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.