In case you have not yet heard, six scientists and one government adviser have been sentenced to 6 years in prison for manslaughter, after they stood accused of playing down the risks in the days before an earthquake at L'Aquila, Italy, reduced much of the city to rubble, killing more than 300 people.
Although all of the legal underpinnings of the verdict are not yet public, it appears that scientists around the world have closed ranks with the convicted Italians, judging their advice not to have been grossly negligent or willfully malicious, which might be an acceptable standard for conviction. The scientific community buzzes with the implications:
- Can science be put on trial for failing to provide certainty?
- Does this signify greater public acceptance of the role of science in managing public risk?
- Will fear of legal implications silence scientists?
Science is not on trial
Prosecutors and victims blame the high death toll of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that devastated L'Aquila after months of tremors on the fact the the public failed to evacuate buildings adequately, largely because of public reassurances that the risks of a major disaster were reduced by each additional minor quake.
In spite of allegations of persecution reminiscent of the days of Galileo, prosecutors insist the trial was not about science. The facts of the case do not allege that scientists failed because they cannot predict exactly when and where an earthquake might occur. Instead, the question regards how scientists communicated those risks -- and the uncertainties inherent in the scientific process. By leaving the public with the impression that the "big one" was not coming, scientists contributed to the high death and injury toll.
A win for science?Ironically, it can be argued that the trial affirms the role of science in modern political decision making. The fact that people look to scientists for signals on which they can base decisions indicates a level of trust.
Of course, scientists frustrated at lack of public response on Climate Change, in spite of the almost unanimous alarms being raised by the scientific community, will remain cynical on this point. Is the trust gained by correctly predicting events like the Frankenstorm Sandy insufficient to provoke action when prevention of risk requires public policy without a major disaster imminent?
The Communication Issue RemainsThe communication issue for scientists remains regardless of how much trust the public places in science. One reason the public depreciates the global warming alarm is because no scientist is comfortable saying that global warming caused Sandy. Scientists saying that failure to act to curb climate change increases the probability of death and destruction from extreme climate-related events does not suffice to change behaviors without the threat of immediate crisis.
The decision of the court in Italy sets no global precedent in law. But it has sent a chill down the spine of all who seek to advise on issues related to public protection. Scientists everywhere want better definitions of responsibility and liability. The risk can also go both ways: what if all of New York evacuated for Sandy and the storm had turned out to be a sprinkler? Who would be responsible for the costs of acting unnecessarily? Also, raising the risk alarm too freely amounts to crying wolf, which can be equally disastrous in the long run; so making scientists responsible for underestimating a risk carries risks of its own.
The relationship between science/risk management and public policy suffers an inherent flaw: risk management and scientific models operate in a world of probabilities. Public policy demands action, which requires a degree of certainty. And anyone involved with risk management also knows that predictions are not prophecies. Scientists should not be held criminally responsible for failing to be saints.