Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The perception of the risk

A couple of days ago, the news about the l'Aquila trial spreaded around the world like a shock wave. Six scientists and one Government officer were found guilty of manslaughter, because they have not properly assessed and communicated the seismic risk before the strong earthquake (5.9 magnitudo Richter) that hit the city of l'Aquila on 6 April 2009, where 309 persons died. The conviction amounts at six years in jail. Those who started the trial, and particularly the Italian public prosecutor Fabio Picuti, stressed many times that they never addressed the lack of ability to predict earthquakes, but how the seven persons under charge informed the l'Aquila people before the strong earthquake (see Nature Editorial). Several blogs reported and commented the news. Just to cite a few, in addition to the two Nature news already cited: BBC News, Chris Rowan on Highly Allochthonous, and Peter Coles on Telescoper. Obviously, there are also the posts in Italian blogs and newspapers: Amedeo Balbi, Silvia Bencivelli, Mario Tozzi, Franco Battaglia, Nicola Nosengo, Marco Cattaneo, and Gianni Pardo. The official press release of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) can be downloaded here (pdf).

It is worth noting that one basic information is missing: the reasons of the sentence. In Italy, the judge has up to three months to write the reasons. I have never understood why the Court can emit a sentence, which in turn can ruin the life of people, and wait for three months to explain why. Probably, this derives from my scientific nature: it is usual for a scientist to explain immediately the reasons of a theory that he can have elaborated. It is not possible for a scientist to submit a paper or give a talk by saying to have found the theory of everything, but explanations and proofs will follow later. Therefore, I cannot comment on the sentence itself, but on what happened all around, because there are anyway some lessons to learn.

The Italian public prosecutor, Fabio Picuti, declared: 

I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila. [...] They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors, and they did not. [from Nature]

It seems that the vexata quaestio was an interview to Bernardo de Bernardinis, an officer of the Civil Protection Department, made on 31 March 2009:

The interview is in Italian, so I will translate here some parts that I think are most important. Already the journalist starts the interview by saying:

I do not ask you to make the miracle to reassure us, because this cannot be done by anyone.

This already sets the tone of the interview. De Bernardinis, speaking about the tremors of the previous days, immediately explains his position:

Scientists will evaluate its pattern. I am an operational. By this time, I cast off the academic hat.
and then continues:
From the Civil Protection point of view, this teaches us two things. The first fact is that we have to coexist with this territory, which is made in such way, which is made not only of landslides and floods, but also of seismic. Second, we have to keep a state of attention - but not of anxiety - by understanding that we have to cope with situations that require to be ready - but serene - when living our everyday life ... by knowing that who is around us is ready to intervene, is ready to give the maximum support.
Perhaps, the most doubtful and hazardous phrases are at the end of the interview:

There is no danger, I have told it to the mayor of Sulmona [perhaps De Bernardinis is referring to the episode occurred a few days earlier when G. Giuliani claimed of having predicted a tremor occurred on 29 March 2009]. The scientific community continues to confirm that is instead a positive situation, because there is a continuous discharge of energy... therefore there are rather intense events, not most intense, therefore we have somehow seen a few damages, given the very long time sequence of events. We are thus ready to cope with the situation. I ask to the citizens to be... rather to the inhabitants, to the population to be close to us and to be close to themselves.
As reported by Nature:  
According to the prosecutor, such reassurances led 29 victims who would otherwise have left L’Aquila in the following days to change their minds and decide to stay; they died when their homes collapsed. The prosecutor thus reasoned that the “inadequate” risk assessment of the expert panel led to scientifically incorrect messages being given to the public, which contributed to a higher death count.

I really do not see anything so wrong and dangerous in the interview of De Bernardinis; just the latest part could be questionable. However, even if I could be biased by my scientific attitude, the problem is why one could focus only on this latest part, instead of the whole interview. Perhaps, there could have been other sources of information, because the above interview does not seem to invite people to relax. De Bernardinis asks to be careful, but with no panic: the Civil Protection was ready for its duty. 

As told by De Bernardinis, that region (and the whole Italy) is always under seismic risk. Have a look at the web page of INGV reporting the tremors with magnitudo Richter greater than 2 recorded in Italy: it is an almost continuous sequence. Everyday the ground moves somewhere in Italy, as underlined by the map of the seismic risk in our country (here is an interactive version). 

Map of Seismic Hazard in Italy (source IGNV).

Also the maps with the probability of a large earthquake (magnitudo Richter >5.5) in Italy are interesting and place l'Aquila in one of the worst regions (here the map on 1st January 2009). All these information are publicly available. The INGV guarantees an invaluable service to the Italian community. Moreover, given the long national history, I really doubt that there is one single Italian who is not aware of living in a high seismic risk country.

The problem is that the scientific information and statistics are different from the individual perception of the risk. One is not afraid of things that thinks to be able to control, while the panic starts when one has to cope with the other types of dangers, without direct control. People are not afraid to use cars, while there is some anxiety when taking a train or an airplane. This happens despite the fact that statistics say that airplanes are much safer than cars. People are afraid of the electromagnetic waves pollution, but do not stop using mobile phones. They prefer to focus on antennas, relay stations, and power lines. People are afraid of a nuclear power station, but not of X-ray photos. People are afraid of GMO, but nobody cares about farmers doing engraftations. The examples are many. 

The knowledge is not a key factor: everybody knows that to smoke cause the lung cancer, but people smoke anyway. Instead, there is some probability to contract BSE by eating a steak, and nobody buys steaks. What is important for persons is the absolute belief to control the events, even though they are not actually able to do it. A drunk thinks to be able to drive a car; a smoker believes to be able to stop smoking at any time. It is not by chance that accidents occur when people think to be safe and relax. The belief to be safe is a psychological factor: science and knowledge have little impact on the individual decisions. Another psychological factor is also how individuals think to pain and death. When one stipulates an insurance, the highest premium is for disability, rather than death. People are not afraid to die in one stroke. People are afraid to continue living and to suffer. So, it is not reliable to establish a causal link between some words of anyone and the decision taken by others. There is always a personal elaboration, which has the most important weight. The same word can have some effect on one person, but nothing on others.  

To improve this situation, it is necessary to act on the culture. An ancient Chinese proverb states: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. People should understand that it is their own interest to learn science, and culture in general. This does not guarantee a life exempt of risks, but surely can help to live much better. At least, one can search for more information before taking a decision (all the information publicly available at the web site of INGV are useless if people are not able to understand the content). At least, one can ask to the local Government to set up evacuation drills, to teach people what to do in case of earthquake, landslides, and floods. At least, one can require to the builder to make an earthquake-proof house, instead of a pile of bricks with a bit of concrete. Indeed, as underlined by many bloggers, in such situations the only possibility is to act on the buildings, by making reliable structures with the most advanced earthquake-proof technologies. It is not possible to act on when; it is only possible to prepare for it and this is possible only if people understand this need. Other countries already did it: Japan, California, and many others. It would be time also for Italy to do it, although it is difficult because of the invaluable historical heritage. Searching for scapegoats is surely not the best way.

Note added on 25 October: let us have a bit of humor with the mug shots of "criminal scientists" made by Dean Burnett on The Guardian.

Note added on 26 October: two more interesting essays, one by Matt Strassler and the other by Marco Olivetti (in Italian).

Note added on 31 October: another update by N. Nosengo on Nature. 

1 comment:

  1. A very nice post and good examples of what we chose to ignore and what not. You have rightly pointed out that general members of public respond to what governments, business houses want. I think that every era is an era of manufactured opinions. Noam Chmosy has written a nice piece on "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media".

    The present incidence impress upon the scientific community to be more proactive to spread the awareness of their research work in a language which can be easily understood by the society.