Sunday, 4 November 2012

Science rumblings

The conviction of six scientists and a government official in Italy for failing to warn the public about an impending earthquake has sent tremors down the scientific community in general. 

According to reports published in the international media, the scientists were given a six-year prison sentence for manslaughter for their negligence in keeping people informed about the risks of the earthquake which killed over 300 people in the Italian town of L’Aquila in 2009.

The conviction has, predictably, generated a huge controversy with a Guardian headline “From Galileo to the L'Aquila earthquake: Italian science on trial” comparing the recent trial of the six seismologists to the infamous trial of the legendary astronomer Galileo nearly 400 years ago.

For readers of the Public Understanding of Science, the key issue is that the trial of the seismologists is more about communicating science than about science per se. As the New Scientist reports: “The prosecution made it crystal clear all along that their case was about poor risk communication; it was built on an accusation of giving out "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information".

The issue of communication itself is rather murky. A more recent New Scientist article reports on the discovery of taped conversations at a risk assessment meeting in which a senior civil protection official “ordered one of the defendants to issue a reassuring statement.” This is another example of the power tussles among politicians, bureaucrats, and scientists given the diversity of their respective constituencies.

Predicting an earthquake is obviously not an exact science and many scientific bodies have rightly taken exception to the perception that the seismologists may have failed in their scientific endeavours. Two senior scientists in Italy, including the physicists in charge of the National Commission for the Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, have also resigned in protest against the convictions. But as many commentators have pointed out, the convictions were not about the failure to predict the tremors but the failure in communicating the risks in a timely manner. So the challenge that the case throws up relates to the pitfalls of not communicating science appropriately.

Should scientists get media training to communicate their findings of public interest directly to the media? Are there ways in which science, policy, and media can work together to make sure scientific data and findings are understood clearly by people at large? One such initiative to give scientists training to be media savvy has recently taken off in New Zealand. Learning to communicate in an accessible and jargon-free language is of course important for scientists. But having institutional mechanisms to resist political bullying is perhaps even more important.

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