Get Out of Jail Free??

I was intrigued by the discussion of the Italian seismologist’s case in the 10/25 class video. I wish I had been there because I feel like a few important points need to be made, especially with regard to the sentiment that releasing these men would be akin to giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

First, the probabilistic seismic hazard analysis (PSHA) that these men likely engaged in to assess the increased hazard is tricky business, fraught with assumptions and uncertainty. It is quite possible that the they truly believed the increased hazard they calculated was not significant.  Seismic hazard analysis is not intended to assess hazard over a short period of time for the purpose of influencing short term decision making.  Its purpose is rather to provide appropriate seismic criteria for the design or retrofitting of constructed facilities over their lifetime (usually 50+ years). The commission was asked to take this tool and give an assessment in an unusual way.

They were also faced with a dilemma over how their assessment would be used or perceived.  For example assume the probability of a large earthquake on a given day was 0.01% before the series of tremors (These are NOT the REAL NUMBERS). With they additional information provided by the tremors, assume that the probability went up by an order of magnitude. This is still only a 1 in 1,000 chance that a large earthquake will happen on a given day. In the short term, the only thing people could do was to leave their homes for an undetermined amount of time.  Living in an area with very old buildings and infrastructure that has not been designed according to modern seismic standards, they really had few other ways to prepare themselves.  I’m not convinced that many people would have fled their homes even if the commission had reported a slight increase in hazard.

Finally, the hazard being assessed in this case is a natural and not a man-made one. It is not as if a different policy decision could be made to stop the quake if the commission had communicated more clearly.  Also, the commission’s choice to be silent obviously did not influence the occurrence of the earthquake. The opposite is true for most of the cases we’ve looked at in class. In DC for example, the silence/coverup was over a man-made problem and did have direct bearing on whether the hazard persisted.  However, in both the DC situation and the Italy case, the silence leads to people not being informed and not being able to make decisions for themselves.

So I believe we need to be careful when judging the Italian seismologists too harshly. If they are acquitted, I don’t think that they received a scientific “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  While I think that they acted unethically with regard to their communication, this miscommunication does not appear malicious, negligent, or even selfish.  I’ll repeat that they most likely acted well within the standard of practice within their field.  If they hadn’t, the uproar from the seismology community would not have been so intense.  If the ethical norm within a field is utilitarian (I’m not saying I condone that norm), we can and should speak out against that norm, but it isn’t right to bring stiff penalties such as criminal charges against them.  This case should serve as a lesson that teaches scientists, and seismologists specifically, how to communicate more clearly and honestly with the public.

Contrast the Italy situation with the falsifications of Guidotti or Reiber or the CDC.  In these cases, the outright lies fell, hopefully, well outside the norms of their scientific communities.  Their actions are obviously clouded by blatant self-interest.  Yet even there, is criminal action appropriate? I think probably not.  These obvious perpetrators deserve to be disgraced and lose their jobs, positions, and licenses.  Still I believe that criminal action is unnecessary and unhelpful even in this type of extreme scientific misconduct.

Ethics in Earthquake Engineering

The headlines blare:

Italian Seismologists Are Going to Jail for Not Being Able to Predict the Future

Scientists aghast over Italian quake verdicts

Italy Orders Jail Terms for 7 Who Didn’t Warn of Deadly Earthquake

These are just a few of the articles about an interesting ethical dilemma in the civil engineering and geosciences world that hit the news again yesterday.  It is particularly interesting to me since earthquake engineering is a branch of my field of geotechnical engineering.

If you’re not familiar with this story, it starts in 2009 when Italy experienced a series of small earthquakes.  The public began to be nervous because of the increased seismic activity and specific predictions of a larger quake by a local man without training in seismology.  A commission meeting of Italy’s foremost seismologists was called to assess the risk posed by these small tremors.  They decided that the likelihood of a large earthquake was still very small and issued no safety warning.  Some of the commission members gave encouraging messages about the earthquake risk, trying to allay public anxiety.

Six days later a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing about 300 people.

The Italian court just ruled against the seven men in the commission, sentencing them to 6 years in jail and invoking large fines.  The inability of seismologists to predict earthquakes is not being questioned.  Neither are their calculations.  Rather the verdict rests not on the failure of these men to clearly characterize the risk and communicate that risk to the local government and the public (Bergeron 2011).  The scientific community, specifically in seismology, has been in an uproar, calling the decision ridiculous and claiming that it will chill scientific discourse and earthquake research.

In the context of our class, it is interesting to ask – did the seven men act unethically?

It seems to me that the commission acted out of a utilitarian perspective, which lies behind the probabilistic methods that they used to assess the earthquake risk.  From this view, the balance tips decidedly in the direction that the commission chose.  The increased risk of a large earthquake was very small and could not be used to justify the costs associated with evacuations and lack of production for an indeterminate time period.  Their decision in a utilitarian context is quite defensible and moral.

However, the lack of clear communication regarding the increased risk suggests a power differential and an absence of true care for the public by the commission, possibly in the broader seismological community.  Rather than attempting to be responsive to the public’s concerns, the commission white-washed the situation, likely assuming that the public could not understand the subtleties of the science.  In one sense they were right.  Most people have an extremely hard time understand tiny probabilities like 0.01%.  The difficulty of performing a duty, however, does not absolve one from doing it, or at least making an attempt.  As pointed out by seismologist Greg Beroza for a 2011 Stanford Report article, the seismology community must learn to do a better job at helping the public understand these risks.  He and groups of international experts have called for regular “seismic forecasts” in earthquake-prone areas.  Beroza is quoted in the Stanford article, “We have to do our best to communicate what we do know about earthquake probabilities.”  Eventually, the public would get used to understanding these probabilities, just like following the weather, he claims.

The key component of this approach is that an avenue of communication, and with that a relationship, would be opened between the scientists and the public.  Seismologists and other scientists in similar situations must not assume that they should decide how much information the public can “handle.”  In doing so, they may endanger the public, and as this case shows, expose themselves to extreme scrutiny.  Through the lens of care ethics, the commission acted immorally, not in its assessment of the risk, but rather by unclear communication with the public.

BUT does a violation of care ethics, a moral misstep of this sort, justify criminal punishment?  I don’t think so.  Without knowing all the details, it does not seem that they broke the law or even acted outside of the standard of care within their professional community.  The seismology community should assuredly try to learn from the mistakes made by this commission and improve its communication with the world.  It should not have to pay by incarcerating seven of the very men who are best equipped to help situations like this from occurring again.

Something’s missing

I appreciate the even-handedness of the discussion of moral theory that we’ve had in class.  We’ve all been given some more tools to better assess the ethical decisions and dilemmas before us, and better yet to understand the philosophies that others bring to the table.  We’ve seen that none of these theories are foolproof, yet each provide a useful perspective on our moral decisions.

I find myself drawn to the concept of Care Ethics.  It moves away from the cold, calculating ideals of many other theories to a place where moral decisions are made with both our head and our heart.  While it may be relatively new as an “officially” articulated moral theory, it seems that care ethics has been around in practice for a very long time.  It seems to embody the way that many people actually make decisions whether consciously or not.  Care ethics also seems very close to the Christian idea that only “faith working through love” counts for anything (Galatians 5:6).  Actions are to be guided by love, which is really just a stronger form of the “care” ideal.

However at a deeper level, something is missing from the discussion.  Care ethics, at least as presented by van de Poel and Royakkers, is lacking justification for its claims.   It champions the moral significance of our relationships with other people.  People have dignity and thus care for them is at the heart of moral action.  It must be asked, why are relationships good?  From whence comes humankind’s inherent dignity?  Similar questions arise with utilitarianism, duty ethics, and virtue ethics:  

  • What definitions of good, evil, pleasure, pain, and happiness are to be used within the utilitarian rubric?
  • Why is Mill’s freedom principle morally right?
  • On what basis do we accept Kant’s concept of good will as true or moral?
  • Who defines what is virtuous or not?
  • How does one judge what is virtue to begin with?

The answers to these and many other questions regarding the starting points of moral theory are not philosophically self-evident.  They don’t answer themselves.  They beg for the existence of objective moral truths or force us to acknowledge that at the very core our moral judgments are based on a relativistic foundation.  In their discussion of moral theory, van de Poel and Royakkers don’t tackle the question of existence of absolute vs. subjective truth.  And maybe they didn’t intend to.  Similarly this class has whetted our appetite to the intriguing world of moral philosophy, and its job is not to answer these questions.  But I do believe as we wade through the world of moral philosophy, we must all struggle with these epistemological issues – what we believe and how we know it to be true – before or at least concurrently with our striving to choose an appropriate moral worldview or lens.  If not we will ultimately find ourselves confused about the most basic assumptions of our moral framework or stuck in the morass of relativism.

Disillusioned in Blacksburg?

Cartoon from Union of Concerned Scientists (

Dear Government Agency,

I was taught to believe that your purpose for existence was to watch out for the public good.  I thought that your mission was to serve selflessly, unbiased, unswayed by the concerns of private interest.  You were supposed to be the policeman on the corner to protect us from the big bad bullies.  Where were you when the coke plant next door belched toxic fumes into the air every 30 minutes and claimed to be law-abiding?  Where were you when the paper company polluted our streams?  Why didn’t you act when you knew the drinking water was polluted?  I just don’t understand.

Disillusioned in Blacksburg

While this isn’t exactly my reaction, it is the sentiment I’ve heard echoing about our classroom and from others who have taken this class before, not to mention folks like the Bresslers or CACWNY.  Regardless of our own prior opinions of the competencies of government agencies, we’ve all seen the blatant failures of the EPA, NYDEC, CDC etc. over the past few weeks.

The situation begs the question “Is there anything to be done?”  In Thursday’s video conference, Erin Heaney asserted that the activist work CACWNY is doing is a civic duty.  Since we can’t hope for government officials to do their jobs without oversight, we must police them as citizens.  This may be a workable solution, but it is certainly not an ideal one.

My thoughts turned to the way that engineering duties are allocated on state highway projects in Ohio where I worked for seven years.  On road projects, technicians must test construction materials and observe activities to assure compliance with specifications.  These duties are roughly analogous to the enforcement of pollution control laws. In most cases, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) does not carry out these tasks in house.  Rather the responsibility is subcontracted to private sector engineering firms.  The engineering design of roads and bridges is often contracted out in the same way with the state providing oversight but most of the work being done by private firms.  Organizations like ODOT still wield most of the power, but some of their “big stick” is transferred to these firms.  The firms have all the incentives of private practice to do their jobs well and efficiently.  Unlike their public sector counterparts, the engineers and technicians in these private firms can easily be fired if they underperform or fail to do at their work.

I’m sure there would be plenty of sticky details applying this sort of model to environmental regulation.  Maybe it is done this way in some locales.  Still, privatization of enforcement seems like it might be a practical way to get the work done.  It also would allow the work to be performed by local firms with more familiarity with a region’s political, economic, and social climate than regulators from a state or federal agency.  Perhaps it might boil down to convincing the government to share the power – not necessarily an easy task.

Validate your experiment here..

A news blurb about “The Reproducibility Initiative” caught my attention a few days ago. Started by cancer researcher Elizabeth Iorns, this program offers scientists a means of validating their experiments at outside laboratories.  Validation tests are performed by one of more than 1000 expert providers (including VT for some tests) through the Science Exchange.  The tests are performed blind so there are no worries about “stealing” ideas or results and are provided on a fee-for-service basis.  Certificates are provided for experiments that are found to have reproducible results.  This type of validation has apparently been endorsed by the likes of Nature and PLOS One.

(image from The Science Exchange)

Is this type of validation the wave of the future in scientific research?  Will all studies be subject to outside review at this level?  What are the benefits?

  • Anomalous results would be highlighted by the verification tests.
  • May help to improve the quality of published research.
  • Gives outsiders an independent verification that data is correct.  The public doesn’t have to solely trust in affiliation, funding source, publication reputation, etc. (Corburn p.67) to assure them.
  • Consortia like Science Exchange give even small organizations access to high-tech research level tests and knowledge without having to own the equipment and expertise themselves.

Are there drawbacks to such rigorous validation?  Probably, yes.

  • It doesn’t solve most issues related to the science-public power dynamic.
  • Requiring validation would be inherently distrustful, not to mention expensive.
  • Core ethical issues of how to practice science are not addressed, rather honesty is forced through policing of results.

Any thoughts??