Pielke Jr. on Lessons of the LʼAquila Earthquake Lawsuit – comparisons to lessons learned on NWS forecast failures

Downtown Grand Forks During the 1997 Flood

Downtown Grand Forks During the 1997 Flood (Photo credit: D. Bjorn, Catchin’ Up)

After learning of the guilty verdict today, Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. sends this along noting that “it is a little bit more complicated than not being able to
forecast earthquakes”.

From: bridges vol. 31, October 2011 / Pielke’s Perspective

By Roger A. Pielke, Jr.

In 1997 the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, saw devastating flooding that caused billions of dollars in damage. Remarkably, that spring flood could be seen coming for months in advance, since the rising waters were the consequence of melting snow that had accumulated over the winter. Yet, even with the ability to anticipate the record flood crest long in advance, the community was taken by surprise by the flood, with some residents having to evacuate in the middle of the night as rising waters threatened their homes.

Following the disaster, I was a member of the US National Weather Service team sent to investigate the production and use of forecasts where something had obviously gone badly wrong. The lessons from that experience can help to shed some light on the current situation in L’Aquila, Italy, where seven officials are currently embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the affected community over statements the officials had made prior to the deadly earthquake in April, 2009. 

On March 31, 2009, in L’Aquila, six days before a deadly magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 308 people, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy chief of Italy’s Civil Protection Department , and six scientists who were members of a scientific advisory body to the Department (the Major Risks Committee) participated in an official meeting and press conference in response to public concerns about short-term earthquake risks.

The public concerns were the result of at least two factors: One was the recent occurrence of a number of small earthquakes. A second factor was the prediction of a pending large earthquake issued by Gioacchino Giuliani, who was not a seismologist and worked as a technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

The deputy chief and scientists held a short one-hour meeting and then a press  conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. For instance, De Bernardinis went so far as to claim that the recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: “[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.”[1] When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis acted as sommelier: “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.”[2]

As news of the L’Aquila lawsuit has spread around the world, many scientists have rushed to the defense of the Committee by highlighting statements made during the meeting that emphasized the uncertainties in any sort of earthquake prediction. For example, Nature reported that at the one-hour meeting the scientists made the following nuanced statements: “A major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out,” and “in
recent times some recent earthquakes have been preceded by minor shocks days or weeks beforehand, but on the other hand many seismic swarms did not result in a major event,” and also “because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake.”[3] In the face of these various statements, the lawsuit takes note of the “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” in its allegations of culpability. While the case is still to be adjudicated under Italian law, some practical lessons can already be drawn by comparing the experience to that which I observed back in 1997 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

One lesson is that the message sent by the government and its scientists might not be the same one received by the public. In the case of Grand Forks, the weather service issued a forecast of a flood crest of 49 feet – a record flood – two months in advance. The point, they explained to our investigative team, was to communicate to the public that they should expect a record flood and, thus, be very concerned. However, the previous record flood was only a few inches below 49 feet, so instead of causing concern, the forecast prompted the opposite reaction. Residents recalled that the earlier flood had caused relatively little damage, and concluded that a flood cresting only a few inches higher would be no big deal.

Similarly, in L’Aquila, the government and its scientists seemed to be sending a different message to the public than the one that was received. Media reports of the Major Risk Committee meeting and the subsequent press conference seem to focus on countering the views offered by Mr. Giuliani, whom they viewed as unscientific and had been battling in preceding months. Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.

If officials were expressing a view about authority rather than a careful assessment of actual earthquake risks, this would help to explain their sloppy treatment of uncertainties. Here, too, the North Dakota experience is relevant. The actual flood crest was 54 feet at Grand Forks, exceeding the 49-foot outlook by 5 feet, and caught the community by surprise as they had only built their levees to 51 feet. The average error in previous flood outlooks in the region was a very respectable 10% (about 5 feet, if applied to the 49-foot outlook), but this information was never shared with the public. When we asked officials why this information was not released with the forecast, they told us they were worried that if information about uncertainties was known then the public would lose confidence in the forecasts.
The L’Aquila court case has prompted much discussion and debate in the scientific community. Many scientists have explained that there is no possibility of offering accurate or useful earthquake forecasts, as was expressed in an open letter to Silvio Berlusconi signed by 5,000 scientists: “Years of research worldwide have shown that there is currently no scientifically accepted method for short-term earthquake prediction that
can reliably be used by Civil Protection authorities for rapid and effective emergency actions.”[4] Yet such a view is not universal in the scientific community. For instance, Stanford University issued a press release discussing the case in Italy and countering that earthquakes could in fact be anticipated in some cases. Greg Beroza, chair of Stanford’s Department of Geophysics, has called for more forecasts: “[W]e have to make earthquake forecasting as routine as weather forecasting.”[5]

This context holds several lessons for the scientific community. First, effective communication of nuance and uncertainty is difficult in the best of cases, and there is often a wide range of perspectives on the state of the science. But it becomes even more difficult when messages are being sent to the public via information that may be heard one way among experts and another among the public. When forecasters in Grand Forks intended to send a message of alarm, the public instead received a message of complacency. Similarly, scientists in L’Aquila seemed to want to send a message about authority and proper expertise, but the public received a message of complacency in the face of an ever-present risk.

Another lesson is that debates over forecasts and uncertainty often overshadow knowledge that is far more certain. Paul Somerville and Katharine Haynes of Macquarie University note wryly that “no action has yet been taken against the engineers who designed the buildings that collapsed and caused fatalities, or the government officials who were responsible for enforcing building code compliance.”[6]

The real tragedy of L’Aquila may not be that scientists led the public astray with their bumbled discussion of predictive science but, rather, that our broader obsession with predictions blinds us to the truths right before our eyes.

###

Roger Pielke, Jr. is the former director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado (2001-2007). He has been on the faculty of the University of Colorado since 2001 and is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

References:
1. http://www.economist.com/node/21529006
2. http://ca.news.yahoo.com/
trial-opens-against-scientists-accused-giving-misleading-big-132746544.html
Reference for quote: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/20/italian-scientists-trial-predict-earthquake
3. http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100622/full/465992a.html
4. www.mi.ingv.it/open_letter/
5. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/september/systematic-earthquake-forecast-093011.html
6. http://theconversation.edu.au/manslaughter-trial-of-laquila-earthquake-scientists-will-cause-serious-aftershocks-3477

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84 thoughts on “Pielke Jr. on Lessons of the LʼAquila Earthquake Lawsuit – comparisons to lessons learned on NWS forecast failures

  1. I’m Italian, and ashamed of what I heard this night about that on TV.
    But in Italy that’s not the only case, you should live here to know.

  2. This is a good write up and frankly after reading this and some more details about the case I think this event will overall be a good thing. Too many government officials spend most of the time telling everyone how important and right they are and how dare you challenge them. This message of accountable should hopefully make these nutbags who are only interested in pushing a power trip and collecting a pay check while doing into to take a look at themselves and ask “could this be me the next time I open my mouth”.

    People who take taxpayer money need to be held accountable, period. Thought history to many “scientists” have escaped jail after stealing taxpayer money to push agenda’s. Clearly “ethics” “education” is not enough. Putting people like Mann, Ehrlich and other “doomers” in jail would send a message that crime doesn’t pay.

  3. Anthony:

    Pielke raises several important issues.

    The one that made most impression on me was the politics (with a small ‘p’) which he reports. He writes

    Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.

    In such a situation it is not possible for the public to be given the clear information which they really need. Indeed, if that was the situation then providing that needed clear information was not a priority for those employed to provide it.

    Simply, if the “impression” reported by Pielke is true then the “Major Risks Committee” deserved to be prosecuted. They put their personal interests above the public interest which they were employed to protect.

    As someone who was employed for decades as a research scientist in a government-owned research facility, I think the members of the Major Risks Committee deserved what they got if Pielke’s “impression” is correct.

    Richard

  4. I have had a long exchange with the Met Office at their blog where I couldn’t make them understand a two-decimal measurement shouldn’t hide a first-decimal uncertainty.

    Nothing will ever change.

  5. In the US, lawyers have helped make it very expensive to receive medical treatment. A well seasoned doctor may be very confident that the patient has a sinus infection leading to bronchitis. In the past, he would prescribe some antibiotics, rest and lots of fluids, then send the patient home. But thanks to the our litigious society, the doctor will also call for a cat scan to be absolutely certain the patient doesn’t have lung cancer; and blood work to rule out 150 rare, tropical diseases. He can not afford to overlook anything, so he must check for everything.

    Now this litigious culture is threatening to move into science. Some of us might think this is a good thing. All those warmists will have to pay up for their ridiculous and costly rantings about CAGW. But the result will be an endless spewing of useless donkey blanket statements, that will be of little use to society or individuals. This is already impacting the warning criteria for the National Weather Service, who regularly issue warnings if there is even the slightest chance of severe weather with a thunderstorm. Soon, people will generally ignore these warnings and then be surprised when the severe weather actually happens.

    The possibility of being wrong when predicting the future state of a complex, chaotic, non-linear system is always present. The public needs to be educated on this fact and science must be free to find a balance between acting omniscient and being forced to list every conceivable permutation when making a prediction.

  6. When we asked officials why this information was not released with the forecast, they told us they were worried that if information about uncertainties was known then the public would lose confidence in the forecasts.

    I believe this would also apply to the CAGW theory.

  7. I think there are situations where a scientist could be held liable for public policy that results from their work, but the bar would need to be set extraordinarily high. Its simply wrong to prosecute scientists for bad predication. A scientists would have to do really bad things, like publish results where they the results failed some verification test (like R^2, for example) but then covered up the adverse result. .Or maybe he sent a researcher who was trying to replicate his results a fake Excel spreadsheet to cause the researcher to make a mistake that the first scientist would then use to try to tar the replicating researcher with. Or maybe the scientist used a never-before-seen statistically method that was custom-designed to a knowingly produce false result from random noise. Or maybe the scientists used data that he dishonestly manipulated (turn it upside down, for example) to produce a false result. Or maybe the scientist diverted research funds into a massive PR campaign designed to demonize his critics and create a false impression with the public that all criticism of his research was funded by his political adversaries. But this would be extraordinary grievous conduct and no community of scientists would ever stand for it. That’s why I feel comfortable in the knowledge that the professional societies can police themselves.

  8. From what I have read the defendents in this case are all government employees. In the US, government employees in general have broad imunity for official acts. Italy may find that they have no qualified applicants willing to fill these positions until explicit imunity against similar future procecusions is provided.

    Criminal and / or civil courts are not the place for holding government employees acountable for acts legaly within their scope of duties. If Italy or any other country goes down this road they are likely to find themselves in the position where no one is willing to work for the government.

  9. Jim Clarke: All the doctors that I have used and am aware of don’t seem to have got the memo. Its like pulling teeth trying to get anything done beyond “go home and take two aspirin, come back if it gets worse”.

    They are much more frightened of insurance companies than the myth of attack lawyers.

  10. Because of CSIRO (Australian Government Scientists) models predicting that Global Warming would result in ever decreasing rainfall, operators at Wivenhoe dam near Brisbane permitted water levels to rise to the point that when the deluge (totally unforeseen by BOM) arrived, the dam could perform no flood control function as originally intended. Worse still, to save the dam from destruction floodgates were opened and the community of Lockyer was obliterated and multiple deaths as a result.
    If any ‘s’cientists needed to go to prison, these should be pretty near the top of the queue.

  11. Well, as I commented on the other thread ”if it as appears in the report..” but even so I still think this smacks of scapegoating?
    There is another thing which strikes me as very odd – which is that ‘telling the public what they need to know’ is entirely different to simply telling the public facts…..the public usually want to know everything will be ‘just fine’ and ‘we will do everything to sort it out’ – they do not want to be told to evacuate and leave all their belongings! Even when they are, in such situations many have to be forcifully removed!
    As I see it, and without detailed knowledge of the specific geological facts of this case – the scientists should be allowed to make predictions based on whatever current knowledge is available. For something such as this, which is of course ENTIRELY unpredictable in real terms – and prediction for or against an earthquake must be taken by the government and individuals alike with the half tonne of salt required! If this has been a political ‘decision’, both in the manipulation of predictions and the way they are presented, and in the scapegoating of the actual scientists involved – then there needs to be a very high feeling of shame from those concerned in applying that political stance.
    I will not condone the scapegoating of scientists (if that is what it is) UNLESS they have done something so grossly wrong as to clearly indicate malfeasence or indeed gross misconduct (somewhat like CAGW, huh?) – but in such a situation, unless it was a combined fraud, I fail to see how gross scientific incompetence is likely to have taken place………
    regards

  12. What impressed me most about the Grand Forks flood was the number of fires that conveniently started at the height of the event. Keep in mind that ordinary property insurance does not cover flooding, but it does cover loss by fire.

  13. I have found that properly stated people will listen. We talk about a 100 year flood and people ignore us as that does not resonate with them. But we can say the same thing in a different way, there is 1 percent chance your home will be destroyed this year, and every one starts to pay attention.

  14. This all ties in with a very recurrent theme in climate science of how to convey uncertainty to non scientists. This, in my opinion is a flaw in the comprehension of the scientists, not the public. They don’t seem to realise that uncertainty equals ‘don’t know’.

    If you sold a car that only worked some of the time then the new owner would very cross if you didn’t admit fully and openly that it wasn’t to be relied upon before the purchase. Had you been honest then it would then be up to the purchaser to decide how much they wanted the car. You might find it hard to sell but you wouldn’t get an angry customer trying to rearrange your face.

    Science has set itself up as a source of knowledge and as something useful to society. Scientists are not always making their sales pitch as pure theory. There won’t be a disclaimer saying ‘this is for entertainment purposes only, we take no responsibility for the end user’s interpretation’ at the bottom of a paper, report or memo. The reason for this is obvious – a lot of scientists would be unemployed if those funding them thought that there would never be a useful or reliable outcome.

    Now a lot of the people who read WUWT are probably quite happy to fund pure science, I know I am. However, as warmists hate to admit, sceptics are actually quite an intelligent, educated bunch. Our gripe with climate science is not that there is uncertainty but that with their ‘consensus’, the scientists are faking success they haven’t achieved. They’re even faking consensus, because there are a great many issues under debate. A point that they’ve worked quite hard to hide.

    Climate science and its orbital sciences have grown huge over the issue of CAGW. If it turns out to be wrong, then nobody should hope to claim uncertainty as a defence.

  15. My take away from Rogers approach is that all things natural should, from the political/media sense (how can one separate the two since the media is now lapdog instead of watchdog), be treated as worse-case scenario only.
    For what it’s worth, Wiki has human population increasing from 1 billion to 7 billion in about 200 years. How much is from a slight warming (the coolest warming in this Holocene) or our new found ability to adapt with fossil fuels I profess not to know. What has been the success of other life forms in the last two centuries?
    Bottom line for me is should Italy have leveled the country and rebuilt to double, triple the earthquake code? Should North Dakota level riverfront cities and raise the grade above any foreseeable flood. Should the rest of the world pay for people who insist on building in places that have extensive histories of disaster (volcanoes, ocean front, major fault lines, etc.).
    All my questions are moot since we have already saddled our progeny with so much debt, ignorance and misinformation that it’s going to be up to generations that can’t even make change for a dollar to adapt without even the skills to reason. Talk about a mother bird plucking the feathers off it’s own chicks.

  16. It also seems indicative of a public that is led to believe that whatever emanates from “scientists” mouth and pen must be true. It seems these scientists did nothing to convince the public otherwise: hubris and arrogance in their own knowledge and infallibillity perhaps? There is a general trend by the public and politicians to put absolute faith in science. It’s exacerbated by a media that seeks and interviews “experts” on the subject. The experts are not invited for subsequent interviews if they say they don’t know. It seems apparent everywhere and no less so than in the discussions on global warming. Scientists should not be afraid of being proven wrong. Political favortism, grant funding and public opinion has other ideas.

  17. How many shops and megastores had stocked up with BBQ sets and related items for the barbeque summers that never came in the UK, year after year? And how many customers were fooled to purchase these items?
    Should the meteorologists at the Met office all go to jail?

  18. Roger’s point about a communication problem is well put. That said, I think it is only half the problem.

    The other half is that too many boys have “cried wolf” too many times about too many things. I’m old enough to have survived world disaster from ozone depletion, acid rain, toxic rain, global cooling, the population bomb, and now cagw. None of these has amounted to anything substantive in the public mind. Add to that the daily inundation of advertising we are all subjected to every day 24 x 7…. internet, tv, radio, billboards…. you can’t take a leak anymore without an add in your face…. a constant deluge of over promised, under delivered, goods and services, may of them trying to convince us they can fix problems we didn’t even know we had!

    We’ve become nearly immune to information being pushed on us, we’re over loaded with it, and commensurate with the human condition, we tend to filter out anything we don’t want to hear, particularly things that seem like yet more fear mongering. When bad stuff happens, humans tend to lash out at the people who, in their minds, should have gone the extra mile to get through their “filters”.

  19. Flood control engineer:

    Your post at October 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm is so noteworthy that I copy it to draw attention to it.
    You say

    I have found that properly stated people will listen. We talk about a 100 year flood and people ignore us as that does not resonate with them. But we can say the same thing in a different way, there is 1 percent chance your home will be destroyed this year, and every one starts to pay attention.

    Indeed, so. And that is the kind of information the Major Risks Committee or any similar body exists to provide.

    In the specific case which resulted in their prosecution, the very least the Major Risks Committee should have said is,
    “We don’t know whether the tremors are or are not an indication of an impending quake. Our best judgement is that the tremors are not such an indication. The tremors are most likely a continuous discharge of energy with resulting reduction to risk of an imminent quake, but we could be wrong.”

    Instead, Pielke’s article says that is not what they did. He says they did this

    The deputy chief and scientists held a short one-hour meeting and then a press conference, during which they downplayed the possibility of an earthquake. For instance, De Bernardinis went so far as to claim that the recent tremors actually reduced earthquake risks: “[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favourable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.”[1] When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis acted as sommelier: “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.”[2]

    And, importantly, they seem to have downplayed the possibility of a quake for reasons of personal agrandisement. As Pielke says

    Thus, one interpretation of the Major Risks Committee’s statements is that they were not specifically about earthquakes at all, but instead were about which individuals the public should view as legitimate and authoritative and which they should not.

    These people were public servants employed to protect the public. Their situation was similar to soldiers during a war (they are also public servants employed to protect the public).
    Dereliction of duty is a serious offence.

    Richard

  20. Too many people loosing focus here thinking about their own personal hobby horses.

    These scientists should not be jailed, they were asked for an opinion and gavVe it. (aguely or not, does not matter).

    By the same logic used to sentence them, the politicians involved should be jailed, for incorrectly interpreting the discussion, or not seeking answers further afield.

    Pure primitive madness, and not helped by some clown comments in here.

  21. After a quake in So. Cal. this commenter was serving at a Red Cross evacuation camp. When the “all clear” was given some didn’t want to return to their homes. (We had some veterans of the Mexico City disaster of 1985 and they remembered the aftershocks). We told them to stay put if they wanted — it was their lives, after all.

  22. IMHO a lot of people are overlooking what probably got these people convicted: Telling the public to have a glass of wine you have no need to worry. That is a soundbite message that will stick in peoples minds and completely overshadows anything else they said, it is the equivalent of the CAGW phrase of unprecedented warming while showing a HokeyStick graph.

    If they got up there and stated that:
    “minor quakes can lead to a major one but we have no way to tell. The science of Earthquake prediction is still not mature and we believe ______ is overstating his case. However since you live in a high risk area make sure you are prepared everyday for one since they can come out of nowhere.”

    If they had stated something like that no lawsuit would have been filed and if there was there would be no grounds for conviction. Instead they blew off the possibility of a Major Quake in favor of point scoring in Soundbite Science.

  23. richardscourtney says:
    October 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    “These people were public servants employed to protect the public. Their situation was similar to soldiers during a war (they are also public servants employed to protect the public).
    Dereliction of duty is a serious offence. ”

    Agreed this issue is less about science and more about government. “Scientists” can come out and claim and do whatever they want that should not be interfered with.

    However these people were government employees and thats a hugely different standard. If your a government employee even if your role is that of a “scientist” you either are held accountable or your collecting a pay check for doing nothing. Its pretty clear that these people were not interested in doing the job they were supposed to be doing but however were spending a great deal of time talking about such a wonderful job they were doing. They completely ignored a prediction about an earthquake to talk trash to the person making it. Unlike normally where the events happens and its not far enough outside of the prediction to ay the pay check collectors were wrong this event happened to be extreme. Since these employees were so busy trying to justify the pay check they collect through attacking and smearing someone else instead of through doingthe job they were supposed to do its perfectly reasonable to go after them.

    Just like with most things its all well in good to believe something or claim thing its perfectly fine. However when you start involving the government in the belief through taxpayer money or trying to get the government to do something based on your “research” thats no longer science. Those actions needed to be properly held accountable.

  24. I was at the Royal Society meeting on climate and met some of the modellers. What surprised me was how much like us sceptics they are. They didn’t openly state as much but … well let’s just say they were not enthusiastic about the ability of their models to predict the climate a long way in advance.

    The real enthusiasts weren’t these people “in the know” but the lackeys, bosses and NGOs who use these climate models. It was almost as if the only people who believe the climate models were those who have no idea what they actually mean.

    Indeed, seeing one reading various sceptic blogs, I’m beginning to wonder just how many sceptics are actually working at the Met Office … sceptics in their private time … but officially still warmists when their (scientifically illiterate) bosses are watching.

    I can just imagine the conversation these guys might have with their bosses ….
    “So you’ve created this model” … “yes”.
    “And it’s the best model available” …. “yes”.
    “And you’ve worked out the certainty” …. “yes”
    “And that certainty is very high” …. “yes”
    “So that means the climate will warm 6°C this century” … “I don’t know”.
    “What do you mean: ‘you don’t know?'” … “you said you had the best models and you give very high levels of confidence so everything looks great?” … “yes”?
    “So why do you say: ‘you don’t know” … “because I don’t know what I don’t know”.
    “But what you do know you have a great deal of confidence in” … “yes”.
    “So that is what I’m going to tell the press” …“you’re the boss.”

  25. It’s strange that I was reading Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts In Our Past and Future by Robert M Schoch, Ph.D, just a couple hours ago about earthquake, Schoch brought up the name of Raffaele Bendandi who was “self-taught seismologist” from ITALY who apparently was able to come up with ways to predict earthquakes. Are we seeing another version of Alfred Wegener over earthquake? Amazingly, his prediction of earthquake was in 1924! Apparently, it was forgotten till recently when Christiano Fidani, a physicist with the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, Perugia, started looking into it and apparently took Bendandi’s work seriously. It’d be interesting to see where it leads to…

    FYI, Dr. Schoch used Svensmark as a source quite a bit over cosmoclimatology in his book…

  26. John another says above (at October 22, 2012 at 3:19 pm), “My take away from Rogers approach is that all things natural should, from the political/media sense (how can one separate the two since the media is now lapdog instead of watchdog), be treated as worse-case scenario only.”

    Casting everything as worst-case will only make matters worse. For one thing, worst-case is almost always wrong. As others have noted above, the audience gets numb and starts to ignore the legitimate warnings. The second aspect is that any given event almost always has two sides, making the definition of “worst-case” problematic. For example, a severe thunderstorm may also break a severe drought. You have to make a prediction but which is worst depends on your perspective.

    My take-away is entirely different. Reading about both the ND case and the Italian case, the error was in trying to make a single simple prediction rather than to express the risk as a range. Had the weather service said “We predict the flood crest to be 49 feet but there is a 25% chance that it could be 54 feet or higher” (assuming that’s what the probability was), well, the local residents still may have elected to roll the dice but they would have no excuse to say they weren’t warned. Likewise, if the Italian scientists had stuck to what they knew and explicitly said what they didn’t know and if they had not let themselves get sucked into the black-and-white sound-bites that the media presses for, they would have been fine.

    The error is not in the prediction or even in the way it is communicated but in the arrogance of assuming that your audience is stupid. Normal people are able to understand ranges and probabiliites. They understand uncertainty. We all make decisions under conditions of uncertainty every day.

  27. Matt says:

    October 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    From what I have read the defendents in this case are all government employees. In the US, government employees in general have broad imunity for official acts. Italy may find that they have no qualified applicants willing to fill these positions until explicit imunity against similar future procecusions is provided.

    Criminal and / or civil courts are not the place for holding government employees acountable for acts legaly within their scope of duties. If Italy or any other country goes down this road they are likely to find themselves in the position where no one is willing to work for the government.

    Matt. What is the problem here? All that you have stated,except for the immunity part and the courts,is a feature.The only bug is the immunity/courts. Or do you like gubermints stealing your hard earned cash?

  28. I am of two minds on this. But mostly I am of the mind that this judgement may be sending the correct message to the pseudo-scientists out there who are abusing science while making unscientific claims. I believe that jail is warranted for scientists who lie and enter the political propaganda realm when they otherwise should be exercising more sober reasoning.

    As I have mentioned many times before here in Anthony’s blog, the victim here is the truth and the abusers of the truth have been those scientists who are exploiting their station in society to advance their beliefs.

    Truth in science should be a blood oath, where offenders should outlaw themselves.

    There is nothing worse than a hypocritical scientist, who mocks the medieval church for silencing Galileo, and does the same here and now in the modern world. The truth is the objective truth.

    Lying is an offense to the intellect and causes harm to the public.

    Whether in this case, a failure to predict an earthquake is harm by omission, is questionable to me. But “SCIENCE” brought it on itself by pretending, in so many ways, to be so certain about everything.

  29. CJ Nelson,

    The deaths at Lockyer had nothing to do with the Wivenhoe Dam, it was a totally differnt drainage system. What the water releases at Wivenhoe did was increase flooding downstream in Brisbane which was already receiving the floodwaters from the Lockyer and Bremer systems. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, had the Wivenhoe dam not been there flooding in Brisbane would have been worse.

    Unfortunately there is a likelyhood of more deaths as the urban sprawl spreads into the rural valleys of SE Queensland.

  30. I wonder if they will sue climate scientists one day. After all this issue seems to be about misleading people about what you don’t really know.

  31. This is exactly why I always tell my analytical and instrumental students that numbers/results mean nothing without its associated uncertainty and no matter what pressure you get from someone, political or otherwise, the result is always reported with the associated uncertainty. If you have to explain what it means so be it, but there are no absolutes when taking measurements.

  32. Well – what do you think, this is a hypothetical question. If some scientists told the powers of be, that ‘Look, mate we better begin to think what we can do, if Stephen S predictions of a coming ice age are true…’ Now Carl Sagan warned if we don’t stop using fossil fuels, we will start a new ice age?’ Get some info because we don’t know how another ice age will effect us, bu..er the rest of the world, (etc, etc). They Ally Gore got the message and started a new chapter… and made a few dollars on the side because of it, academy award, and a Nobel Prize. Frighten people to change their ways, and prepare to use less energy when it gets colder.

  33. A warm period has always been followed by an ice age or mini ice age. We were not around in the last full glacial period, but we knew what happened during the mini ice age.

  34. Paul Westhaver says:

    As I have mentioned many times before here in Anthony’s blog, the victim here is the truth

    The truth … as if there is only one viewpoint that is valid and therefore the rest are false?

    That is the problem. The problem has been this dogmatic viewpoint that there can only be one truth and because climate researchers believed they had found “the truth”, it therefore followed that everyone else must be wrong.

    Paradoxically, the way out of this mess is to accept that there are many truths … or to be more exact there are many “best guesses” as to what could happen and that given our lack of experience, that they should all be considered. Only when we accept that there are many possible “truths”, can we hope that one of those views we encompass in our range of possible truths may just be somewhere near “the truth”.

  35. Second guessing the public is unproductive for scientists.

    There is a difference between influencing and informing, as the former immediately becomes political, and that game will be won by those with political skills, not scientific skills.

  36. bushbunny says: “Well – what do you think, this is a hypothetical question. If some scientists told the powers of be …”

    Bushbunny, the fact is that there is now a gap between what the climate researchers seem to accept about their knowledge of the climate and a group of people who are the “users” of climate projections. At the Royal Society meeting, I started thinking: “I wish they all had name badges saying: ‘warmist’ or ‘sceptic'” because it was so hard listening to them to work out which they were.

    That however wasn’t true of those who didn’t understand the climate. They were very clear of their views and those were the kind of dogmatic things you get from the likes of Gore, Head of the Met Office etc.

    There are several explanations:
    1. The meeting I went to just happened to have a small minority of climate researchers who just happened to be the reasonable ones we never hear about
    2. That something dramatic is changing but that changing mood has not spread out from those “in the know” to their users yet.
    3. That climate researchers have always been sceptics at heart and they (like us) have just been misunderstood by their bosses and their PR departments & their politically motivated colleagues who create nonsense about certainty where none exists.

    The third is quite worrying. When we hear calls for “better communication of climate science”, I’d always assumed it was the eco-zealots trying to convince us sensible people to adopt their nonsense. But, now I wonder whether it might be the sensible climate researchers trying to find a way to calm down their colleagues to communicate their sensible (sceptical) positions to their colleagues who have singularly misunderstood what they mean.

    And then it becomes a catch 22. The climate researchers can only get funding to do the research that those who misunderstand their research don’t understand needs doing. The more pragmatic they are … the less inclined they are to get involved in the “politics” … so those with a pragmatic view have no real say over what happens … the result being that climate science illiterates (i.e. non pragmatists) like Gore control the agenda … boost the profile of a few eco-zealots like Hansen and Mann … and keep all the rest from having any real say.And once you get a few people of a particular point of view in charge, they can then have a vastly more influential role than their numbers. They can create an atmosphere where it is no longer acceptable to have other views … so forcing the silent majority to just keep quiet in the belief they are indeed a marginalised minority.

  37. Can I add. The reason this is worrying is that if we have this problem whereby those at the “coal face” of science are not able to communicate to the public because that message is being misrepresented by their bosses, PR departments etc., this may be a systemic problem in science where we have created scientifically literate people who are communication babies.

    We have great research, which is entirely going to waste because it cannot be effectively and accurately communicated to the public.

    That could suggest the answer is to bring in “communications skills” to all science degrees. On the other hand, it could also mean we have to start the other end … that e.g. there should be a quota of scientists and engineers in parliaments much as there have been quotas for women on party shortlists. Likewise, the civil service ought to have say >10% of its intake from a science or engineering background.

  38. I will credit my wife with this. I was saying that too many people don’t (or refuse) to understand that nature has the power and we really can’t do much about it. She said, ” Al Gore has convinced them that we can”. I had to laugh at that one.

  39. Mike Haseler:

    You make several good points in your series of posts throughout this thread, and I commend everybody to read those posts.

    However, with respect, your arguments addresses a different subject to the subject of this thread.

    In this thread we are considering how members of a public body (i.e. the Italian ‘Major Risks Committee) were held to account for their failure to fulfil their duty. I explain this in my post at October 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm.

    If Pielke’s article is correct then the committee members clearly did not fulfil their duties
    (a) to warn the public of what the committee members knew – or should have known – were the existing risks,
    and
    (b) members of the committee deliberately misled the public for reasons of personal career advancement/protection.

    If the public had known the Committee assessed the risk to be minimal but real then members of the public could have made their own decisions using that knowledge. But the Committee advised the public the Committe knew the risk was so small that everybody should relax, drink a glass of wine, and ignore the tremors which were concerning them.

    It cannot be known how many lives were lost because concerned people were induced by the Committee’s advise to change their minds about sleeping outdoors or leaving the area. But the number who died because they changed their minds is not likely to be zero. And the inducement to change their minds was a lie (as explained in my post at October 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm). The Committee members were successfully prosecuted for manslaughter (which seems eminently just).

    But you are discussing the interaction of researchers and the public. That is a completely different issue. And governments are aware of the problems which you discuss.

    Governments establish bodies such as the Italian ‘Major Risks Committee’ because politicians are aware of the issues you raise. It is the job of those bodies to provide clear and factual information which is independent of those issues. The Italian ‘Major Risks Committee’ accepted that job but chose to not do it because they put selfish interests before the duty they had accepted. Their refusal to do that duty had the result that people died who may not have died if the committee had not been derelict in its duty.

    As I see it, the only point worthy of debate is whether 4 years in jail is sufficient punishment for those who were convicted.

    Richard

  40. Reminescent of Michael Fish, 15 Okt 1987: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t, but having said that, actually, the weather will become very windy, but most of the strong winds, incidentally, will be down over Spain and across into France.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Storm_of_1987

    The storm killed 18 in Britain. Apparently Fish needs to be sentenced to six years for manslaughter.

  41. 1997, and current, Grand Forks resident here. The article is spot on. The crest prediction of 49 feet was indeed met with little alarm. While the 79 flood caused more than a “little” damage, it was a manageable event and people were planning to act in response to how the 79 flood went. The NWS totally dropped the ball as they only increased the crest prediction WELL after it was clear that those numbers were incorrect. Since we didn’t have any reliable data, and many were QUITE pissed at the NWS even then, we continued trying to raise dikes when the correct course would have been to start moving anything that wasn’t nailed down to higher ground and then evacuating.

    Instead my family had to evacuate with one to two hour notice. When we left I didn’t even have a pair of shoes, as I had left them at a friends house the day before, I only had a single pair of water boots. We lived east of Washington and the water was rising fast through the storm drains. My dad drove in front in the pickup with my younger brother and I was in the Tempo with my mom. My mom and dad were hoping that by following in the wake of the pickup, the car would make it through the deep spots. If it stalled, my mom and I were to immediately abandon the car and climb onto the back of the pickup. I remember that we did get some water seep into the car from the doors, but we made it to Washington and then drove to my uncle’s house north of Bismark.

  42. politicians and bureaucrats in Italy are what the joke-books are full of, Provincial government elite with millions of Euros in bank accounts outside Italy, millionaire housing, dozens of exotic cars, salaries greater than Obama, thousands of bottles of ( FRENCH ) champagne at an invitation “party” in Rome (one nights fun US $12,000,000 ) “consultants on six figure retainers” are just a few of what the Italian newspapers are full of today,
    AND NOW:
    Quote “The deputy chef and scientists held a SHORT ONE HOUR MEETING and then a press conference”
    That tells it all, having lived and worked in Italy for the past 25 years I would guess that the 7 people convicted would each be on the top end of $250,000 a year and a 10 hour a week 4 months a year.

  43. Mike Haseler says:
    October 23, 2012 at 12:34 am
    Paradoxically, the way out of this mess is to accept that there are many truths …
    ========
    Consider the statement X causes Y.

    This statement is only true if you ignore what causes X. As soon as you introduce a new statement, W causes X, then you have W causes Y, and X causes Y is not longer true. W causes Y, X is simply an intermediate result..

    So, you could say the CO2 causes global warming, but what causes CO2? CO2 is a product of prosperity. The more prosperous a country becomes, the more CO2 it produces.

    So, one could say the prosperity causes CO2, and thus prosperity causes global warming. So, the solution to global warming is to end prosperity. The truth of this can be seen in the US, where CO2 levels have fallen, as has prosperity.

  44. cRR Kampen:

    Your post at October 23, 2012 at 6:02 am completely fails to understand the issue.

    Michael Fish made an error in a prediction during the conduct of his duty.
    The Italian ‘Major Risks Committee’ were derelict in their duty.

    Chalk and cheese.

    Richard

  45. I am still wrestling with the utterly bizarre outcome of this “trial” whereby a person was held accountable for having made a scientific prediction that turned out to be wrong.

    And in something as unpredictable as earthquakes….. you have to be kidding ! What is going to be next ? Taking weather forecasters to court because it rained when they predicted sun ? It brings back uncomfortable images of the witch hunts of the middle ages ….. indeed a sad day for Europe.

  46. Justthinkin says:
    October 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm
    Matt says:
    October 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm
    Criminal and / or civil courts are not the place for holding government employees acountable for acts legaly within their scope of duties.
    ===========
    Why not? Employees of private companies enjoy no such immunity. Why should government employees be held above the law that applies to everyone else?

    If instead they knew they were accountable, then they might just be a bit more careful about making unsupported claims to curry political favor at the taxpayers risk and expense.

    Are we seriously to believe that no one would be willing to work for private industry because they don’t have immunity? And therefore government employees need immunity?

  47. The scientists got themselves into trouble by saying “don’t listen to the other guy, we are the experts”. The court held them accountable on that basis, as it should.

    Imagine for a moment someone yells “fire” in a crowded building. You are in the building and stand up to say “don’t listen to that person, I’m the fire chief, there is no fire”.

    If you are the fire chief, you had best be damn sure there is no fire before you stand up and contradict the person that just yelled fire. Because if there is a fire you are going to find yourself in deep do-do.

    In this case Gioacchino Giuliani stood up and yelled “fire”. The 6 scientists and Bernardo De Bernardinis stood up and said “don’t listen to him, we are the experts, there is no fire”. Just before the “fire” burned down the town.

  48. ImranCan:

    At October 23, 2012 at 7:16 am

    I am still wrestling with the utterly bizarre outcome of this “trial” whereby a person was held accountable for having made a scientific prediction that turned out to be wrong.

    Well, if that were what they had done then your “wrestling” would be understandable. But – according to Pielke’s account – it is not what they did.

    They were rightly prosecuted and convicted because it was their job to make a scientific prediction but instead they made an unscientific assertion for reasons of personal interest with the result that the Earthquake’s body count was increased.

    Richard

  49. ImranCan says:
    October 23, 2012 at 7:16 am
    What is going to be next ? Taking weather forecasters to court because it rained when they predicted sun ?
    =========
    What if one forecaster predicted rain, but another one stood up and said “don’t listen to that guy, I’m the government expert, it is not going to rain”

    On that basis you then scheduled an outdoor activity that was ruined on account of rain, that ended up costing you millions of dollars. Would you not want to hold the “government expert” accountable?

    In point of fact the solution lies in realizing that the last person on earth you can trust is the “government expert”. Especially government experts that hide behind their immunity.

    Governments fear the people, so they routinely withhold information from the public, to better “protect” the public.

  50. I think a lot of people are drawing the wrong connection between this case and the climate alarmists.

    If there was a parallel, it wouldn’t be the alarmists that get hauled away, it would be the skeptics. This Italian situation is exactly what the “Red Button” crowd want. Countering dire predictions with assurances? Defusing panic over CO2-induced disruptions? Trying to provide a sense of scale and reality to out-of-control alarm? ALL would be actionable if some weather event occurred and the wrong people started with the connection between it and climate change.

    Personally I think this is so far beyond the pale… In an ideal world they would lose their jobs and possibly be reprimanded for making strongly worded assertions of safety where none was warranted (from my perspective they needed less joviality and more “we’re not certain, but chances are low”). People believe in “scientists”. More so, apparently, than priests.

    Either way – Scientists could all do with a bit less arrogance and stop trying to be “rock stars”. Yeah, I won’t mention any names, but you all know which NASA types I mean…

  51. CodeTech:

    At October 23, 2012 at 8:23 am you say

    Personally I think this is so far beyond the pale… In an ideal world they would lose their jobs and possibly be reprimanded for making strongly worded assertions of safety where none was warranted (from my perspective they needed less joviality and more “we’re not certain, but chances are low”).

    I would appreciate your explaining that because I am at a loss to understand it.

    A professional driver is charged with manslaughter if deaths result from him driving without due care and attention.

    These Italian guys accepted the job of informing the public on the scientific understanding of risk. Deaths resulted from their doing their jobs without due care and attention. They were rightly convicted of manslaughter.

    But you say they should not have been prosecuted.
    Why do you think scientists should be held to lesser account than professional drivers?

    And if a scientist augments his income by doing some professional driving in his spare time then should his immunity from prosecution apply to his driving?

    Simply, I fail to understand why scientists should not be expected to perform their duties with the same due care and attention as everybody else. And when they undertake jobs that have risks then they should be held to account for lack of due diligence as everybody else is.

    Richard

  52. Richard:

    If the scientists CAUSED the earthquake, then prosecute away.

    If the truck driver CAUSED the crash, then prosecute away.

    If the scientists failed to predict while using current best practices or severely underestimated the dangers, dangers which EVERYONE in that region ought to have been aware of from birth, then significantly less arduous punishment than jail is warranted. Loss of employment, loss of status and prestige.

    If the truck driver failed to account for the possibility of road closures during winter due to avalanche, jail is hardly warranted. He could lose his job, though.

    Please compare appropriate types of fruit. Apple != Orange.

    In all honesty, what should they have done differently?

    This incident DOES underscore the fact that predictions are predictions, and are based on probability derived from experience. So they got it wrong. I’m 99.9% certain that if they had known with greater certainty that the large earthquake would occur, they would have been screaming from the rooftops. They didn’t.

    Challenger launched because the people who didn’t want to see o-ring problems overrode the engineer who loudly argued that a failure would occur. The problem was not the engineers or the decision makers, the problem was the entire NASA chain of command.

    Which is more wrong: that people believe seismologists can accurately predict earthquakes, or that when they fail to they should be criminally liable? Because BOTH are wrong.

  53. @ferd berple,

    Do you honestly belive that there would be a criminal prosecution in this case if they weren’t government employees?, If a private firm had made the same prediction in this case there would be no liability because there is no established duty and even if there was a prosecution it would most likely be against the firm and not the individual employees.

    Another difference with government vs private workers in a situation like this is that in this case the scientist are effectively being prosecuted by their employer. A scientist or engineer working for a private firm can not be put in jail by their employer they can only be fired.

    Many are saying that this will promote alarmism. It will, once and once only.

    The problem is that this case has set a precident. In the future if they predict a big quake and the government orders an evacutation but no quake happens people are going to come back saying we have lost profits and lost wages plus all the costs of the evacuation itself and demand the scientist be prosecuted for fraud and there will be no basis to say it’s different this time.

    Earthquake prediction is at best a guessing game. No amount of dilligence will get you an answer that is better than 50/50 chance of being right.

    In this situation the only legaly safe options are to refuse to take a job with that department or to answer all queries with “No Comment”

  54. CodeTech:

    Thankyou for your reply to me at October 23, 2012 at 10:29 am.

    I sincerely think your answer completely misunderstands the issue. This apparent misunderstanding is clearly displayed by your asking me

    In all honesty, what should they have done differently?

    I answered that in my previous post at October 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm. In that post I specifically stated the least they should have done and compared that to what they did do.

    A jail sentence of 4 years seems a small punishment for their crime.

    Please note that I worked as a research scientist in a UK government-owned research establishment for 3 decades. I and my colleagues fully understood how we were accountable for the proper conduct of our duties.

    Richard

  55. Matt:

    At October 23, 2012 at 10:29 am you say
    Earthquake prediction is at best a guessing game. No amount of dilligence will get you an answer that is better than 50/50 chance of being right.

    In this situation the only legaly safe options are to refuse to take a job with that department or to answer all queries with “No Comment”
    No! That completely fails to understand the issue. Please read my post at October 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm.

    Richard

  56. richardscourtney/23 oct 7:08 – please take into account the difference between meteorology and seismology. Earthquakes are vastly worse predictable than storm systems, besides: earthquakes are rare, sudden, often isolated incidents. Their predictably is comparable to trying to state to a minute hours beforehand when the icicle will thaw off en come crashing down.
    While the Italian seismologists said like ‘sip your wine and enjoy in peace’ they had also emphasized the uncertainties and unpredictability of quakes. Michael Fish did not even express uncertainty anywhere, contrary so.
    This makes Michael Fish even more ‘guilty’.

    I think the effect of this court’s ruling could be to keep scientists from speaking out in the future. If they consider the chance 100% for a disaster going to happen they will tell, but if they feel the chance is only 99% they will keep mum and actually start researching and talking about something irrelevantly else. It is their best survival strategy. Given the fact that in the natural/empirical sciences the margin of error is always larger than zero the future of science is lots of babble about nothing or how to make the lovely hair of My Little Pony more resistant to brushing.

    /cRR

  57. RR Kampen:

    Thankyou for your post addressed to me which is at October 23, 2012 at 11:18 am.

    The rate of posts to this thread is such that I am not copying your post here because others can scroll up to find it with no difficulty. I am replying to that post.

    I really am struggling to understand why so many – including it seems you – are misunderstanding this issue.

    You say that earthquake prediction is inherently uncertain. Yes! that is the point.

    The Italian Committee claimed to have a certainty of no imminent earthquake which is not available to existing scientific understanding of earthquakes. ferd berple gives a good analogy of their behaviour in his post at October 23, 2012 at 7:41 am. I wish I had thought of his analogy because it is so good that I don’t see how anybody can fail to understand it.

    There is substantial difference between each of these options
    (a) we don’t think it will happen but it could
    and
    (b) we don’t think it will happen
    and
    (c) it is not going to happen.

    The only extreme option is (c) and that is the one the Italian criminals provided.
    Option (a) is the scientific answer and, therefore, it is the answer they were payed to provide.
    But they said the non-scientific option (c) and people died as a result.

    They did NOT get a scientific prediction wrong. They did not give a scientific prediction – which was their duty – but instead they gave a non-scientific opinion as a method to advance/protect their position of authority.

    The Michael Fish comparison is not applicable. He was a weather forecaster who gave a weather forecast which said there would not be a hurricane. He was not a member of a specialist committee tasked with disaster warning. His prediction was technically right: there was no hurricane. But there was a disaster because gusts of hurricane force winds occurred. Importantly, Michael Fish made the best he could whereas the Italian criminals deliberately made a prediction which they knew – or should have known – was NOT the best prediction they could have made. In both cases the prediction was wrong and people died. But the difference is that Michael Fish made a scientific prediction but the Italians – who were tasked to make a scientific prediction – did not and that is why they are criminals.

    Richard

  58. I still don’t think we have enough facts to pass detailed comment. However, I will say that IMO, this comes down to two key issues which should not be mixed.
    1) Scientists should keep to science – reporting in a suitably scientific way
    2) Politics and risk assessment of scientific findings (as in application to the public) should be undertaken by the government. Whether we like ot or not, the government is the one pulling the strings.

    Now, if the scientists got embroiled in the politics, and/or the politicians got embroiled in the science – this would/could/has lead to ineffective communication. There are definite parallels to the climate science gaffaw in this respect……..we have alarmist scientists claiming ‘we should run for the hills’ (metaphorically speaking) and we have skeptical scientists who say ‘calm down dear, we don’t know the details’ – the appropriate ‘side’ is taken up by the politicos/NGO’s according to their own agendas….
    Re – earthquake prediction – it is absolutely non-definitive. About the best one could hope for is something like San Francisco, where a main faultline exists and it WILL slip – sometime – one day in the next week or the next hundred years or so! No more significantly accurate advice can be drawn… and this applies pretty much to anywhere in the world where major faults are present.

    In this case, the prequake tremors could indeed have been considered a precursor to a biggy – but also could be considered as minor tectonic adjustments – which happen all the time, and indeed may have dissipated some of the stored stresses. Without complete and in situ total stress analysis of the faults and stress build up, we simply could not predict either way…and even then with some massive degree of uncertainty. So, what to do?, Well, based on the outcome of this ‘trial’ – I’d say every seismologist should simply tell every person in a seismologically active area to ‘get out’! That is based entirely on the precautionary principle and is factually and completely correct – even if it’s a one in a billion chance – it is still the correct advice! Dumbing it down, in whatever way – doesn’t alter the primary fact – its an earthquake area – and we CANNOT predict when they will strike……end of….
    So, in defence of the scientists, for example; I’d like to know how many people evacuated the area AFTER the first tremors – if not, why not? It doesn’t matter that someone said a big one wasn’t likely – it is COMMON SENSE to know that one could be possible and it is an individuals choice of how to act/react. Imagine if you and your family were living in that area, in a newly built ‘quake’ resistant house – you’d probably stay around,. feling relatively ‘safe’. But if you lived in a ricketty old cottage, you’d think differently – wouldn’t you? Do we want a complete ‘nanny’ state? (Anyone saying yes – had better stay inside, because you know that you can get run over by a bus or car, don’t you? etc)
    /rant

  59. richardscourtney says:
    October 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Richard, I agree with your stated view in that the scientific response/opinion should have been the correct one (a – in your post) but this ignores the ‘input’ of the politicos on this committee, and as yet, we do not know what those inputs were. We have seen the IPCC ‘twist’ scientists words – and it is quite feasible this is a similar type of deal. If the scientists have been weak or feeble and have knowingly allowed ‘false’ representation, then I do believe they deserve to be criminalised (but bear in mind that they may have had no time to correct the issued statements either!) However, I would find it rather incredible that this was deliberate malpractise (but I do accept it may well be possible), and so I remain in their defence until this malpractise has been demonstrated – which is currently not clear from the article(s).

  60. Kev-in-Uk:

    re your post at October 23, 2012 at 1:17 pm.

    Yes, we do not know the input of politicians to the Committee. And, importantly, we are discussing Pelke’s account of the case which – with no insult intended towards him – may be misleading us about important facts.

    However, Pielke says it was De Bernardinis who made the “drink wine” comment at the press conference. It was not a politician.

    The convicted persons are
    Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission
    Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics
    Giulio Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre
    Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering
    Claudio Eva, physicist
    Mauro Dolce, director of the the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office
    Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department

    I find it hard to accept that people with their scientific knowledge and their experience of interacting with politicians could have behaved as they did merely because of some political pressure. If they did then that makes their crime worse.

    And, as a Committee, they shared collective responsibility. If any one of them overstepped the agreed position of the Committee then each of the rest had a duty to correct it.

    Richard

  61. The actual flood crest was 54 feet at Grand Forks, exceeding the 49-foot outlook by 5 feet, and caught the community by surprise as they had only built their levees to 51 feet. The average error in previous flood outlooks in the region was a very respectable 10% (about 5 feet, if applied to the 49-foot outlook), but this information was never shared with the public. When we asked officials why this information was not released with the forecast, they told us they were worried that if information about uncertainties was known then the public would lose confidence in the forecasts.

    I have two comments.

    First, this shows that knowledge may be deemed pretty accurate and reliable for most purposes, yet also be unreliable or too inaccurate for some particular purpose. That was the case here, and I think that is the case with much of climate science.

    Second, the climate alarmists frequently assert that the future may even be worse than their projections forecast, given the amount of random variation and unknowns at every level of analysis in every weather system studied. That was the case here. Over the last few years I have become increasingly more skeptical of the claims made by the climate catastrophists, but I think we should remember at least the possibility that events may turn out worse than predicted.

    Thank you to Dr Pielke Jr. for a good post.

  62. It’s a worthy topic of discussion if it gets all sides to think about what the role of the public officials is supposed to be. Are they there to educate and inform citizens so that people are better able to make the decisions and take actions that are most appropriate for themselves?

    Or are the officials there to decide on our behalf what is best, and then choose the right way to “communicate” such we will do what they have determined is best [however well intentioned and informed they may be]?

  63. richardscourtney

    “They were rightly prosecuted and convicted because it was their job to make a scientific prediction but instead they made an unscientific assertion for reasons of personal interest with the result that the Earthquake’s body count was increased.”

    Except that you can not possibly know this.

    A) We don’t know what a proper scientific prediction would have been.

    B) You can not know with any certanty that if they had made what you consider a proper scientific prediction of “We don’t think it will happen but it could” that any one would have acted any differently and there would have been fewer deaths.

    C) If they came back and said OMG Evacuate Now, it is likely that the ensuing panic itself would have resulted in lost lives. By your theory they could be prosecuted for this as well.

    There are simply too many what ifs in your argument to support criminal or civil liability.

    Matt.

  64. richardscourtney says:
    October 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I agree in principal, but perhaps my stance is simply more sympathetic than yours!
    re – the committee action aspect – I am sure you realise than many things ‘said’ by committee are not always supported to the same degree by its actual members. In the case of the science here, the nuances of the conveyed message are largely in the eye/ear of the reader/listener. It may be factually correct to state (as they did) that a major earthquake was considered unlikely but still possible, etc – but the interpretation of such a fact is dependent on the mindset of the reader! If you are a media reporter, how would you transmit that information? how would you slant it according to your own beliefs?
    My point is that in this instance, the media must play an important part in transmittal of the message without bias too!
    as for the comedic style wine reference – it is difficult to comment without fuller details and actual context. Also, think of it another way, in that that throwaway comment was from one person in press conference, not all of them by agreement. The ‘wine’ comment was clearly his personal view – not necessarily that of the whole committee! Since it is being used as some kind of brush to tar the committee with – it seems important to know the context of the statement, don’t you think?

  65. Matt:

    At October 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm you wrongly assert to me

    A) We don’t know what a proper scientific prediction would have been.

    Bollocks!
    I stated it in my post at October 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm and you quote it. It is
    We don’t think it will happen but it could.
    But they said
    It is not going to happen.

    Then you say

    B) You can not know with any certanty (sic) that if they had made what you consider a proper scientific prediction of “We don’t think it will happen but it could” that any one would have acted any differently and there would have been fewer deaths.

    Not relevant. They were employed to give scientific information for public use. They chose to not do that but to give unscientific advice instead. Many people were panicking, and it is reasonable to assume that some would have left if not reassured by the unscientific advice. The possibility that the body count was increased by that unscientific advice is sufficient to condemn them.

    And you say

    C) If they came back and said OMG Evacuate Now, it is likely that the ensuing panic itself would have resulted in lost lives. By your theory they could be prosecuted for this as well.

    Yes! If they had said that then they would have been equally guilty. People may have been killed in the scramble to leave when there was no valid scientific basis for them having said that. But so what? Their clear duty was to provide scientific advice. It was NOT their job to make statements with the purpose of assuaging or increasing the already existing public concern. Provision of the scientific advice may have assuaged or increased the public concern but it was the responsibility of other public servants (e.g. politicians) to manage any effects of that. The public’s ability to decide what they wanted to do was distorted by the Committee deliberately not providing the scientific information it existed to provide but stating a falsehood instead.

    Their clear duty was to provide the only scientific advice which was
    We don’t think an earthquake is about to happen but it could.
    But they said
    An earthquake is not going to happen.

    As a result people probably died who otherwise would have left the area before the earthquake happened. And the shocking thing is that the criminals only each got a mere 4 years in jail.

    Richard

  66. Kev-in-Uk:

    At October 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm you ask me
    The ‘wine’ comment was clearly his personal view – not necessarily that of the whole committee! Since it is being used as some kind of brush to tar the committee with – it seems important to know the context of the statement, don’t you think?
    Yes, indeed I do. And I am assuming the trial court examined that context.

    Please note that we are discussing the report by Pielke. With no disrespect to him, we are forced to assume his report is adequate for us to discuss the issues. I am assuming his mention of the ‘wine comment’ is an indication that it was significant to the court case.

    In the absence of the trial transcript we can only make these assumptions which – like all assumptions – may be wrong.

    The importance of our discussion is that it examines what is, what could be, and what should be the accountability of scientists who accept positions as public servants. Please remember that for politicians ‘Scientists are on tap and not on top’. It is the business of scientists to give true scientific advice and nothing else. Politicians use information from many sources, not only scientists.

    For example, in the specific case we are examining, the advice of the Committee told the politicians to do nothing. The correct scientific advice would have informed the politicians to seek information from emergency services about their preparedness just in case an earthquake happened.

    Richard

  67. Several years ago I was “loaned” to the Department of Defense to manage a system for destroying explosively configured non-stockpile chemical weapons (i.e. potentially armed weapons found in public spaces).

    As matter of course this led to my participation in a number of public meetings prior to destroying the items in question. Naturally, I received training in “High Concern Communications” prior to engaging the public. The training was invaluable – to the extent that I continue to keep the training courses “tips” card in my wallet.

    Looking over Mr. Pielke accounts of the “Major Risks Committee” public meeting, and re-examining my “tips” card, it appears to me the Committee violated a series basic communication rules. Specifically one should avoid: humor, jargon, hedges, guarantees, risk comparisons, and taking it personally.

    This is well illustrated by the following:

    Where De Bernardinis states “[T]he scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation, that is to say a continuous discharge of energy.” – violates the guarantee, hedge, and risk comparison rules.

    When asked directly by the media if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis states: “Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc. This seems important.” – violates the guarantee and humor rules.

    Even if the Committee as a whole found it “necessary” to counter the prediction of a pending large earthquake issued by Gioacchino Giuliani – This violated the rule of taking things personally.

    My take-away is that the Italy’s Civil Protection Department leadership and staff was, at the very least, inept and poorly trained in the art of public communications.

    Regards,
    Kforestcat

  68. richardscourtney

    You put forward “We don’t think it will happen but it could” as a possible statement., But with out access to their data and methods, we don’t know that that would specifically have been the answer had the run a proper analysis. Further, they could have made your prefered statement with no more dilligance / analysis than what they used. So apparently, the issue for you for the border between criminal liability and not has in fact nothing to do with the level of dilligance or analysis, nothing to do with the process they followed, but mearly a difference in wording.

    I’m sorry, but if this case was being tried in the US and I was on the jury unless you could point to a specific victim and show beyond a reasonable doubt that that specific person woulnd not have died but for the wording they used, my vote would be NOT GUILTY.

  69. Matt:

    Your post at October 23, 2012 at 8:48 pm puts words in my mouth and has no relation to anything I wrote.

    “A difference in wording” is not relevant.
    1.
    They were charged to give scientific information, but they dis not.
    2.
    They provided information that any scientific knowledge concerning earthquake predictability would refute.
    3.
    They lied and people died.

    Only 4 years jail seems a light sentence.

    Richard

  70. It is frightening that given the known uncertainty of earthquake prediction the Italian scientists should be jailed but with climate science where predictions claimed to be certain have actually visibly failed after billions of dollars have been spent on combating it has not resulted in even the threat of a trial indeed it has resulted in police action in the UK to try and find out who dared to expose the cheats.

  71. David Cage:

    re your post at October 24, 2012 at 12:21 am.

    Yes. Thankyou, I could not agree more.

    Richard

  72. richardscourtney,

    Had they been charged with deriliction of duty or criminal negligence you might have a case.

    You say: “They lied and people died”

    In my opinion a manslaughter conviction should require evidence that specific people died specifically because of their lie.

    As far as I can tell from the stories I have read there is no such evidence.

    You have no evidence that the death toll would have been reduced by so much as a single person had they made the statement in the form you approve of.

  73. Matt:

    I can only repeat that I don’t approve of a “form”: that is your misrepresentation.

    They had a duty to give scientific information and they blatantly did not.

    Richard

  74. richardscourtney,

    If you want to convince me that the manslaughter confictions are justified you will have to show a direct causal connection between that failure and the death of specific persons.

    You can’t simply say that they failed to do thier jobs and people died. You will have to show specifically that people died because they failed to do their job. It’s that causal connection you are missing. Without it you can not justify a conviction of manslauter.

  75. Matt:

    I am replying so you know I am not ignoring your post at October 24, 2012 at 1:18 pm.

    I have explained my view in my series of above posts. If you do not now share my view then we must accept that our views differ.

    Richard

  76. People are wrong when they say earthquakes are uncommon. 0.1 magnitude occur all the time but who cares as you need the most sensitive equipment to even notice them. The problem with seimology is that we have very little data about the Earth- its 99.999999% unstudied so cause and therefore prediction is way beyond seismologists. These seismologists are being rapped over the fingers for their extreme arrogance.

  77. Mark Smith:

    Your post at October 27, 2012 at 2:12 am concludes saying

    These seismologists are being rapped over the fingers for their extreme arrogance.

    Indeed so. Thankyou for eloquently stating what I have been trying to say.

    Richard

  78. Richard how are you what’s the weather like in Cornwall, mild I suspect? Look countries should be aware of seismic activity but often they don’t get much warning. I have just finished a post graduate unit on Pompeii and Herculaneum, that devastated their region with multiple earthquakes from 62 AD until the mighty eruption of Mt.Vesuvius in AD 79. Some vacated the area others stayed behind, (if you were a slave or freedman, you had no choice) and the earth tremors before the eruption, didn’t not seem to worry some. Pliny the younger, only got worried when the earth tremors got very strong. And the sun was obliterated by the dust and gas thrown up.They have had numerous earthquakes and eruptions since then. When our mates the Americans bombed Campania (Bay of Naples) on the 24th August 1943, it destroyed parts of Pompeii (the same date of the AD 79 eruption) but the following year 1944 Vesuvius paid them back with a lava eruption that destroyed 80 of their planes. Divine Providence perhaps, some would say. Even so – there are 3 million people now living around Mt.Vesuvius and their seismic observatory HQ reckon they will have weeks of warning of another possible eruption. Scientists disagree as they have only evacuation plans for 600,000 people. And they may only have a few days of warning of a major volcanic eruption.

    Earthquakes are certainly not uncommon as Campania has still hot springs and the Magma chamber stretches under the sea. But the area is also close to the tectonic plates that can be also related to Mt.Vesuvius’ grumbling and minor eruptions. She has been very quiet though since 1944 and those living along the Bay of Naples and this volcano are sitting on a time bomb, if a repeat of the AD 79 occurs again. So if – they can now blame the men responsible for monitoring seismic activities in that area after it happens, or when it happens, they are covering their asses with this latest earthquake non prediction. People will panic and evacuating thousands of people is no joke, especially if it never eventuates? A 1980 earthquake caused devastation, and 10 years later, 10,000 people were still to be re-homed. That’s modern times too. Volcanic eruptions are sometimes related to massive earthquakes prior to an actual eruption. The eruption in 1200 BC (I think) of Santorini on Thera that created the Atlantis tale, effected countries miles away. China. reported a drop in temperature, and crops failed as the sun was obliterated from the dust thrown up. Earthquakes are nasty, but volcanic eruptions are worse. Italy has several active volcanoes and under the Mediteranean too. If Mt Vesuvius erupts with a Plinean and then Paelean type eruption (no lava) it will affect all Europe for months. Ah there now, a bit of an ancient history lesson.

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