by Judith Curry
Six Italian seismologists and one government official went on trial for manslaughter in Italy last week. The unusual trial stems from accusations that the seven failed to adequately communicate the potential for a major earthquake to the population around the central Italian town of L’Aquila, which was hit by a devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the predawn hours of April 6, 2009.
Read the article [here] (h/t Vaughan Pratt). Some excerpts:
The charges have sparked international outrage in the scientific community, where many have viewed the trial as an attack on the scientists for failing to predict an earthquake – something that no one has ever demonstrated an ability to do.
According to prosecutors and some of the plaintiffs in a civil suit against the seven, the crux of the matter is not that the scientists failed to accurately predict the earthquake, but rather that they failed to accurately characterize the risks and convey that information to local civic officials and the public.
The region had been experiencing a swarm of low-magnitude earthquakes in the months preceding the April earthquake that caused considerable concern among the populace. But such swarms have never been shown to be reliable predictors of a major earthquake.
“It is a complicated situation, but if the verdict is guilty, I think it will have a big impact on science, well beyond seismology,” said Greg Beroza, chair of the Department of Geophysics at Stanford University.
The fact that such charges were even brought has reportedly already had a “chilling effect,” making some scientists reluctant to share their expertise with the public for fear of having their statements misunderstood, according to a recent news article in the research journal Nature.
“We are used to statements such as, ‘There is a 40 percent chance of rain on Saturday,'” Beroza said. “And part of the reason we are comfortable with that is that we get that sort of forecast day after day, so we come to understand what it really means.”
The probabilities associated with earthquake forecasting are much lower than weather forecasting, which will likely take some time for people to get used to.
For example, in the seismically active San Francisco Bay Area, a major earthquake strikes approximately once every 30 years. That amounts to roughly one earthquake every 10,000 days, or a .01 percent chance of a major earthquake occurring on any given day. That’s a whole lot smaller than a 40 percent chance of rain.
So while a 100-fold increase in the likelihood of a major earthquake is a significant change, the probability of a major earthquake is still very small.
“Earthquake forecasting is new territory for the public, in terms of digesting these small probabilities,” Beroza said. “But we have to make earthquake forecasting as routine as weather forecasting.”
But even though the probabilities remain small, that information could still be significant in terms of preparing for a possible major earthquake. If the probability of a major earthquake goes up by a factor of five, cities could move fire trucks out of firehouses, so they don’t get trapped inside if the buildings are damaged. Transporting hazardous materials across vulnerable bridges might be temporarily banned. Schools and hospitals could run earthquake preparedness drills.
Vaughan Pratt’s comments
Vaughan submitted the following comments to me via email:
As with any trial, the outcome will depend heavily on how convincing a
case each side’s lawyers can assemble. If it goes badly for the
scientists it will make a mockery of those mocking the warnings of
geophysicists in other areas, because it puts scientists in an untenable
catch-22 situation. If they warn too early they are called criminals by
those inconvenienced by their warnings; we have endless examples of this
on your blog. But if they warn too late they may face criminal charges
of a different nature for failing to warn.
While the hazards of global warming may not be as concentrated in time
as those of earthquakes, or kill as many people in the space of a single
minute, the insurance industry has been concerned about the risks and
costs of global warming even before the dramatic rise from 1970 to now.
If these continue to escalate the global cumulative damage could
easily exceed that to L’Aquila, if it hasn’t already.
But it’s not just a lesson for climate skeptics. In response to this
suit, Northwestern’s Seth Stein said “What you want to do in this
business is to show humility in the face of the complexities of nature.
I think that’s probably a good thing for everybody to bear in mind.”
JC comments: This is the first I have heard about this. I have been somewhat out of touch, travelling nonstop (I am currently at the Denver International Airport).
This is an amazing situation. Vaughan raises many of the issues relevant for climate change. Another issue is related to the idea of ACE – Attribution of Climate Related Events, whereby after the fact extreme events would be fractionally attributed to global warming. The ACE exercise seems to me to be lawsuits waiting to happen. If the event was not predicted, who is liable: weather forecasters or energy companies? The UK Met Office failures to predict the barbeque summer and the winter transportation mess are examples. If it is a natural occurrence (such as the earthquake), it is traditionally been regarded as an “act of God,” without any human culpability. As science advances, we do have some ability to make probabilistic predictions and anticipate some black swan events. But false alarms are just as likely as an accurate prediction. False alarms carry their own cost, and then promote a “boy who cried wolf” mentality if there are too many false alarms.
The solution to this conundrum would seem to start with Seth Stein’s statement:
“What you want to do in this business is to show humility in the face of the complexities of nature. I think that’s probably a good thing for everybody to bear in mind.”
At best, we can speculate about possible black swan events. There are however some very distinct differences between earthquakes and climate change. The regions that are vulnerable to earthquakes are fairly well known, although there are surprises such as the recent earthquake on the east coast. So the issue is when/where these events will occur; if the events do occur, it is pretty easy to imagine the damage. With regards to climate change, those who are warning of the dangers need to actually make a case that a warming of several degrees is actually a bad thing. Tying this warming to extreme weather events seems to be the most straightforward way to do this, but the science of doing this is nowhere near robust at this point.
Communicating the risk even of an imminent event is not always straightforward. The typical scientist does not often have the connections to get the information to the right people. Then there are “official” government sources of information that are relied on for any reaction to such a warning, and official agencies may receive many different types of warnings, how are they to know which ones to heed? We were faced with this issue a few years ago when we predicted several weeks in advance that a severe tropical cyclone would strike Myanmar. We had no way to get this information to Myanmar, even though Peter Webster had many contacts in South Asia. In any event the government chose not to heed any of the warnings they did get (two days in advance), since they didn’t want interference with a political referendum.
It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit turns out, it is incomprehensible to me that the geophysicists would be found guilty of anything, but we shall see.