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La scienza trema



Sono stati accusati di aver dato informazioni inesatte, incomplete e contraddittorie alla popolazione dell’Aquila prima del terremoto. Così i componenti della Commissione grandi rischi sono stati condannati. La notizia suscita clamore nella comunità scientifica mondiale. Ma quale dovrebbe essere il ruolo pubblico dello scienziato nella prevenzione dei disastri? Ne parliamo con Marco Mucciarelli, direttore del Centro ricerche sismologiche dell’Ogs di Trieste.

Sul ruolo degli scienziati nella società aveva molto ragionato Marcello Cini, tra gli autori di L’ape e l’architetto. Lo ricorda per noi il fisico dell’università La Sapienza di Roma Gianni Mattioli.

Al microfono Pietro Greco.

Le interviste che proponiamo oggi
Testo e audio in inglese
, per la traduzione riascoltate la puntata. Qui lo streaming, qui il podcast da scaricare (disponibile solo per alcuni giorni dopo la messa in onda del 24/10/2012) 

David Spiegelhalter, the Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge


01. Professor David Spiegelhalter, what was your reaction to the news concerning the verdict in L’Aquila?

I was really shocked, physically shocked. I was speechless, which I am not usually the case. I have always been surprised of the trial, but I have never believed that they would ever be convicted – all of them, in this way. And for such a long sentence.

02. The story first circulated with some misleading reporting, so that some people abroad thought that some scientists had been tried for failing to predict an earthquake. What happened then?

I think many people have commented on it in the UK. People have been very upset and angry. But many of the comments, I think, have been slightly misguided because they suggested this was an attack on science and that someone had been somehow expected to have a crystal ball and be able to predict what would happen. My understanding is that this is not the case, it’s much more an issue of communication of uncertainty – and far from people expecting a certain prediction. In fact, it looks like they got almost too much certainty and reassurance, rather than the actual, real uncertainty that of course exist in trying to predict the earthquakes, which is unbelievably difficult.

03. You are a specialist in a subject called Public understanding of risk at Cambridge. And you commented that there are lessons to be learned in this story. Which lesson needs to be learned here?

The lesson for me is that, if scientists are going to continue to engage in important public issues, they need to become much more aware of the impact of their words. They need to choose and measure the words incredibly carefully when making statements to the public. I think this was not done well in L’Aquila. And I think this means that scientists need to think of their strategies for communicating risk. Very much part of their work is not just doing analysis and maybe working out some rough probabilities: they have to think about how people will interpret their work. And this, I think, is part of the responsibility of being a public scientist. This terrible trial is just a chilling warning of what can happen when this goes wrong.

04. Does an ideal communication structure exist in cases involving risks such as earthquakes?

Yes … The problem in this case is that it may lead to enormously defensive statements by scientists who will be unwilling to state anything without long legal phrases saying “I am not actually responsible”, “I cannot give any guarantees”, and so on. There has to be some balance, by which things are expressed in a clear way to the public and yet cannot considered as misleading them. And I think this means a balance. You should not be reassuring people but also you can not make people panic and over react. And so, in a sense, a one has to [...] which means expressing uncertainty, and not expressing too much undue confidence. And there is a lot of interest in that, not just in seismology. In the UK we had some terrible mistakes made by government ministers who completely assured us that mad cow disease could not transmit in any form to humans. We had some very bad, expensive, mistakes made in this country as well.


Thomas Jordan, Director, Southern California Earthquake Center, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Southern California

01. How did you first get involved in dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake at L’Aquila?

I was asked by the Italian government to chair an international commission to investigate what had happened during the L’Aquila earthquake and what recommendations we would make to improve the system for the risk communication. We convened one month after the earthquake and began our study which we continued for over one year. We released a set of recommendations in October of 2009 to the Italian Government making recommendations on how risk communication to be improved in this kind of situations.

02. Do you think the Government was admitting that there was much room for improvement there?

It’s very clear that there is room for implementation on how we forecast earthquakes, we cannot predict earthquakes with high probability, but we understand that probabilities can change, they can increase or decrease depending on seismic activity. These methods are not widely used in earthquake forecasting and they were not in use at the time by the Department of civil protection, but we recommended that they be put into use to improve the forecasting practice.

03. Are you aware of what happened next? Whether that was implemented?

To my knowledge, our recommendations have not been implemented by the department of civil protection.

04. What is risk in scientific terms?

In science and in seismology we distinguish between hazard and risk. A hazard is what might happen, what nature might do. For example, the occurrence of a large earthquake in the future will be a hazard, whereas risk is what happens when such an event occurs. In other words, risk is measured in terms of damage, in money or in lives, whereas hazard is more a description of, in the case of a earthquake, the shaking that might occur. So the point is, risk is really an effect that the hazard has on the population.

05. What was your reaction to the news about sentenced scientists?

I thought it was a rather incredible verdict. I was deeply disturbed that some scientists that were trying to do their job under adverse circumstances were convicted of criminal manslaughter. Clearly they were not responsible for the damage caused by this earthquake. We know that the buildings in old cities like L’Aquila are at risk, that was well known before the earthquake, and none of their actions changed that risk.

06. Generally, is it a scientists’ job to communicate properly in such situations?

We were very clear in the report that we submitted to the Italian government about what the role of the scientist should be, namely providing scientific information about hazard and risk. Now, we recommended that that information be described in terms of probabilities of hazard. In other words, scientists should not be put in a decision-making role. The decisions about what to do during a seismic crisis such as that that occurred in L’Aquila are the responsibility of civil authorities, politicians, people who can take scientific information and combine it with many types of information about economic factors, political factors, and make appropriate decisions. It is not the role of the scientist to make decisions about how to respond to high risk situations. So, for example, we recommended that an advising commission such the grand risk commission should report to the head of the department of civil protection and communicate scientific information about hazard and risk to that type of an authority who would then make sure appropriate decisions are made and how to deal with such a situation.

07. You have been working on this issue in California, where you are based. What has been done there?

We have a similar situation in California in terms of risk, there is an advisory body, called the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, in which I sit, which gives advice to the government, to the California Emergency Management Agency, the equivalent of the Civil Protection, and we try to factor into that information our understanding of short time behaviour of earthquakes, so if for example there is normal seismic activity, we try to assess how this has changed the probability of having a large earthquake. And we then advise the government accordingly.



A cura di Rossella Panarese
In regia Costanza Confessore
In redazione Paolo Conte, Matteo De Giuli, Roberta Fulci, Marco Motta




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