On Trial For Manslaughter For Failing to Predict Earthquake

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by scheherazade, Sep 18, 2011.

  1. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    The committee's deputy chair, Franco Barberi, is reported to have concluded (according to minutes of the meeting) that: "…There is no reason to suggest that the sequence of low-magnitude tremors are a precursor to a major event". INGV President Enzo Boschi described a large quake as "improbable, although not impossible". Professor Claudio Eva (as seismologist from Genoa University) said there was "a very low likelihood" of a major disturbance – though he too emphasised that a major earthquake could never be ruled out entirely.

    L'Aquila’s Mayor, Massimo Cialente, was frustrated by his inability to extract a more definite reply to his questions. "I remember the words of Enzo Boschi who said, 'What do you expect? An earthquake in L'Aquila is bound to happen at some point'" says Cialente, who also told reporters that he was “angered and worried” by the scientists’ response.
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  3. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    Speaking of inane - neither Barberi, nor de Bernadinis - the two that, as I am given to understand, faced the media during the conference, are seismologists, one is a Vulcanologist, the other is a fluid dynamicist. Perhaps if they had stuck to their repsective fields and let someone who knew what they were talking about do the talking, there would have been a different outcome.
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  5. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    Does anybody else find the two underlined statements contradictory?
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  7. Bells Staff Member


    There are actually two trials at present. One criminal and one civil.

    In Australia, as one example, there would be a commission and report investigating the Commission, possibly many inquiries, before any such charges would be made, if any are to be made.

    Things are obviously different in Italy.

    I will be honest. I went round in circles trying to determine how it got to this point and I have to admit, the more I have looked into it, the tidbits I have managed to find about the investigations into the events leading up to the quake and what happened afterwards, the more questions there are than answers.

    For example, the seismologist at the meeting and in the week after saw no need to discount the comments made to the media. After the quake, before any such investigations started, the scientists on that committee were very quick to discount the comments made and stated fairly emphatically that it was wrong. Maybe the say the coming blood in the water and the sharks circling and they were trying distance themselves. No one really knows. But there are questions that do need to be answered.

    One of the articles I had linked earlier involved one written by a volcanologist who was part of a risk assessment committee on Montserrat when the eruption there killed several people. I think he sums up this trial in a very good way and points that the media hype and the panic from the scientific community is misdirected and missplaced somewhat:

    This is not a trial of earthquake-prediction science, as some seismologists seem to think. Rather, it is about possible negligence in the provision of hazard-assessment advice, for which there is little or no case law or precedent, unlike, say, professional liability in civil engineering or medicine.

    What it comes down to is whether scientists involved in risk assessment could or should be held criminally liable, even for things like earthquakes. Or should they be protected.

    One of the biggest arguments about this is that they never made the comments. The counter to that is that as experts, who later commented that the comments made to the media at that conference were wrong and factually incorrect, knew they had been made and at the time made no move to correct those incorrect comments. Information was withheld and not passed on. No discussion during a risk assessment meeting about the risks to the region. This is not speculation or guesses. This is what the scientists have acknowledged and admitted themselves. Trying to pass the buck is not a correct answer.

    As simplistic as it sounds, it is the clearest analogy. But in the US, it has not gone to trial. Hence why this case is so interesting because it is holding scientists involved in such assessments accountable to the public and the law for their comments and possibly their findings.

    As you know, I was involved in a shocking storm situation which ended with us losing just about everything in a mudslide. The afternoon that storm hit with its surprising downburst in the area we lived, we knew there would be storms that afternoon. We get storm warnings and on days like that day, hot and very humid, we do check the online weather site to see what if anything is heading our way. That afternoon was no different and as I heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance, I went outside and brought in the washing and I could see it approaching. What happened afterwards and 3 days later shows that true predictions cannot be made. But in the past, there had been issues of incorrect warnings or inefficient warnings. The result of that is they cover all bases and allow the public to make their own assessment and decisions on what we can see and what they offer us. The people of L'Aquila were never given those options. And that is the issue.

    Certainly. Now imagine Mt. Rainier starts to rumble and vent ash into the air and experts are brought in to assess the risk to residents in the area if it does erupt. And they do not discuss the risks and educate people on what to do, they just turn around and say 'meh, it won't erupt, go home and relax!'.. So people go home. The tremors get worse, rocks start blowing out of the top and they remain reassured that the experts told them it won't explode. In the meantime they know nothing about what to do in the event of an eruption, have not planned any escape routes. The volcano erupts and hundreds die because the experts brought in to educate them and tell them what they should do in the event of an eruption told them to go home and have some wine. You're telling me, that would be okay?

    So you know it could go either way. Which is why the residents of that region were getting very concerned and many had taken to camping outdoors, just in case. To calm the fear, the committee decided to hold its meetings in L'Aquila (outside of the norm) and do it in public (well outside of normal). So in waltz the experts and instead of telling them the risks and how to handle it, they were told there would be no quake. And then told to go home and relax and told explicitly that each time there was a tremor, it meant it reduced the chance of a quake. They were not told that it could go either way. They were literally told to go home and relax as the tremors would mean no quake. So many of them went home. And many of them died.

    I guess it may not ring true to you that they actually believed the experts brought in to speak to them. But the fact that instead of camping out of doors like they normally would have, they were indoors. Survivors stated that they were told there would be no quake and so remained at home.. It doesn't have to ring true. The fact that 309 people died shows it. This wasn't a set up to get the scientists. There is no conspiracy.

    One of the main things that stood out was that there, they actually parked their cars outside to provide for a safe getaway and yes, camped out in the fields and many of them were out in the fields. The older people who had gone through it all before were not at home. They were camping outside and remained safe. One of the prevailing things that stood out was how the people said they would have normally camped outdoors, just in case but had returned home because of the assurances.

    You also cannot compare a residential American area and city to rural communities and towns in Italy.

    The usual thing there is to be safer outdoors, away from the powerpoles and the buildings. But they were told it was safe to return indoors while one of them knew hundreds of those buildings would not be safe and he did not speak out.

    No, nothing sounds right. To me it doesn't sound right that experts withhold information from the public which they knew could pose a risk to said public. But here we are.

    Nothing fits together because of how the general media have been trying to portray it. But step away from the sensationalised 'they are trying scientists for not predicting an earthquake' and look at it properly:

    This is not a trial of earthquake-prediction science, as some seismologists seem to think. Rather, it is about possible negligence in the provision of hazard-assessment advice, for which there is little or no case law or precedent, unlike, say, professional liability in civil engineering or medicine.

    Then it might make a bit more sense.

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  8. Bells Staff Member

    Barberi is actually a geophysicist. I guess he would have no idea what he was talking about, which is why he was on that committee and sent to L'Aquila...?

    Yes? No?
  9. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    You think that perhaps a Vulcanoligist can not be a Geophysicist, or vice versa?

    The point is that neither a Vulcanoligist nor a Geophysicist are neccessarily seismologists.
  10. Asguard Kiss my dark side Valued Senior Member

    Bells, can you imagin if bom acted as recklessly as these scientists are ALLEGED to have been? How much planning (indervidual, community, local goverment and state) are based around the predictions from bom? Schools close based on there advice, CFS, DENR (why is it SA has such stupid acroynims, DSE is so much easier to rember), St john (and i assume red cross and salvo's) resorces are put on standby to respond to a major fire. Fire fighting aircraft are positioned across the country based on bom reports, and thats just looking at the actual firefighting and some of the NGO organisations, it doesnt even include the local goverment resorces, the health department and the rest.

    All this is put in place based on the advice of bom. If they dont do there job then how many lives are put at risk?
  11. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    As to this:
    Note that this was published on April 16, 2009.
    1999 il Dossier di Franco Barberi
    Perhaps someone familiar with Italian can provide a more accurate translation:
    So... Not only had Franco Barberi compiled a list of buildings in Abruzzo that would be damaged or destroyed in an earthquake, and not only was that information publicaly available, but the Abruzzo regional authorities had compiled their own list which was completed in 2007 - two whole years before the earthquake.

    No wonder the mayor was so keen to see the trial go ahead, it redirects the attention away from the fact that the had forknowledge and did nothing with it.
  12. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    More on this:
    Globvolcano Partners and Contacts list

  13. Captain Kremmen All aboard, me Hearties! Valued Senior Member

    I concur.
  14. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member


    I sure hope my groundwater contamination hazard modelling is correct, I'd hate to think that someone might decide to sue me on the grounds that I was negligent in the provision of my advice, because based on what someone else said, claiming that it was representative of what I had told them, they contracted Hep C and subsequently developed liver cancer.

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  15. Gustav Banned Banned

    just be vague to the point of meaninglessness. innumerable caveats and qualifiers, references to lightning strikes and whatnot would be the sop
  16. KilljoyKlown Whatever Valued Senior Member

    The Bigthink groups take on this event makes a good impression on me.

    Do Bad Earthquake Predictions Kill People? No. But Bad Risk Communication Might
    David Ropeik on September 26, 2011, 2:17 PM

  17. Asguard Kiss my dark side Valued Senior Member

    Great article Kill, i think this

    Summs up perfectly what trippy is refusing to acknowledge (and infact irrationally tells people not to talk to him and starts spitting vitriol as soon as its pointed out to him)
  18. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member

    Apparently the Judge also does not know what he's talking about - at least according to some of the comments that have been directed at me:
    The judge reportedly said the defendants ”gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether smaller tremors felt in L’Aquila in the six months before the April quake should have constituted grounds for a warning.

    After all, unless the seismologists stated before the earthquake that the risk of a large earthquake could not be ruled out, how can they be accused of giving contradictory information?
  19. Trippy ALEA IACTA EST Staff Member


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    Once again you demonstrate that you haven't understood what I have actually said.
  20. Asguard Kiss my dark side Valued Senior Member

    of course because you (sitting in NZ) are the ONLY person who could POSSIBLY understand whats going on

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    A CBC radio interview with Nicola Nosengo, an Italian science journalist who has covered the story for Nature magazine.
  21. Bells Staff Member

    Because God forbid you would ever be held responsible for your words or actions.


    One can only hope you are never involved in risk assessment that could involve public safety where you could reasonably be held accountable for how you communicate and for what you communicate and fail to communicate. Because we have come to the point where 'I is a sceintist!' does not amount to an excuse anymore.

    To remind you of why and how this case came about:

    "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock," he says. "We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".​

    The people tasked with giving that information failed to do so and at times, contradicted themselves and failed in their task.

    What is on trial is risk communication, and the entire committee deserves some blame. The comments by Dr. De Bernardinis, government official and chair of the earthquake committee but an expert in floods, that there was “No danger” and that “the situation looks favourable”, were patently thoughtless. Some of the other defendants are hinting that Dr. De Bernardinis overstated their cautious consensus in order to calm the public down after those previous false alarms, possibly under orders from higher up in government (this being ‘there’s a conspiracy behind everything’ Italy). Easy for them to say now. None of the others, experts in seismology, participated in the post-meeting news conference.

    Everyone on that committee failed the public. They all failed to provide information that would help people make healthy judgments about their safety. They apparently never even considered that critical aspect of their responsibility. There was no one with risk communication expertise at the table during the meeting, and the experts skipped the post-meeting new conference. They thought about the risk through their narrow expertise as scientists, and either out of ignorance, or hubris - probably both - thought that was enough. They aren’t on trial for failing as risk scientists. They are on trial for failing as risk communicators.

    I guess 'I is a sceintist' just doesn't wash anymore..

    To you, the chair of the committee apparently did not have the authority to speak at that conference. There will come a point where the excuses will run out and yes, hiding behind being a scientist as though they have no responsibility. The other scientists who were at the press conference did not correct his comments or give their opinion, which would have been more correct. I'd suggest you listen to the whole interview. It was quite enlightening.
  22. Asguard Kiss my dark side Valued Senior Member

    Scientists jobs are about much more than just doing resurch (ESPECIALLY when apointed to goverment pannels), there job is also about communication. That means that they have to communicate effectivily to burocrats, pollies and the public at large. If they (as they are accused) failed to communicate the risk to there chairman (who YOU say is not a scientist) that isnt a failure "of the general public to understand scientists" (as you have put it), its a failure of the scientists to communicate. If they then stood behind him while he misscommunicated there advice, without correcting him then or latter, verbally or in writing, then they are responcible for that too.

    To go back to the medical field we were discussing a similar issue last night which resoves around consent. If i cant communicate the risks/rewards of treatment to my patients in clear plain language at an apropriate level for my audiance then i cant get concent but that isnt a failure of my patient, its MY failure and the coroner will (and has in cases against paramedics previously) hold ME to acount for that failure.

    One of our early lectures was about how risks are communicated and how you can manipulate patients by the language you use. The example used was a car crash with mild neck pain:

    "your saying you have a small amount of neck pain, well its probably nothing and I can transport you but you will sit in an emergency room all day before you are seen taking up a space that maybe needed for someone else and wasting your day, but i can transport you if you like"

    compared to

    "your saying you have some mild neck pain, well its probably nothing but as a precaution i suggest you come with us and get it checked out. You will get a cat scan and if its clear you will be discharged but its better to be safe than sorry, and if it IS a fracture then if you turn your neck the wrong way then you could be a quadraplegic for life or you may even die"

    If we give the first advice and something goes wrong at the very LEAST we will be fired. We may well face negligence charges both civil and criminal and manslaughter isnt out of the question. Not because there is anything deficent in the MEDICAL treatment but rather because there is a deficate in communication and attitude. This is what they are accused of (and whats been pointed out to you for the last 11 pages), they are responcible for there inability to communicate. If you cant communicate to anyone behond other scientists then your deficent in your job and should at the very least be replaced, if that deficency leads to death then yes they should be held responcible for that. As bells says in goverment and science this is a new area but in medicine its well established that concent must be INFORMED and that means that an adequate level of communication to the level of the audiance is essential. This means using plain language (in the majority of cases) to the level of the patient, if thats a child then it means communicating at the childs level AND at the parents level so that both understand and agree to whats going to happen.

    The police are also held to this standed, there warnings about a person in custodies rights are required to be communicated in a way that means the person can actually understand them, not in legalese. Goverment (at least here) is also starting to acknowlage this responcibility as well with all legislation now requring a "plain language" test.

    So why should science (which has the capacity to do huge amounts of harm if misscommunicated) be any different?
  23. billvon Valued Senior Member

    And that, to me, is a problem (assuming your advice is correct.) Doctors should provide accurate information, not cover-your-ass information that covers you legally but conveys very little information. That REDUCES the efficiency of communication, even if it increases your odds of winning the resulting malpractice lawsuit.

    If the odds of a cervical injury are 10% then your advice SHOULD include "there's probably nothing wrong but you can come in if you want to make sure." That way if the odds are 90% people will listen to you when you say "It's very important that you come in."

    Again I'll use the Prop 65 warning example. Almost every building in California has a warning about hazardous substances. That means that no one knows which building has _really_ hazardous substances. If that is extended to the medical profession, and every issue is responded to with "well, that might be a serious injury that requires a CAT scan and evaluation by a trained healthcare professional," then that warning will become meaningless - and people who _do_ need to be seen emergently will disregard that 'standard' warning.

    And while that might be advantageous to the lawyers of healthcare providers, it is a definite negative for the people who use their services.

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