Death by stoning.

“But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I (the Lord) have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death. You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken…”

 – Deuteronomy 18:20-22a.

Time was that making predictions and forecasts was a truly dangerous business. The Old Testament penalty for false prophecy was death by stoning. Back then, if you had a message from God and shared it, it had better verify. Were such punishment still in force today, meteorological forecasts would likely show much more rigorous characterization of uncertainty. Or the landscape would be littered with little piles of rock.

As it is, scientists today seem to be getting into trouble.

On April 6, 2009, the L’Aquila earthquake, measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale, struck the Abruzzo region of Italy, killing some 300 people. This tragic loss was not without precedent. L’Aquila had been struck before, notably in 1315, 1349, 1452, 1501, 1646, 1703, and 1706. The 1703 quake killed 5000 people in the region. Such a history over seven centuries is a reminder of our attachment to place and the barriers we face when attempting to prevent repetitive loss.

More than three years later, the world and the scientific community are abuzz about the sentencing earlier this week of six scientists and one government official for their failure to adequately warn of the risk. Haven’t closely followed the story? A few clicks on Google News will turn up all the coverage you might want. Here’s a link to some rather thorough coverage from London’s Daily Mail:, just one of many.  Some scientific societies have been quick to release statements. Here’s one from the American Geophysical Union.  Another sample can be found on the Geological Society of America website. Here’s the latter statement in full:

“On 22 October, 2012, an Italian court convicted six internationally respected scientists of manslaughter. The scientists Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Gian Michel Calvi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Bernardo De Bernardinis have been sentenced to prison terms, barred from public office, and ordered to pay court costs and damages.

Their offense could have been avoided by precisely predicting the timing and nature of the tragic 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. However, such precise, short-term earthquake prediction of the type evidently sought by L’Aquila is currently impossible. Because of the ungainly complexity of earthquake systems, knowledge of physical details is incomplete; the diverse expressions of earthquake processes deliver contradictory messages; and measurements of earthquake phenomena can be inaccurate. Glaringly, the indictment accused the scientists of having provided “incomplete”, “contradictory”, and “inaccurate” information.

The Geological Society of America objects in the strongest terms to bringing scientists to court for doing their job and decries this judgment as detrimental to future positive public communication and discourse. Even if an appeal to a higher court reverses the judgment, damage has been done. The very fact of the trial, and now the verdict rendered, has had a chilling effect on the geoscience community.

The actions of this court will harm interdisciplinary efforts to mitigate loss of life and property from earthquakes or any other natural phenomena. There is now NO incentive for Italian geoscientists to participate in national efforts to ‘forecast and prevent’ major risks. The task before us now is mitigating, in Italy and other nations and regions, the impact of this ‘court-rendered seismic shock.’ Through concerted repairing of institutional and professional damage, scientists must continue to engage in efforts to better understand potential damage from natural hazards and to better communicate the uncertainties associated with ‘prediction.’” 

The blogosphere is full of similar sentiments.

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Certainly the past few years have not been kind to Italy. The country has been hit particularly hard by the 2008 financial sector meltdown and troubles with the Euro.  Silvio Berlusconi’s flawed political leadership prior to Mario Monti’s appointment as prime minister in November 2011 did not help. It might be tempting to believe that with such pressures on the nation and its people have driven the judicial system toward some kind of terrible decision.

However, it might be that the circumstances of the case are more complicated. Some who have studied the matter have reached such conclusions. Roger Pielke, Jr.’s posts are particularly interesting in this regard. Here’s a link to his piece of a few days ago, entitled Mischaracterizations of the L’Aquila Lawsuit Verdict, and an extended excerpt:

“On March 31, 2009, in L’Aquila, six days before a deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 308 people, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department , and six scientists who were members of a scientific advisory body to the Department (the Major Risks Committee) participated in an official meeting and press conference in response to public concerns about short-term earthquake risks. The public concerns were the result of at least two factors: One was the recent occurrence of a number of small earthquakes. A second factor was the prediction of a pending large earthquake issued by Gioacchino Giuliani, who was not a seismologist and worked as a technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics. 

The deputy chief and scientists held a short one-hour meeting and then a press conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. For instance, De Bernardinis went so far as to claim that the recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: “[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.” When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis acted as sommelier: “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.” . . . 

. . . in L’Aquila, the government and its scientists seemed to be sending a different message to the public than the one that was received. Media reports of the Major Risk Committee meeting and the subsequent press conference seem to focus on countering the views offered by Mr. Giuliani, whom they viewed as unscientific and had been battling in preceding months. Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.”

Dr. Pielke reminds us that the matter is not yet fully resolved; an appeals process is underway. [More recently, Roger’s posted closer to home: Legal Liability for Bad Scientific Forecasts in the United States. Both this and his earlier post are worth reading in their entirety.] Judith Curry has also weighed in. She concludes this way:

“The Italian earthquake situation is complicated by confusion of the authority of the statements of Guiliani.   A weather analogy would be evacuating a city based upon a forecast by Joe Bastardi.  In terms of U.S. weather, we know better because of more frequent experience with the particular weather hazards.

And finally, the scientific issue at the heart of this uncertainty:  the Italian scientists were bitten by the uncertainty monster.  As pointed out in the post The weatherman is not a moron,  careful characterization and communication of uncertainty is the hallmark of a useful forecast.

So should all this have a chilling effect on science?  I think not, at least in the U.S., since this is not so much an issue for academic researchers as it is for government agencies in communicating risk and effectively warning the public.  I agree with the AGU statement that

The most appropriate response to natural disasters such as the L’Aquila earthquake is a renewed commitment on the part of scientists, engineers, and government officials to continue working together to more accurately understand and communicate the best available science and information for what can be done to protect the public.”

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Historically, United States hurricane forecasts offer a similar example, recounted in Erik Larson’s book, Isaac’s Storm. It seems that prior to the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which killed 6000 people in Galveston proper and perhaps that many more along the rest of the Gulf Coast, Isaac Cline, a meteorologist with what is now the National Weather Service, had provided an argument to the effect that idiosyncrasies of the Texas coastline in and around Galveston meant that this city enjoyed a particularly low hurricane risk. [He’d supplied his analysis to support local political and business interests seeking to develop Galveston’s port at the expense of neighboring Houston.] This work and the sequence of events caused him no end of personal and professional grief.

In closing, here’s a forecast (look around for a handy stone and grab it) …it’s likely that as the stakes mount for environmental decisions of all sorts (resource extraction, environmental protection, and hazard avoidance), as predictions in this arena become more necessary, and at the same time, more valuable when they prove right and are acted upon, and more damaging when proved wrong, that there will be more courtroom cases such as this around the world. It’s also likely that despite the risks, scientists and engineers will enter this arena; the economic incentives will be simply too great. Look at professional engineering. Design and construct a bridge or a building that collapses, or an airplane that loses a wing in flight, and you risk civil and criminal judgments. Despite these risks, bridges are built. Skyscrapers fill the urban setting. The airways are crowded.

Oh, and if you’ve reared back to heave that rock in my direction…

Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone…[1]

 



[1] John 8:7

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5 Responses to Death by stoning.

  1. Judith Curry says:

    Hi Bill, nice post, Isaac’s Storm is a good analogy here.

    • :) thanks, Judith:

      a little more on the background. According to Larson, Isaac Cline wrote an article published in the Galveston News in 1891 that argued hurricanes as a rule could not strike Texas…and when and if they did, they’d be weak. To quote Larson: [Cline's] “article exudes the unmistable scent of boosterism reminiscent of the immigrant come-ons published by the railroads.” Larson goes on to point out that Cline only incidentally mentioned the 1875 and 1886 hurricanes which struck Indianola, 150 miles southwest of Galveston…and unlike Galveston buffered by barrier islands. The first storm killed 20% of the town’s population. The second so devastated the town that its residents abandoned it forever.

  2. Bill:-
    Excellent post. I was struck by the apparent analogy of warmists vs skeptics to what happened in Italy. The lesson I take from this is that when scientists venture away from science into the policy realm, they may get their hands slapped (in this case, in irons). We scientists (and science itself) would likely be better off if we spoke more cautiously, and did not confuse our deep scientific knowledge with breadth of vision.

  3. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, the issue in Italy might be: did the scientists and advisers involved properly convey the uncertainties and risk as to the possibility of a severe earthquake; or did they, for whatever reason, underplay the risks and foster a false sense of security, leading to people who might otherwise have fled/gone outside to remain in their homes? If the former can be demonstrated beyond doubt, then there are no grounds for conviction, the case would have a chilling effect on scientific advice on risk. If the latter is the case, then it is a cautionary tale for scientists and forecasters to properly assess and convey risk. Many would argue (cf Judith Curry) that in the AGW case, the risks and uncertainties associated with many projected scenarios, and the weight to give to them relative to other policy concerns, have not been properly assessed and communicated.

    As in every field of life, in scientific assessments which bear on public policy, honesty, integrity and openness are essential but are not always demonstrated.

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