a 224-page document filed by Picuti, allege that members of the National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks, who held a special meeting in L’Aquila the week before the earthquake, provided “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” to a public that had been unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. Picuti says that the commission was more interested in pacifying the local population than in giving clear advice about earthquake preparedness.

In other words, the trial is about establishing who is at fault if and when bad decisions are taken because politics trumps science.

Selvaggi, one of the indicted scientists, says that the charges serve as a “dangerous” warning to researchers, who may find themselves in legal trouble because of the way that non-scientists such as public officials or journalists translate their risk analyses for public consumption.

This means that scientists can’t ignore it when their findings are manipulated in the media.

Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and chair of the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF) […]: “The public expects authoritative, transparently available information […] and we need to say what we know in an explicit way.”

“Authoritative, transparently available information” indeed. Then about a “risk commission” meeting a few days before the L’Aquila earthquake:

the scientific message conveyed at the meeting was anything but reassuring, according to Selvaggi […] But there was minimal discussion of the vulnerability of local buildings, say prosecutors, or of what specific advice should be given to residents about what to do in the event of a major quake. […] Even Boschi now says that “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that until later on.”

So there’s where (allegedly) public policy took precedence over science.

The suggestion that repeated tremors were favourable because they ‘unload’, or discharge, seismic stress and reduce the probability of a major quake seems to be scientifically incorrect […] “It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.” “That phrase,” in the opinion of one L’Aquila resident, “was deadly for a lot of people here.”

That is where the “high-school physics” models went wrong, so to speak.

“That night, all the old people in L’Aquila, after the first shock, went outside and stayed outside for the rest of the night,” Vittorini says. “Those of us who are used to using the Internet, television, science — we stayed inside.”

In other words, to trust the scientists blinding is not a good move.

As for the statement that seems to have resonated most with the residents of L’Aquila — De Bernardinis’s claim that during seismic swarms, repeated tremors were “favourable” — Dinacci says of his client: “He’s not a seismologist, he’s a hydraulic engineer,” and that he had only relayed what the scientists had told him.

The parallels with Pachauri are striking…

As Vittorini told Picuti after the earthquake, the messages from the commission meeting “may have in some way deprived us of the fear of earthquakes. The science, on this occasion, was dramatically superficial, and it betrayed the culture of prudence and good sense that our parents taught us on the basis of experience and of the wisdom of the previous generations.”

Presumably, if seismology is “dramatically superficial”, climatology is not that far out either from that decision.

The trial is so important, Nature has a column dedicated to it under “Check your legal position before advising others”:

What is to be done? It is always difficult to convey scientific uncertainty without giving the impression that nothing useful is known, but overstating scientific certainties can be more dangerous.

“overstating scientific certainties can be more dangerous”. Indeed. Well, at least there is now two Nature articles making the point.