The l’Aquila Verdict. A Judgment Not Against Science, but Against A Failure of Scientists to Communicate
A court in Italy has convicted six scientists and one civil defense official of manslaughter in connection with their predictions about an earthquake in l’Aquila in 2009 that killed 309 people. But, contrary to the majority of the news coverage this decision is getting and the gnashing of teeth in the scientific community, the trial was not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes. These convictions were about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have as citizens to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices.
It is ludicrous and naïve for the American Association for the Advancement of Science to condemn the verdict, as they did the charges when they were filed, as a misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities. That this was never about the ability of seismologists to predict earthquakes is clear from the very indictment itself; the defendants were accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors prior to the April 6 quake should have constituted grounds for a warning. It was never about whether the scientists could or could not predict earthquakes. Even the leader of the 309 Martiri (309 Martyrs) who pressed for the case to be brought said so; Dr. Vincenzo Vittorini, who lost his wife and daughter in the quake, said back when the trial began "Nobody here wants to put science in the dock. We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices".
Dr. Vittorini’s frustration and anger are understandable. The scientists did a horrible job of communicating. In fact, the scientists didn’t communicate at all! Italy’s national Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi asked the experts to convene after a series of tremors in the seismically active Appenines led a local physics lab technician to predict a big quake (based on radon levels). The experts met for several hours, discounted the radon-based prediction, and agreed that the tremors could not help predict whether there would be a major quake. The scientists then left town without speaking at all. A local civil defense official who ran the meeting was asked about it by a reporter and casually and inaccurately described the discussions. "The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable." Dr. Bernardo De Bernardinis, deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, added laconically that local citizens should go have a glass of wine. A little over a week later 309 of them were dead.
THAT is what this trial was all about; the poor risk communication from Dr. De Bernardinis – one of those convicted – and the NON-communication by seismic experts, who would certainly have offered more careful and qualified comments. Did that poor communication cause those tragic deaths and warrant manslaughter convictions? Certainly not, as the defense attorneys argued. But did it fail a frightened community looking to the scientific experts for help, for guidance, for whatever insights they could offer…a community so scared by the tremors and that lab tech’s prediction that hundreds of people were sleeping outdoors? Yes, the poor communication was a serious failure, although scientists share the responsibility with the Italian national government.
While these scientists were there for their expertise in seismic risk, not as communicators, they also knew full well how frightened people were, and how important their opinions about the possibility of a major earthquake would be, and how urgently the community wanted…needed…to hear from them. But they just left town, and let a non-seismologist describe their discussions. For his failing to do so accurately and without appropriate qualifications, the scientists themselves are also surely to blame.
But so is the national government. How can a Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi, which convenes experts to try to predict and plan for various possible disasters, not include someone responsible for the vital job of risk communication? This is a critical part of overall risk management, because it shapes the way the public perceives a risk, and that has everything to do with how prepared people are for natural disasters, how they respond when a disaster strikes, and how they recover, both physically and psychologically. The psychological recovery matters a lot to physical health. Chronic stress does great harm to human health in many ways and it is often the case in disaster recovery that the psychological damage does as much damage to the effected community, and in some cases more, than the disastrous event itself.
That there was no one at that experts’ meeting trained in and responsible for communicating the results of the discussion to the public, is a gross failure in and of itself. At the very least the experts in the meeting should have been expressly told that as members of the Commissione Nazionale dei Grandi Rischi they had an obligation to communicate to the public they were there to serve. Any risk management program that overlooks the importance of risk communication is dangerously inadequate. This entire affair could well have been prevented but for that oversight.
But there is a subtext here that brings us back to the role of scientists as communicators and educators, particularly scientists with expertise about issues involving risk. Indeed, this trial sends a message to anyone with such credentials. As much as we need experts to help predict and plan for risk to society in general, we also need experts to help us understand what we need to know to protect ourselves as individuals. Scientific experts are among the most highly trusted sources of information in society, and as much as they share their expertise about risk with governments, they should also communicate with and educate individuals looking for the same kind of guidance. Small wonder then that the people of l’Aquila are celebrating what is essentially their revenge against those they hoped would help them make informed choices about how to stay safe, experts who – quite innocently, to be sure – let those people down.
This piece originally appeared on Scientific American Guest Blogs
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Hungarian cartographer travels the world while mapping its treasures.
- Simple idea, stunning result: the world's watersheds in glorious colors.
- The maps are the work of Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs.
- His job: to travel and map the world, one good cause at a time.
The world<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzU3Njk1M30.rRdZpcl0bfVi4oBsljHdZSbcX0New9rdLcx6fr2mD7Y/img.png?width=980" id="f982a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fa67421340f881d5ab91463514cf9a6d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Can you spot the world's ten largest drainage basins? In order of magnitude: Amazon, Congo, Nile, Mississippi, Ob, Parana, Yenisei, Lena, Niger, Amur. Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Africa<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTI2MzI0MX0.OeTS-scZwBES4AlZAan7fBlaBkznkig5hPjgcd1j6hw/img.png?width=980" id="e987c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d3a8999ed4071a123b30efc5652fee9" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Africa is home to the rivers with the world's second- and third-largest catchment areas: the Congo (in blue), with a basin of 1.44 million square miles (3.73 million km2), and the Nile (in red), with basin area of 1.26 million square miles (3.25 million km2). The Nile is the longest river in Africa, though (4,130 miles; 6,650 km), followed by the Congo: 2,900 miles (4,700 km). The Congo River's alternative name, Zaire, comes from the Kikongo nzadi o nzere ('river swallowing rivers'). Image source: Grasshopper Geography
Europe<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUyOS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTkzOTMyMH0.tq5fjnq8wvLqXY0C9gzfoUd0ahOAQ7IZQxbpVnC1FdY/img.png?width=980" id="a8ec4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1ce5f59691501103343e080905ce74a3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Volga (in yellow) is the river with the biggest catchment area in Europe (just under 545,000 square miles; 1.41 million km2). It flows exclusively through Russia, and the catchment area is entirely within Russia as well. Europe's number two is the Danube (in orange), which flows through 10 countries — more than any other river in the world. Its drainage basin (just over 307,000 square miles; almost 796,000 km2) includes nine more countries. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Germany<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzk4ODA3Nn0.qX1sOfJWAI7TUbTQCiIob-R5p4_wj299wEtrYAUREmg/img.png?width=980" id="d5efa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8e73c53d75840f21b4f2ca4b8a1e7f51" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The hydrographic map of Germany is dominated by just four major drainage systems: the Danube (in orange) in the south, the Rhine (in blue) in the west, the Elbe (in purple) in the east and the Weser (in green) between the latter two. In Antiquity, the Rhine was the border between the Roman Empire and the Germans. Rome once attempted to shift the border to the Elbe, which would have radically altered the course of history, but it suffered a massive defeat in 9 CE at the Teutoburger Wald (roughly between both rivers). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Great Britain and Ireland<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTk2MjM3MX0.nDy__OLIyC1arty4_2xd54fjTzmfsIZo-2pe5QRjjA4/img.png?width=980" id="31a6f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d089f66097f37a10ab854eaccdac3581" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Both Ireland and Great Britain are islands, as a result of which neither boasts a continental-class river. Twenty of the 30 longest British rivers are less than 100 miles (160 km) long. The longest river in Britain is the Severn (220 miles, 354 km), its catchment area shown in blue in the southwest. Ireland's longest river is the Shannon (224 miles, 360 km). Even combined they're not as long as France's Seine (483 miles, 777 km). Image: Grasshopper Geography
United States<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDYyMzEyM30.7S_83dA6bcLyID_7BhH1R_OTy61tpgDZrBMQ_iPwnjM/img.png?width=980" id="a879d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a7c74a7b5a7887fb2d13b40d5d96223c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Spread-eagled across the central part of the United States, the Mississippi's drainage basin covers all or parts of 32 U.S. states (and two Canadian provinces). The easternmost point of Ol' Man River's catchment area is really far east: Cobb Hill in northern Pennsylvania. Here rises the Allegheny, tributary of the Ohio, which in turn flows into the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Washington State<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MzU2MzM4OH0.mniqbkEQq84rNaWOQIl4fB4mOhNdJf5WactNyE_VsyM/img.png?width=980" id="adc4d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97eb5a5add49c06ef00ff0bca812b380" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Even leaving out the Mississippi, there's enough going on in the rest of North America to keep the eye occupied. Here's a drainage map of Washington State. The big fish in this much smaller pond is the Columbia River (drainage area in blue), the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. Only in the western third of the state is there a colourful counterpoint, in the multitude of smaller river basins that are draining into the Pacific or into Puget Sound. Image: Grasshopper Geography
Australia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTM0ODM2NH0.U7vckwnoNoxf-bk8SuYO246hNMpR2zXILILsd4pas9o/img.png?width=980" id="38c2b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c44d30d61c6cb94b8d5c7205cbabd58" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
At 1,558 miles (2,508 km), the Murray is Australia's longest river. It is often considered in conjunction with the Darling (915 miles, 1,472 km), the country's third-longest river, which flows into the Murray. The Murray-Darling basin (in blue, in the southeast) covers just under 410,000 square miles (1.06 million km2), or 14 percent of Australia's total territory. Don't let that spidery network of river courses in the interior fool you: Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent (Antarctica, bizarrely, is drier). Image: Grasshopper Geography
Russia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTE0MjUzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzg5MzIxOX0.WhShHLjjWdEh4FF_OZsY1oTN3Vc77X29TbMYbVHrHqA/img.png?width=980" id="f5cee" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="53acd93f1ab67be979e6ab128c144ce6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Four of the world's largest drainage basins are in Russia: the Ob, Yenisei and Lena (origin of Vladimir I. Ulyanov's nom de guerre, Lenin) entirely and the Amur, shared with China. The Volga may be Europe's longest river, but 84 percent or Russia's surface water is east of the Urals, in Siberia. The sparsely-populated region is traversed by 40 rivers longer than 1,000 km. Combined, the Ob, Yenisey and Lena rivers cover a drainage area of about 8 million km2, discharging nearly 50,000 m3 of water per second in the Arctic. Image: Grasshopper Geography
The images and our best computer models don't agree.
A trio of intriguing galaxy clusters<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzNDA0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTkzNzUyOH0.0IRzkzvKsmPEHV-v1dqM1JIPhgE2W-UHx0COuB0qQnA/img.jpg?width=980" id="d69be" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2d2664d9174369e0a06540cb3a3a9079" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The three galaxy clusters imaged for the study
Mapping dark matter<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d904b585c806752f261e1215014691a6"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fO0jO_a9uLA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The assumption has been that the greater the lensing effect, the higher the concentration of dark matter.</p><p>As scientists analyzed the clusters' large-scale lensing — the massive arc and elongation visual effects produced by dark matter — they noticed areas of smaller-scale lensing within that larger distortion. The scientists interpret these as concentrations of dark matter within individual galaxies inside the clusters.</p><p>The researchers used spectrographic data from the VLT to determine the mass of these smaller lenses. <a href="https://www.oas.inaf.it/en/user/pietro.bergamini/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Pietro Bergamini</a> of the INAF-Observatory of Astrophysics and Space Science in Bologna, Italy explains, "The speed of the stars gave us an estimate of each individual galaxy's mass, including the amount of dark matter." The leader of the spectrographic aspect of the study was <a href="http://docente.unife.it/docenti-en/piero.rosati1/curriculum?set_language=en" target="_blank">Piero Rosati</a> of the Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Italy who recalls, "the data from Hubble and the VLT provided excellent synergy. We were able to associate the galaxies with each cluster and estimate their distances." </p><p>This work allowed the team to develop a thoroughly calibrated, high-resolution map of dark matter concentrations throughout the three clusters.</p>
But the models say...<p>However, when the researchers compared their map to the concentrations of dark matter computer models predicted for galaxies bearing the same general characteristics, something was <em>way</em> off. Some small-scale areas of the map had 10 times the amount of lensing — and presumably 10 times the amount of dark matter — than the model predicted.</p><p>"The results of these analyses further demonstrate how observations and numerical simulations go hand in hand," notes one team member, <a href="https://nena12276.wixsite.com/elenarasia" target="_blank">Elena Rasia</a> of the INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Trieste, Italy. Another, <a href="http://adlibitum.oats.inaf.it/borgani/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Stefano Borgani</a> of the Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy, adds that "with advanced cosmological simulations, we can match the quality of observations analyzed in our paper, permitting detailed comparisons like never before."</p><p>"We have done a lot of testing of the data in this study," Meneghetti says, "and we are sure that this mismatch indicates that some physical ingredient is missing either from the simulations or from our understanding of the nature of dark matter." <a href="https://physics.yale.edu/people/priyamvada-natarajan" target="_blank">Priyamvada Natarajan</a> of Yale University in Connecticut agrees: "There's a feature of the real Universe that we are simply not capturing in our current theoretical models."</p><p>Given that any theory in science lasts only until a better one comes along, Natarajan views the discrepancy as an opportunity, saying, "this could signal a gap in our current understanding of the nature of dark matter and its properties, as these exquisite data have permitted us to probe the detailed distribution of dark matter on the smallest scales."</p><p>At this point, it's unclear exactly what the conflict signifies. Do these smaller areas have unexpectedly high concentrations of dark matter? Or can dark matter, under certain currently unknown conditions, produce a tenfold increase in lensing beyond what we've been expecting, breaking the assumption that more lensing means more dark matter?</p><p>Obviously, the scientific community has barely begun to understand this mystery.</p>
Scientists have found evidence of hot springs near sites where ancient hominids settled, long before the control of fire.