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Natural disasters: be careful when predicting them!

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 29 October 2012


An Italian court has sentenced six scientists and one government official to jail plus massive fines for what they said with respect to the earthquake in L'Aquila in 2009, when more than 300 people were killed. What did they do? They underplayed the risk of a major earthquake following a series of small tremors. It appears that they were summoned because someone else, not part of the official earthquake warning system, had been insisting that L'Aquila was due for a big one. They were there, so it seems, for reassurance, and while they did say that tremors could be a sign of a major shift, they appeared to emphasise the alternative: that tremors are a sign of the system releasing pressure. One of them said that the good citizens of the town should relax and enjoy a glass of their excellent wine.

That was, in retrospect, an unfortunate thing to say, and the good citizens of L'Aquila have been crying vengeance ever since, reasonably enough. But sending scientific experts to jail is novel, and scientists around the world have rallied in support of their Italian colleagues, signing petitions and writing to their governments. Italian law allows a couple of appeals before the sentence is carried out, so this event has a considerable future still.

It raises some intriguing questions about science and prediction, and what should happen to predictors if they get it wrong. The recent Queensland floods did result in a Royal Commission that absolved some of those involved in managing the dams from responsibility for the disaster. That was not quite the same. A better example might be the response of local government councils to the IPCC warnings about future sea-level rises. Councils in some areas have been imposing stringent conditions on building close to the sea, which have the effect of reducing the values of existing properties.

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In this case the councils seem to me to have been led by media stirring more than by expert advice, since the IPCC's forecast for sea-levels by the end of the century was by no means disastrous. And the NSW Government wheeled in its own Chief Scientist to calm the councils down. But what if she was wrong? And could aggrieved property-owners go to court to show that the scare about rising sea-levels was not soundly based?

So far, courts around the world have been reluctant to determine what they see as scientific questions, for good reason. And they find it difficult when the prosecution and the defence both produce scientific experts to argue opposite points with respect to, for example, DNA.

Two general issues arise from the L'Aquila case. The first is the degree to which we are now all reliant on, and subjected to, scientific expertise. The second, in part a consequence of the first, is that we now rarely accept that events are random, 'acts of God', or basically beyond human control. We now live in a world where 'someone is to blame'. We make mistakes ourselves, and expect understanding and forgiveness from those around us when we do, but if a surgeon makes a mistake then he is culpable and should be pursued through the courts.

Our carbon tax seems to me to be an error based on imperfect science, imperfectly understood, but it is a political act, and we have recourse through the ballot box if we feel strongly about it. But I cannot help feeling that the L'Aquila incident is the inevitable consequence of the rise of science to the point where scientists have become soothsayers about almost everything to do with our life.

Eventually, we turn on the soothsayers because either they didn't predict accurately, or they predicted something that didn't happen. Earthquakes are impossible to predict, but if they have occurred in the past in your area, as in Japan, you prepare for their consequences by erecting stronger buildings. We know that droughts and floods will occur again, and we could prepare for them by conserving water, in the first case, and not building on flood plains. We are learning, if slowly.

Given what I have just said, I am reluctant to predict! But I feel that science, and scientists, need to reflect on the Italian case, and consider more carefully what they are saying, and to whom they are saying it.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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