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.

3 thoughts on “Ethics in Earthquake Engineering

  1. I believe we all have misconceptions on how the ‘general’ public can comprehend ‘specialized’ knowledge. ‘They’ are smarter than we think. But I believe the ‘hush-hush’ nature of research (broken only in a Science/Nature/NYTimes article or television appearances) and pursuit of knowledge doesn’t equip us better in gauging ‘if’ the results need to be communicated to the public and to what extent.

    Seismology itself is at a strange cross-roads. We have more seismic quakes coupled with tsunamis and allied natural disasters which has made it come on the forefront of public interaction. ‘Seismic forecasts’ should definitely be the part of regular weather forecast on news channels and other modes of communication.

    But the decision to put the 7 experts behind bars seems too extreme. Because, if my minimal understanding stands correct, you don’t have enough to accurately predict future earthquakes. This is quite different from a disaster caused by a man-made entity: say Deep Water Horizon and how it spilled oil despite being inspected just a few weeks ago or lack of quality material used in its development. Or dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan.

  2. I believe the public was concerned about tremors and probably would have taken steps to protect themselves if the “no danger” press conference pronouncement had not been given.

    While I agree with many of your points, how do we hold scientists and engineers accountable for harm done to the public through unethical behavior? How do we police them if you are assuming we should take care of this “in the family.” Can we expect to run around, behave unethically, and be unaccountable for unethical behavior? By the way, it would have been just as unethical if the earthquake had not happened….people would have just forgotten about it.

  3. Great analysis. I am always fascinated by experts’ assessments about what the public can understand and what they cannot. I am also fascinated by the seeming assumption that if the public isn’t able to comprehend percentages, probabilities, and other technical concepts, experts are justified in taking away their self-determination by making decisions for them through, for example, a utilitarian calculus like the one you describe and misleading assurances. Isn’t this a highly problematic exercise in power? Is there no “plain language” to communicate a probability of 0.01% as well as the scientific uncertainties surrounding the calculations that led to this number? And what if this case is not only a violation of care ethics, but also of society’s right to make informed and autonomous decisions, even in the face of scientific uncertainty?

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