Scientists on Trial: Risk Communication Becomes Riskier
Back in late May 2011, there were news stories of charges of manslaughter laid against six earthquake experts and a government advisor responsible for evaluating the threat of natural disasters in Italy, on grounds that they allegedly failed to give sufficient warning about the devastating L’Aquila earthquake in 2009. In addition, plaintiffs in a separate civil case are seeking damages in the order of €22.5 million (US$31.6 million). The first hearing of the criminal trial occurred on Tuesday the 20th of September, and the second session is scheduled for October 1st.
According to Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella, the defendants gave inexact, incomplete and contradictory information about whether smaller tremors in L’Aquila six months before the 6.3 magnitude quake on 6 April, which killed 308 people, were to be considered warning signs of the quake that eventuated. L’Aquila was largely flattened, and thousands of survivors lived in tent camps or temporary housing for months.
If convicted, the defendants face up to 15 years in jail and almost certainly will suffer career-ending consequences. While manslaughter charges for natural disasters have precedents in Italy, they have previously concerned breaches of building codes in quake-prone areas. Interestingly, no action has yet been taken against the engineers who designed the buildings that collapsed, or government officials responsible for enforcing building code compliance. However, there have been indications of lax building codes and the possibility of local corruption.
The trial has, naturally, outraged scientists and others sympathetic to the plight of the earthquake experts. An open letter by the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) said the allegations were unfounded and amounted to “prosecuting scientists for failing to do something they cannot do yet — predict earthquakes”. The AAAS has presented a similar letter, which can be read here.
In pre-trial statements, the defence lawyers also have argued that it was impossible to predict earthquakes. “As we all know, quakes aren’t predictable,” said Marcello Melandri, defence lawyer for defendant Enzo Boschi, who was president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology). The implication is that because quakes cannot be predicted, the accusations that the commission’s scientists and civil protection experts should have warned that a major quake was imminent are baseless.
Unfortunately, the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, the AAAS, and the defence lawyers were missing the point. It seems that failure to predict quakes is not the substance of the accusations. Instead, it is poor communication of the risks, inappropriate reassurance of the local population and inadequate hazard assessment. Contrary to earlier reports, the prosecution apparently is not claiming the earthquake should have been predicted. Instead, their focus is on the nature of the risk messages and advice issued by the experts to the public.
Examples raised by the prosecution include a memo issued after a commission meeting on 31 March 2009 stating that a major quake was “improbable,” a statement to local media that six months of low-magnitude tremors was not unusual in the highly seismic region and did not mean a major quake would follow, and an apparent discounting of the notion that the public should be worried. Against this, defence lawyer Melandri has been reported saying that the panel “never said, ‘stay calm, there is no risk'”.
It is at this point that the issues become both complex (by their nature) and complicated (by people). Several commentators have pointed out that the scientists are distinguished experts, by way of asserting that they are unlikely to have erred in their judgement of the risks. But they are being accused of “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information” communication to the public. As one of the civil parties to the lawsuit put it, “Either they didn’t know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn’t know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.”
So, the experts’ scientific expertise is not on trial. Instead, it is their expertise in risk communication. As Stephen S. Hall’s excellent essay in Nature points out, regardless of the outcome this trial is likely to make many scientists more reluctant to engage with the public or the media about risk assessments of all kinds. The AAAS letter makes this point too. And regardless of which country you live in, it is unwise to think “Well, that’s Italy for you. It can’t happen here.” It most certainly can and probably will.
Matters are further complicated by the abnormal nature of the commission meeting on the 31st of March at a local government office in L’Aquila. Boschi claims that these proceedings normally are closed whereas this meeting was open to government officials, and he and the other scientists at the meeting did not realize that the officials’ agenda was to calm the public. The commission did not issue its usual formal statement, and the minutes of the meeting were not completed, until after the earthquake had occurred. Instead, two members of the commission, Franco Barberi and Bernardo De Bernardinis, along with the mayor and an official from Abruzzo’s civil-protection department, held a now (in)famous press conference after the meeting where they issued reassuring messages.
De Bernardinis, an expert on floods but not earthquakes, incorrectly stated that the numerous earthquakes of the swarm would lessen the risk of a larger earthquake by releasing stress. He also agreed with a journalist’s suggestion that residents enjoy a glass of wine instead of worrying about an impending quake.
The prosecution also is arguing that the commission should have reminded residents in L’Aquila of the fragility of many older buildings, advised them to make preparations for a quake, and reminded them of what to do in the event of a quake. This amounts to an accusation of a failure to perform a duty of care, a duty that many scientists providing risk assessments may dispute that they bear.
After all, telling the public what they should or should not do is a civil or governmental matter, not a scientific one. Thomas Jordan’s essay in New Scientist brings in this verdict: “I can see no merit in prosecuting public servants who were trying in good faith to protect the public under chaotic circumstances. With hindsight their failure to highlight the hazard may be regrettable, but the inactions of a stressed risk-advisory system can hardly be construed as criminal acts on the part of individual scientists.” As Jordan points out, there is a need to separate the role of science advisors from that of civil decision-makers who must weigh the benefits of protective actions against the costs of false alarms. This would seem to be a key issue that urgently needs to be worked through, given the need for scientific input into decisions about extreme hazards and events, both natural and human-caused.
Scientists generally are not trained in communication or in dealing with the media, and communication about risks is an especially tricky undertaking. I would venture to say that the prosecution, defence, judge, and journalists reporting on the trial will not be experts in risk communication either. The problems in risk communication are well known to psychologists and social scientists specializing in its study, but not to non-specialists. Moreover, these specialists will tell you that solutions to those problems are hard to come by.
For example, Otway and Wynne (1989) observed in a classic paper that an “effective” risk message has to simultaneously reassure by saying the risk is tolerable and panic will not help, and warn by stating what actions need to be taken should an emergency arise. They coined the term “reassurance arousal paradox” to describe this tradeoff (which of course is not a paradox, but a tradeoff). The appropriate balance is difficult to achieve, and is made even more so by the fact that not everyone responds in the same way to the same risk message.
It is also well known that laypeople do not think of risks in the same way as risk experts (for instance, laypeople tend to see “hazard” and “risk” as synonyms), nor do they rate risk severity in line with the product of probability and magnitude of consequence, nor do they understand probability—especially low probabilities. Given all of this, it will be interesting to see how the prosecution attempts to establish that the commission’s risk communications contained “incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information.”
Scientists who try to communicate risks are aware of some of these issues, but usually (and understandably) uninformed about the psychology of risk perception (see, for instance, my posts here and here on communicating uncertainty about climate science). I’ll close with just one example. A recent International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting (ICEF) report argues that frequently updated hazard probabilities are the best way to communicate risk information to the public. Jordan, chair of the ICEF, recommends that “Seismic weather reports, if you will, should be put out on a daily basis.” Laudable as this prescription is, there are at least three problems with it.
Weather reports with probabilities of rain typically present probabilities neither close to 0 nor to 1. Moreover, they usually are anchored on tenths (e.g., .2, or .6 but not precise numbers like .23162 or .62947). Most people have reasonable intuitions about mid-range probabilities such as .2 or .6. But earthquake forecasting has very low probabilities, as was the case in the lead-up to the L’Aquila event. Italian seismologists had estimated the probability of a large earthquake in the next three days had increased from 1 in 200,000, before the earthquake swarm began, to 1 in 1,000 following the two large tremors the day before the quake.
The first problem arises from the small magnitude of these probabilities. Because people are limited in their ability to comprehend and evaluate extreme probabilities, highly unlikely events usually are either ignored or overweighted. The tendency to ignore low-probability events has been cited to account for the well-established phenomenon that homeowners tend to be under-insured against low probability hazards (e.g., earthquake, flood and hurricane damage) in areas prone to those hazards. On the other hand, the tendency to over-weight low-probability events has been used to explain the same people’s propensity to purchase lottery tickets. The point is that low-probability events either excite people out of proportion to their likelihood or fail to excite them altogether.
The second problem is in understanding the increase in risk from 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 1,000. Most people are readily able to comprehend the differences between mid-range probabilities such as an increase in the chance of rain from .2 to .6. However, they may not appreciate the magnitude of the difference between the two low probabilities in our example. For instance, an experimental study with jurors in mock trials found that although DNA evidence is typically expressed in terms of probability (specifically, the probability that the DNA sample could have come from a randomly selected person in the population), jurors were equally likely to convict on the basis of a probability of 1 in 1,000 as a probability of 1 in 1 billion. At the very least, the public would need some training and accustoming to miniscule probabilities.
All this leads us to the third problem. Otway and Wynne’s “reassurance arousal paradox” is exacerbated by risk communications about extremely low-probability hazards, no matter how carefully they are crafted. Recipients of such messages will be highly suggestible, especially when the stakes are high. So, what should the threshold probability be for determining when a “don’t ignore this” message is issued? It can’t be the imbecilic Dick Cheney zero-risk threshold for terrorism threats, but what should it be instead?
Note that this is a matter for policy-makers to decide, not scientists, even though scientific input regarding potential consequences of false alarms and false reassurances should be taken into account. Criminal trials and civil lawsuits punishing the bearers of false reassurances will drive risk communicators to lower their own alarm thresholds, thereby ensuring that they will sound false alarms increasingly often (see my post about making the “wrong” decision most of the time for the “right” reasons).
Risk communication regarding low-probability, high-stakes hazards is one of the most difficult kinds of communication to perform effectively, and most of its problems remain unsolved. The L’Aquila trial probably will have an inhibitory impact on scientists’ willingness to front the media or the public. But it may also stimulate scientists and decision-makers to work together for the resolution of these problems.