Science Miscommunication.

If you read just about any major news site with any sort of regularity, you may have noticed a disturbing news item creeping into the most-read sidebar: the conviction of six Italian seismologists for not-really-specified offences over the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila that killed 309 people. I say not-really-specified because the reporting on this has been uniformly bloody terrible; every single article I have read – bar one – has been based off of the same piece of agency copy, with the same points, same facts, and same quotes in each one. That original agency copy seeks to cast the case as one of the Italian judiciary versus science, and that these scientists have been convicted for failing to predict the unpredictable: an earthquake. But it’s not quite as simple as that.

The one piece I have read that has actually gone into detail on the case is this article in Nature. It was written long before the guilty verdicts came in but is nonetheless chock full of useful information on the rationale behind charging the seismologists in the first place. To hear the prosecution tell it, it wasn’t that they failed to predict the earthquake at all. Rather it was that they failed to adequately inform the population of L’Aquila and the surrounding towns of just what the risks of the earthquake were, and that their public statements were more concerned with calming the populace than they were preparing people for the worst. And this at least I can understand, although I still think it’s a desperately misguided argument on which to base a manslaughter charge. The problem is one that many – if not most – scientists will come a cropper from at some point in their careers, although probably not in such a serious and tragic fashion: miscommunication.

Communicating scientific ideas to the public in a way that they understand can be a very tricky business at the best of times. I should know; not only do I have a sizeable amount of experience in science education (not to mention running this blog for fun) but I’m spending a quite considerable amount of time trying to get a full-time career in science communication, and one of the things I’ve learned is that because of their training there is quite a significant gulf separating a scientist’s perception of the world from the way the average person sees it. This happens to anyone who follows a dedicated career path for a couple of decades, really, but it’s a particular problem with science: you become so invested in it that your sense of perspective will be lost and you’re going to start to take certain things for granted. I do genuinely sometimes have trouble remembering that there are people out there who can’t instantly name every single planet and rank them by size, orbital radius and general surface conditions. That knowledge is just there for me; it’s as natural to know it as it is to breathe air. And it’s so ingrained that it can sometimes be difficult to relate to another person using basic English terms that they’ll understand, kind of like trying to explain the concept of balance (“Don’t fall over.”)

So there’s plenty of space for miscommunication in science. Even scientists can often have trouble understanding one another when scientific papers are not only written in the exclusive language of mathematics, but often contain their own esoteric jargon specific to whatever the particular area of research is. These are complex, hard-to-swallow concepts that are very difficult to reduce to terms a normal person can understand without losing some of the nuance and some of the meaning.  Take probability, for example; most people would interpret a 95% chance of something happening as a guaranteed success because the chances of failure are so low, and they’d be upset if they fell into the 5% that didn’t make it. It’d seem unfair, like it didn’t fit the odds at all. And yet somebody has to. That is what the number means, and to a scientist it seems perfectly logical to say a 5% chance of something happening is unlikely and still maintain that outlook when the event in question actually does happen. It was unlikely, but it still happened. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I think that something like this is what happened in the Italian case. Actually I think it’s a number of factors all working together in a rather unfortunate combination that seems crazy to an outsider: grieving families in the area looking for somebody to blame; a media that might not be particularly interested in accurately communicating what the scientists had to say in the first place if it’d get in the way of what people might want to hear; education failing to adequately arm the general population with the critical thinking skills needed to properly parse information from that media; and a judicial culture in which public officials can be and are held responsible for the things they say. Added to that is the fact that the seismologists were facing an impossible situation, as the Nature article states:

[L’Aquila’s] most recent seismic tragedy began in October 2008, when dozens of low-magnitude tremors began to hit the city and surrounding areas along the Aterno River valley. Known as seismic swarms, these tremors continued intermittently over the first three months of 2009; according to Picuti, they numbered 69 in January, 78 in February and 100 in March, with an additional 57 shocks during the first five days of April… Unnerving though these clusters may be, experts agree that seismic swarms rarely precede major earthquakes. In 1988, seismic engineer Giuseppe Grandori, now professor emeritus at the Polytechnic of Milan, and his colleagues published a retrospective analysis of seismic swarms in three other earthquake-prone Italian localities. They concluded that a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days about 2% of the time, and Grandori says that the same was probably true for the region around L’Aquila.

Translating these risks is extremely challenging for civil defence officials. In Grandori’s view, there is a 98% probability of a false alarm if officials issue an alert, yet a terrible price to pay in loss of life and property if they fail to issue a warning and a major quake occurs. After a medium-sized shock in a seismic swarm, the risk of a major quake can increase anywhere from 100-fold to nearly 1,000-fold in the short term, according to Jordan, although the overall probability remains extremely low. “What do you tell people in that situation?” he says. “You’re sort of between Scylla and Charybdis on this thing.”

Now, here’s the interesting part of the Nature article: what the seismologists actually said which lead to the manslaughter prosecution. The background for this is an unusual meeting of the risks commission they sat on. Usually the commission meets in Rome, but given the heightened seismic activity in the area this particular meeting was held in L’Aquila. This should have been the seismologists’ first clue that Something Was Up (they didn’t choose to convene it there).

Many people in L’Aquila now view the meeting as essentially a public-relations event held to reassure local residents. Christian Del Pinto, a seismologist with the civil-protection department for the neighbouring region of Molise, sat in on part of the meeting and later told prosecutors in L’Aquila that the commission proceedings struck him as a “grotesque pantomine”. Even Boschi now says that “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that until later on.”

What happened outside the meeting room may haunt the scientists, and perhaps the world of risk assessment, for many years. Two members of the commission, Barberi and De Bernardinis, along with mayor Cialente and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a press conference to discuss the findings of the meeting. De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L’Aquila was “certainly normal” and posed “no danger”, adding that “the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy”. When prompted by a journalist who said, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis replied “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

This links into the commission’s shaky conclusion that increased seismic activity was good because it meant energy was being continually released rather than continually building up, but even discounting that these are some really, really dumb things to be saying to the press without qualification. “No danger” might be a somewhat reasonable pronouncement to make given the 2% odds, but I’d say that while a 2% chance of an earthquake is certainly very small it’s not negligible and cannot be discounted. This should have been communicated to the population of L’Aquila, and the fact that it was not means there is some rather unfortunate merit in the prosecution’s argument that they failed to adequately explain the risk of a quake. Are they criminally liable for what they said? No, as one of the defence lawyers explains later on:

To convey the difficulty of communicating risk assessments, he offers the analogy of being asked the safest way to travel, and recommending flying because it is statistically much safer than car or train. “If the person takes the plane, and the plane is involved in an accident, this doesn’t mean that my advice was wrong,” he said. “I gave the right advice, since scientific advice is based on statistics, and the statistics don’t exclude the possibility of an event that we would like to avoid.”

Saying that there was no danger was pushing it a little too far, but on the whole the commission was perfectly in the right to say that there was little risk. They gave the best prediction they could based on the evidence they had and our prior experience with earthquakes. However, for scientists in public-facing positions of importance the seismologists were incredibly naïve in dealing with the press and absolutely woeful at communicating the reasoning behind their conclusions. They don’t deserve to be sent to prison for it, but they do certainly deserve to never hold that sort of position again because they’ve shown they’re not up to the job.

This incident isn’t going to have any sort of chilling effect on scientific dialogue because a) this is Italy and b) scientists are notoriously publicity-hungry by design. Being perceived as an authority and getting quoted in the press is seen as rather career-enhancing and you’d be extremely hard-pressed to find one who’d actively refuse an interview because he/she thought he might get something wrong and be held responsible. However, it does demonstrate why science education and science communication is important. In an ideal world the press would have said “Wait, what?” and actively demanded that the commission justify themselves rather than taking their word for it, but that’s asking rather a lot of the world. In lieu of that, though, it would have been much better for everyone involved if the commission had been able to express itself more clearly (and less glibly) than it actually did. People need to make an effort to broaden their minds, but at the same time scientists need to make an effort to communicate properly rather than just assuming everyone understands what they’re talking about because they do.

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4 thoughts on “Science Miscommunication.

  1. Gap says:

    I wonder whether members of the UK press, by a similar token, should be prosecuted for suggesting that MMR was dangerous and causing the ongoing measles outbreaks. It was their job to inform the public, but due to ignorance or commercial pressure, they decided to create a panic rather than report the truth.

    Incidentally, that map is quite good at reminding you “holy shit, I live on a huge ball of lava covered by a thin skin of rock, hurtling through the void”.

    • Hentzau says:

      A newspaper’s job is not to inform the public. A newspaper’s job is to sell newspapers. A cynical view, perhaps, but I find that as soon as you stop taking them seriously as hard sources of information the happier the world becomes. The alternative is expecting the press to take responsibility for all the spin, mistruths and frequent out-and-out lies they publish, which will never ever happen.

      • Gap says:

        Well, the press has some regulation, and deciding what level that’s at is a difficult one, sure. I guess in the UK, advice by the government is also not held to be legally accountable, given that a minister advised a woman to set herself on fire not so long ago.

        • innokenti says:

          Pff, press regulation in the UK is certainly laughable, what with the PCC being a voluntary body and a useless one in dealing with any issues. It’s to be replaced with a new independent regulator but it remains to be seen whether it’s any good.

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