It’s hard to know quite what to say about the verdict in Italy convicting scientists — experts on earthquakes — for having… for having… well, what, exactly did they do? That’s the whole question. They made pronouncements that tried to state that risks of a big quake, following a swarm of smaller earthquakes in the L’Aquila area of Central Italy, were low, although of course not zero. But their wording and their calls for calm led to some people staying in their homes instead of remaining outdoors, and consequently losing their lives when, in fact, the big quake did take place soon after. The issue is not whether they failed to predict the quake — no one is arguing they could have done that. The issues are whether they did enough to make clear that there was a small risk of a big quake, and also, who is ultimately responsible — the experts, the government, or the public — for making the final cost-benefit analysis about the risks to individuals’ lives?
And of course, following the conviction, and a sentence of six years in prison for manslaughter, the next question is: even if this sentence is overturned on appeal, what scientist, or expert of any type, will dare to give advice to the Italian public in future, knowing that if the advice proves incomplete or unwise in retrospect, the result may be incarceration? Has Italy lost its wisest advisors? (Four members of the “Great Risks Commission” have already resigned, including one of Italy’s greatest theoretical particle physicists, and I doubt they’ll return without new legal protections.) Will other countries lose theirs?
The issue at stake is clearly not Italian earthquakes; it is expert advice. Sometimes I feel that we in modern society are forgetting how to be grown-ups and take responsibility for our own actions, and how to accept that bad things do just happen sometimes and it isn’t always someone’s fault. When we go and get advice from anyone — whether it be medical advice, financial advice, advice about the weather or advice about the risks from earthquakes — we need to remember it’s provided by a human being. Ideally that human being has access to the best information available and understands the odds, and will give us a recommendation based on the odds — on the probabilities for various things to happen. But even when it is the best available advice, it’s based on odds… on statistics. It’s an educated guess — yes, it’s educated, but also yes, it’s a guess.
And one thing that is dead certain, given that it is a guess based on odds, is that occasionally — rarely, perhaps, but not never — that guess will be wrong. It’s inevitable, even if the expert is making the best possible recommendation, based on the best available information and the most accurate possible assessment of the odds. When that bad guess happens, property may be lost, and people may die. It’s sad, but it is inherent in the nature of odds and probabilities.
So it would be nice to see people be adults and accept this limitation of human beings and their statistical methods. There are things people just can’t do. No one could predict that a big earthquake was going to happen, given the set of smaller earthquakes that preceded it. And even if the experts had somehow known that a big earthquake was going to happen, there is no way that they could have predicted that it would happen in the next day, or the next week, or the next year, or in the next decade. What would people have said if the experts, based on the small but non-zero risk, recommended evacuation of the town of L’Aquila in 2009, and then the big earthquake finally occurred only in 2012? Would the experts have been sued for the resulting economic losses over those years?
Press your palm down onto a table or other surface (smooth but not too smooth) — press hard — and also press sideways. If your sideways push is strong enough, your hand will eventually slip on the table. But try to predict when it will happen, or how far it will slip — even though it’s your own hand, it’s not easy. Now try doing this deep inside the earth, where you can’t see or feel what’s going on. Such are the challenges of predicting how and when things under stress and strain will break — of predicting the time and size of snow avalanches, rock slides, falling trees, collapses of decrepit buildings, earthquakes. It’s one thing to know there are risks; but to know when the risks are significantly higher than usual isn’t always possible.
For any process as unpredictable as earthquakes, advice that is 100% reliable is out of the question. This is true also for hurricanes and for the financial markets and for medical treatment, to greater and lesser degrees. So societies have to make a choice: do they want experts’ imperfect advice or not? If they want it, then it comes with a limited liability warranty:
- It is highly likely that on average, over long periods of time, expert scientific advice will significantly reduce the number of deaths and the loss of property that would otherwise occur.
- But it is guaranteed that sometimes, in individual cases, the advice will be wrong and deaths and property-loss will occur that could have been avoided if different advice had been given.
If a society doesn’t like that warranty, fine: then it need not take any advice. Of course it is very likely that the result will be a significantly higher loss of life and property, on average; indeed, that’s what used to happen, back in the Dark Ages before there was any understanding whatsoever of hurricanes and earthquakes and cancer.
But it’s utterly unfair and outrageous — indeed, it’s right out of the Dark Ages — to ask experts for their opinions while simultaneously pointing to the prison cell they’ll occupy if their recommendation, in the light of future events, turns out to have been unfortunate in its content or its wording.
Perhaps in this case there were errors in judgment, in terms of how to present the existence of low-probability but high-cost risk to the public. But people who are doing their best for the common good, and benefiting society on the whole, should not be going to jail for such errors, even when they cost lives. We simply can’t have it both ways. Either we try to collect the best experts, ask them to tell us what they think, accept their recommendations as the wisdom of intelligent, educated, skilled but fallible human beings using good but imperfect methods, and take individual and collective responsibility for whether we ourselves and our communities choose to follow or disregard their recommendations — or we simply shouldn’t ask them for advice at all.