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.

4 thoughts on “Get Out of Jail Free??

  1. Thanks for watching the class video and continuing the conversation!

    I appreciate your clarification about the assumptions and uncertainty accompanying the PSHA that the convicted scientists likely carried out. In light of the fact that assumptions and uncertainty accompany many scientific assessments, even in cases involving human-made hazards with public health impacts that are well-known, what’s the most morally defensible way (i.e., where scientific power is not misused) for the results of such assessments to be communicated? published an interesting post arguing that the l’Aquila Seven case could have been avoided if the scientists involved had told the simple truth: that neither they (nor anyone else) had the tools to predict with any certainty the likelihood of a severe imminent quake. The article also claims that the scientists’ reassurances were not completely innocent: “part of the motivation for the l’Aquila Seven’s meeting in the first place was to discredit a non-expert ‘laboratory technician’ (as the Economist described him, thus making clear his lowly status in the hierarchy of expertise) who was scaring local residents by predicting that a big earthquake was about to occur. So there seems to have been some sense that the goal of the Seven’s meeting was to calm unnecessary anxieties that were being stoked by a charlatan. At the same time, quelling these fears meant being clear about where the expertise actually lay—with the Seven, not with the mere technician. In this case the right message to convey would have been: ‘We don’t know—and he doesn’t know either’—but that would seem to undercut the very expertise that gave the Seven their status and legitimacy to begin with” ( If there’s any truth to this, I believe it suggests a pretty clear misuse of scientific authority.

    I know almost nothing about this case, however, and can’t judge one way or another. One thing though that I feel I can say is that it pushes us to think again about the moral responsibility of scientists and engineers in relation to communications about their knowledge (or lack thereof) on specific matters. This question came up at the mock press conference as well. How prepared are scientists and engineers to admit lack of knowledge on a certain issue, when the public looks to them for answers on this issue? And what is the appropriate societal response to false or inaccurate assurances by scientists or engineers that communicate a sense of certainty (and risk causing public harm), when in reality what is known is marred with uncertainty?

    Do you believe that criminal charges are ever necessary in cases of scientific misconduct? What if the assurances of CDC and Reiber, for example, led to a second wave of childhood lead poisonings in DC (and elsewhere) that was entirely preventable? In the US, landlords who fail to address lead paint hazards in the home as required by law can go to jail (and often do). What makes (or should make) scientists and engineers different when they fail to protect the public through misleading assurances?

    • Thanks for the great perspective from the Slate article. I especially appreciated the following quote:

      “So maybe the real point is that if you get to the stage where the only protection you have from an earthquake is to ask a scientist whether it’s going to happen or not, you’re already in big trouble. I wonder if scientific responsibility in this case is best exercised by simply opting out,

      I think this illustrates the Catch-22 that the scientists found themselves in. As I said in my first post about this, I believe it is clear that the commission members were in the wrong, ethically. However, I feel we must be very careful making the jump from ethical misconduct to criminal proceedings.

      Your questions about the DC case have me thinking more though about penalties for such gross misconduct. It seems there is a point where the civil suit actions might be appropriate. Where that is, I don’t know exactly how to define it. I wouldn’t say that the Italians crossed but CDC and company might have. What makes them different from landlords? While I don’t know the details behind the lead paint and landlord example, it seems that these landlords are breaking a specific law. Breaking a law makes the penalties more clear, it seems. The legal ramifications for lying (unless it is in court or before Congress) seem less clear in our current system. Maybe that should change.

  2. One clarification. Two extreme points of view were given and people were asked which point they supported. I don’t think there was a clear consensus amongst any participants in the conversation as to which outcome was more just.

    But one point I disagree with, is your statement that the outcry of their colleagues on their behalf, or lack of outcry against them, is some kind of evidence they are not quilty or followed standards of practice. Most of those statements by colleagues on their behalf were couched in pretty ludicrous terms (i.e., “scientists sent to jail for not predicting earthquake), which is so far off the mark of the actual citizen’s complaints and actual events, that I deem it political, irrational and self-serving (i.e.,self-serving the profession). Also, what is a scientists obligation, in a situation where they are being used by politicians, for nearly the sole purpose of calming down the public? If that is the purpose of a scientific panel, which seems to be the case here, I agree that scientists should just opt out.

    Ultimately, it seems you find the actions unethical, but you do not buy some of the witnesses testimony that some deaths would have been avoided had the unethical actions and reassurances not been given. But what if you did find the public unethical statements produced deaths that otherwise would not have occurred? That was the judgement of the court….so for purposes of discussion if you did see the whole trial and believed that deaths occurred as a result of the statements…what then?

    • Thanks for keeping me thinking about this, Mark!

      It seems that the news media turned this into going to jail for “not predicting the earthquake.” I’m not sure whether the seismology has or not, I guess I haven’t read enough of the articles to know that. I do know that the Seismological Society of America’s recent statement doesn’t follow that misunderstanding of the events. If scientists are following the media’s understanding, then I would agree with you that their outcry is pretty meaningless. Regarding the witnesses testimony, it is pretty hard to say what I think. Part of me says, yes, if the some of the deaths were a direct result then maybe criminal punishment is justified. On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that these testimonies are more than speculative. Do people really know that they would have left their homes for who knows where or how long if this had been communicated clearly? What would that have looked like? The Slate article suggests that some say they would have slept in the streets, not their homes. From the post earthquake pictures of L’Aquila, that would have been just as dangerous as being inside.

      I think we could use some wisdom from Pielke in this case. We need an Honest Broker to give more alternatives than the polar opposites of ‘send them to jail’ and ‘let them off free and clear’. I don’t exactly know what those other alternatives are but it seems like justice does not always look the same or need to require criminal punishment. It could be argued that sending them to jail is, while extreme, the only way to get things to change within the scientific or seismological community. But is that fair or ethical, in and of itself?

      I would also agree that the politicians were unfairly asking them to be Issue Advocates to calm down the public in this case. It seems clear that they should have preferred an Honest Broker approach in their communication or just simply said “We don’t know.”

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