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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cassandra's trap: the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter



In a debate that took place in 2008, Mr. Enzo Boschi, professor of seismology at the University of Bologna, made some statements that likely he regretted later on. As recorded in this video (in Italian) he said something that can be translated as, “we made a complex and precise model that shows that this area is not subjected to a large seismic risk. So, you may feel some tremors, but your house will not fall on your head.” Unfortunately, not much later, in April 2009, the region was struck by a major Earthquake that caused several victims.


Stating in public what science says about the risks of global warming is not an experience for the faint hearted. If you ever tried that, you know that you'll be assaulted and abused by legions of commenters who will accuse you, among other things, of being an "alarmist;" with the innuendo that you are saying that in order to bring money to the fat coffers of your research institute. This is something that I often call "Cassandra's curse"

However, in recent times, I started to note a flow, small but increasing, of comments that carry the opposite criticism: "scientists," they say, "have been poor at explaining how things really stand with climate. They didn't do enough to inform us on how serious the situation is". This is something that we could call "Cassandra's trap," the fear of alarming people, of telling of disasters that won't come, in short of looking like an alarmist.

The attitude of playing down risks is something that we recently saw with the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter because - the court said - they gave falsely reassuring statements before the quake that struck the region of Abruzzo, in Italy, in 2009.

The international press has been unanimous in criticizing the sentence, sometimes speaking of a "witch hunt,"and citing the case of Galileo Galilei. It may well be that the sentence was too harsh and it is true that earthquakes cannot be predicted. However, some of the statements by the sentenced scientists do look rather questionable - to say the least; especially the one that I have translated from the video, above. It is true that it was to be understood as referred to the seismic risk of a specific drilling project, but the way it was said it seemed to refer to the general seismic risk of the whole region. That could have misled people, indeed. My impression is that Mr. Boschi and his colleagues may have been victim of the "Cassandra's trap;" the fear of being branded as alarmists.

What we do as scientists often looks like a lot of fun. We make experiments, we publish the results, we speak at conferences, and the whole seems to have little to do with the real world. But sometimes we forget that science often deals with very dangerous things and that is true especially in some fields. Seismology is one: people die because of earthquakes. The experts in this field have the responsibility of telling people how things really stand.

The same holds for climate science: people die because of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other consequences of climate change. So, as scientists we have a heavy responsibility in what we say in public. We must be very careful in avoiding to exaggerate the threats we face, but also in not making the opposite mistake: minimizing them. It is not easy but, if we are real professionals, we must be able to tell the truth.

You know, sometimes I have this feeling that some climate scientists, are falling in the Cassandra's trap; that is they have a habit of playing down or not mentioning the risks we face. Considering the tone of some comments that I received, lately, I wonder: will that lead, one day, to some of us being sentenced to jail for manslaughter? Hopefully not, but it is not to early to tell people how things really stand!





23 comments:

  1. Ugo,

    This particular case seems to be more nuanced than initial reports showed. The headlines went round the world and, no doubt, will have added to entrenched positions rather than inform.

    Let us hope that the judge will publicise the reasons for this judgement sooner rather than later.

    I have done a brief read of Italian risk of earthquakes, as a result of this verdict. Not enough, I hasten to add, to do any more than realise that there is always going to be a risk of an earthquake in Italy and that any advice is likely to be couched in much uncertainty.

    Communicating that uncertainty is fraught with difficulties. Some people will hear the uncertainty to mean it can be ignored, whilst others will think that uncertain event is bound to happen.

    Will you do a follow-up post when the judgement is published?

    Mike

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    1. Yes, it is a long, complex, and nuanced story. There is no doubt that, in part, the scientists have undergone a sort of judicial lynching. But the point is, I think, that some colleagues don't realize the responsibility they have in their job.

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  2. Could climate scientists face jail for manslaughter? I should think that much more likely is that the vocal deniers of climate science, who have done so much to delay the actions that might have avoided disaster, will face trial their actions. I can't imagine that the scientists will be more vilified than the deniers will be.

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    1. You know, anonymous, from some comments that I received, I think that it CAN be imagined

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  3. Ugo, am I too pessimistic, if I think it is already too late?

    Cheers,

    Alex

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    1. Never too late to fight a good fight.

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  4. Problem is that scientific reports are neutral. When they talk about risk assessment, the problem is huge. You have a 0.5% risk to have a big earthquake in L'Aquila. You have also 0.5% chance to be involved in a car crash. If you live in L'Aquila, would you sit on the entrance, because if you stay at home would be caught by the earthquake end if you leave you would be struck by a car?

    This is nonsense.

    If the chance is 0.5% of a earthquake to happen, I would reassure population, especially if a bad scientist in the same days was claiming that a big earthquake would struck Sulmona ( maybe some people believing in it would come to L'Aquila to be safe).

    It is matter to separate the post hoc knowledge ( unfortunately the earthquake struck) from the a priori knowledge.

    You know, the Emilia seismic sequence for sure is not ended, the past similar sequence was almost 10 years long, with very big earthquake in it (around 7th degree). What would you do? Evacuate all inhabitants between Modena, Bologna, Ferrara? NOW?

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  5. Just to clarfy, i live in Bologna, so I don't talk of someone else problems

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  6. Dear Prof. Bardi, could you please state how many people have died "because of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other consequences of climate change"? Also, how many events in each category have been due to human influence on the climate? Thank you very much.

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    1. I think this is what you are looking for?

      http://www.munichre.com/en/media_relations/press_releases/2012/2012_10_17_press_release.aspx

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    2. Not worth answering to someone who signs "frogintheblender"

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    3. You are probably correct here. No acknowledgement or feedback to date. Hopefully, others will find the Munich RE report of interest.

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    4. I was hoping for reliable info, i.e., peer-reviewed papers in respected journals, not a press release from an insurance giant with a strong interest in selling insurance against catastrophic events.

      Please quote the relevant numbers in each category (numbers of deaths, numbers of human-caused events) and add links to the papers online (abstracts if free full text not available).

      Thank you very much.

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    5. See, Mike? It is exactly what I said.

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    6. So, Prof. Bardi, you were just blowing smoke, with no reliable data to back your claims? I am sorry to hear that.

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    7. Have you looked at IPCC AR4 WG II? Munich Re's research is reviewed by the IPCC. Add in the fact that commercial organizations have been collecting environmental data for decades and centuries, I see no reason to doubt their findings just because of commercial activity.

      Or have you just decided on the answer you want regardless.

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  7. In his book "Nuclear Renaissance" William Nuttall noted that nuclear engineers responded to public fear with a technical effort to reduce the probabilistic risk of a major accident to 1e-6 events per year. However, he pointed out that what people want is a reduction of fear, not a reduction of risk. In the context of earthquakes, "low risk" is not "no risk".

    The underlying problem is twofold: firstly, humans are not well equiped to continuously worry about catastophic, but unlikely events; secondly, most people (including some researchers) don't really understand statistics, particularly in a Bayesian way.

    This is the background in which scientists and engineers whom comment publicly must operate.

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  8. Definitely UnorthodoxOctober 27, 2012 at 2:29 AM

    If some Italians are not happy with the explicit or implicit predictions of their scientists regarding possible / probable future seismic events and want to send their scientists to jail, let them go to St Peters cathedral instead and pray to God that there will never be any earthquakes near where they live. And for that matter let all the 7 billion people who now live on Planet Earth pray to God too that neither CO2 nor Methane nor anything else will ever tip Earth's climate to become like that of Venus. And God is certain to do one of two things: i) answer their prayers positively or ii) tell them to sort out their own problems and behave a bit better and more intelligently the next time around. And what He decided to do will only be known with certainty after the fact. After clearly understanding all the implications of the preceding perhaps the very human and fallible predictions of scientists - whether they prove later to have been right or wrong - will be appreciated a lot more. And in the meantime a "minor addition" should be made to all elementary school curricula throughout the planet explaining to young children precisely what science is, what it is not, what it can do and what it cannot do. Both of the above measures would go a long way to keep any hapless scientists with loose tongues out of jail and at the same time honor the memory of both Cassandra AND Chicken Little.

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  9. And now you may no longer wonder why we felines prowls silent and sleep 15 hours a day; ennui is a haven. Let the dogs bark as is their nature, while their petulant Masters slap their noses.

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  10. Should economists go to jail because they predict perpetual growth?
    http://youtu.be/qnk0qWpEsws

    The Inquisition is back to excommunicate scientists.

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  11. economists might have rather more than jail to worry about when the proles realize that, although scientists predicted with some accuracy 40 years ago what will happen to them and their families when growth ends, economists and the other tame intellectuals of capitalism did everything possible to deny or cover it up.

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  12. I wonder if only one person of those who died were still alive, if the scientists had spoken out something like "Looking at the series of small tremors and the statistics and the geology, there can be stated a probability of a strong earthquake of 0.02 in the next year in this region." which I guess would habe been in the vicinity of a correct answer.
    So IMO the connection between what the scientists said (not) and the effect is not given.
    Concerning climate change, there is no other possibility than to accustom the public with probability statements. BTW this is also true for weather forecasts and the more for economic forecasts.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)