The news that in Italy seismologists were put on trial and found guilty of manslaughter after the L’Aquila earthquake reverberated throughout the science community and the international media.
“Science is on trial and found guilty,” many people said—most in horror, but some with satisfaction. These events, more complicated than described in most international media, are relevant to a serious discussion on science communication, public understanding of science, and science and politics. To properly assess the issues, it is crucial to understand the facts that led to the trial.
On the 30th of March 2009, a seismic event registering 4.1 on the Richter Scale occurred in L’Aquila, Italy, approximately 100 kilometers east-northeast of Rome, after 3 months of a quake swarm of lesser intensity. The public started to panic and rumors about the predictability of earthquakes spread. Guido Bertolaso, head of the Protezione Civile (Civil Protection) department called a meeting with scientists to “tranquilize the public.” Bertolaso told the regional assessor Daniela Stati that the meeting is just a “media operation” where experts will say that ”this is normal … better one hundred 4 Richter scale shocks, than [one large earthquake].”
On the 31st of March, the Commissione Grandi Rischi (Great Risks Commission) met in L’Aquila, and the minutes from that meeting quote (direct translation) Professor Eva, Professor of Physics at the University of Genova, as saying, “Of course, L’Aquila is a seismic area, it is not possible to say that there will not be earthquakes.” Professor Boschi (INGV – Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e vulcanologia) added, “Another earthquake like the one in 1703 [estimated MM 6.7] is improbable.” Franco Barberi, Professor of Vulcanology and Geothermy (Università di Roma Tre) continued, “it is extremely difficult to make temporal prediction on the evolution of seismic phenomena…the only defense against earthquakes is to strengthen the construction [of buildings] and improve their ability to withstand an earthquake, and to improve the level of preparedness.”
On 06 April 2009 at 3:32 local time, L’Aquila was hit by a 5.8 Richter earthquake; 380 people died, another 1,500 were injured, and several buildings in the city of L’Aquila and nearby villages collapsed or were severely damaged. On 22 October 2012, the members of the Commissione Grandi Rischi were found guilty of negligent manslaughter in the death of 29 people and the injury of 4 people.
Contrast that to the public communication of science during the earthquakes in Emilia Romagna in May of 2012. Following that, the Commissione Grandi Rischi declared that “There are no reliable scientific methods of earthquake prediction in the short term” but that “does not exclude the possibility that, although less likely, the seismic activity could extend to areas adjacent to those activated so far.” This time, probably because the L’Aquila trial was already underway, communication of risk was not driven by a motive to reassure the public, but instead to provide information on preparedness and caution. Thus far, no big seismic event has followed the event in May in Emilia Romagna, but citizens with homes damaged by the shocks were encouraged to repair the damages before re-entering their houses, unlike in L’Aquilia. In the case of another shock, these repairs would save lives, possibly avoiding results similar to L’Aquila.
We will not discuss the merit of the sentence here, but instead address the issues regarding the lack of effective communication skills among scientists, and of blaming scientists for politicians and others misrepresenting science information in the media. Scientists do need effective communication skills, and should understand that their bona fide statements can be misinterpreted if put in a context dictated by political agendas. Being clear and concise about research results and scientific concepts can go a long way toward deferring others from trying to “bend the truth” to fit a pre-determined message. Sommerville and Hassol published an article in late 2011 outlining specific methods and tools that scientists and those who communicate science to the public can use to more effectively get their message across. More examples like this paper are needed, along with professional development for scientists to augment their skills in communicating with the media and public.
So what does this mean for the future of science, and the communication of science to the public? There are many people in the tectonics research community who worry about being responsible for risk assessment, particularly concerning stability of underground storages and risks of induced seismicity. One can imagine that this anxiety within the science community could deter those who might otherwise consider science as a vocation, thus depleting the already dwindling U.S. science research community. On a short-term basis, is it essential that scientists improve their communication skills to be able to convey scientific information to a public as broadly as possible, and to put scientific information directly at the service of society. On a long-term basis, it is vital that scientists and science education institutions foster science literacy in the population. Efforts such as the new National Research Council’s updating of our National Science Standards, and documents such as the Literacy Principles (Climate Literacy, Ocean Literacy, Atmospheric Literacy, and Earth Science Literacy Initiatives) are certainly a beginning to increasing public awareness, literacy and engagement with science, outlining in use-friendly terms what the big ideas are for these topics, and what everyone should know to make informed decisions about everything from natural resources, energy transitions, and conservation. Science educators in both formal (K-12 classrooms) and informal (museums, science centers, nature centers, etc.) venues need to know how to use these documents as a base for designing education programs and curricula for their audiences.
Effective communication skills when talking to the public—or anyone—about science are imperative; but unfortunately, even the best communication skills cannot make a difference if those in power control science information to further political agendas.
Veronica Padovani, Ph.D. is an informal science educator from Modena, Italy, and a Research Associate at Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, NY.
Carlyn S. Buckler, Ph.D. is an Education Associate at Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, NY.