You can’t spell “prescience” without “science”

Destruction in L'Aquila following the 2009 earthquake (5.8 on the Richter scale)

On April 6, 2009, there was an earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy; 308 people were killed. Six days before that, on March 31, there had been a meeting of the Commissione Grandi Rischi (“Major Risks committee”) in L’Aquila, which concluded that a major quake was unlikely. Members of the committee were indicted the following  year on manslaughter charges for not warning the citizens of L’Aquila to evacuate. This story contains an important lesson for any scientist, or at least some important food for thought. What exactly is our responsibility to society, when it comes to predicting the future?

I think of myself as someone who investigates the natural world, uncovering the patterns hidden in what we can observe. I’m a detective working the case of whatever system I’m studying, and all I have to do is find enough clues to explain what happened in my experiment. And of course, understanding trends of the past lets me know generally what to expect in the future. Luckily for me, the cases I’m investigating are those of atoms  and molecules, and no one’s life (except mine) will ever depend on the outcome. But what if I were held legally accountable for predicting the results of my next experiment?

Members of the committee in L’Aquila had to weigh the cost of evacuating a city against the chances of a quake. If their estimation of those chances was flawed, it was only due to the inadequacy of the current state of earthquake prediction—not criminal negligence. In a statement against the indictment, the American Geophysical Union said, “Despite decades of scientific research in Italy and in the rest of the world, it is not yet possible to accurately and consistently predict the timing, location, and magnitude of earthquakes before they occur.”

I don’t know yet what happened to the committee after indictment, and I have to mention that the political situation in L’Aquila (alluded to here by Flavio Dobran) points to a more complex interpretation of the case. But I do hope this case continues to bring attention to the value of scienctific knowledge in the realm of policy decisions, particularly in situations where we can see clear trends and make confident predictions. Jill Teige, graduate student in Chemistry at UC Berkeley, puts it this way: “When we don’t predict the future because we don’t have the data, we get sued, but when we do have the data (e.g. global warming), we are ignored as alarmist.” So let’s all take a moment to appreciate how important scientific predictions (especially on the subject of earthquakes) are to our daily lives.

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