Distinguishing the signal from the noise is one of the main challenges in science. Scientists are trained to understand and judge the uncertainty in the world. We discuss our results and their limitations in articles and their merit is judged through the peer review process. Often these academic discussions have no immediate influence on the lives of the people around us, people who are not trained at interpreting statistics.
Italy has a tradition for lengthy legal proceedings and the recent overturn of six manslaughter convictions for Italian earthquake scientists is no exception. They were part of an expert panel discussing the earthquake risks for the south Italian city of L’Aquila on March 31st 2009. The citizens felt reassured and many decided to spend the night inside their houses. It is argued that 29 out of the 309 victims of the tragic earthquake in that night felt victim to this decision.
The six scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis, who in 2009 was deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, were originally sentenced to six years in jail in an October 2012 trial. The trial caused an international outcry amongst scientists. How could we continue to discuss science in public when there is a chance that we could get jailed for it? How can we contribute to expert panels that advice policy makers? Earthquake scientists know and understand the uncertainty associated with their predictions. Could they be punished for the ignorance of their fellow citizens?
Judge Marco Billi justified his verdict by arguing that the panel had carried out a “superficial, approximate and generic” risk analysis. It is rare that judges participate in a scientific peer review process, but in this case it happened.
In the appeal court judge Fabrizia Francabandera acknowledged that the scientists could not have predicted the earthquake and overturned the original verdict with one exception. De Bernardinis received a two year sentence for his role in communicating with the public.
This is certainly a relief for many scientists, but the controversy around this case is directly relevant not only for New Zealand’s earthquake scientists, but for all scientists. For science to work we need to be able to make mistakes and to openly discuss our results. If society aims to prosecute us for the work we do for them then we better hire an army of lawyers. I think we could spend our money more wisely. We should invest into the scientific education of our students.
Given the two year sentence for De Bernardinis I will certainly be more careful when talking to the media in the future. I do not want to be held responsible for not warning the world about the upcoming robot uprising.