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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Juliette Kayyem

Science and the civic duty

Downtown Aquila, Italy, was decimated in a 6.3 magnitude earthquate in 2009.

Alessandro Bianchi/REUTERS files

Downtown Aquila, Italy, was decimated in a 6.3 magnitude earthquate in 2009.

The conviction of seven Italian geological and disaster experts for their negligence in failing to predict the 6.3 magnitude quake in 2009 in the small town of Aquila has shocked the scientific community. Many are wondering whether the Dark Ages have returned to Italy. Galileo rarely trends on Twitter, yet Monday’s verdict by a three-judge panel had many alluding to his 1633 heresy conviction by the Catholic Church because he questioned whether the sun actually circled the earth.

If the earth is not the center of God’s universe, neither are scientists. Their concerns about scientific freedom and how the verdict will silence research are a little overblown and exceptionally righteous. The verdict, instead, should be understood as a celebration of science. Society has come to believe that science can help citizens make judgments about where to live, how to act, and whether to evacuate. Unlike in the time of Galileo, society has come to accept the value of evidence and deduction. The court’s ruling is a reminder to the scientific community that along with their god-given skills comes a certain amount of civic responsibility.

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Science was not on trial; scientists were. The facts of the case are much more complicated than its critics care to explain. The judges did not argue that earthquake prediction is perfect; they did not demand flawless accuracy in a field that everyone knows is more an art form. Instead, they ruled that members of the so-called Great Risks Commission had not only failed to properly assess the evidence before them, but had actually communicated — and had allowed politicians to communicate — the exact opposite, despite evidence to the contrary.

Earthquake prediction may not be exact, but it isn’t witchcraft either. For those of us who have worked in crisis and disaster management, there is a thriving field of predictive analysis using earthquake modeling, small tremor tracking, and (though subject to some dispute about its accuracy) radon gas releases. These techniques provide experts, and public safety entities who will have to respond, a hope to penetrate the mystery around earthquakes: Does this type of natural disaster actually drop hints before the Big One?

The Italian scientists had met during the spring of 2009 at the urging of government officials. For months, Aquila had been hit by small tremors. Political leaders asked the commission to provide a risk assessment; some evidence suggests that government officials were only interested in calming the public and not in real scientific analysis. They used the commission to give some gravitas to their statements that there was no danger, a shocking announcement given that the small tremors increased the likelihood that a terrible disaster was on the way. Less than a week later, it came.

The defendants were sentenced because the public places a value on scientific assurances, much more so than political ones. Maybe the commission was used by politicians who, for reasons that are inexplicable, didn’t want to have to deal with a jittery public. One commission member even told everyone to chill with a glass of wine. The commission should have known, the court ruled, that its assurances would be understood by the citizens of Aquila to be like words from the heavens.

Risk communication, like earthquake prediction, is not a science. Constantly scaring people makes citizens either panic or tune out; that is the ultimate lesson of America’s experiment with a color-code system for terrorism attacks. Acknowledging a risk too late can also have disastrous consequences, such as the delayed evacuation of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.

What happened in Italy is different. Reasonable people can disagree with the facts of the case. But the ruling wasn’t about demanding from science an exactitude that doesn’t exist. Instead, it validates the role science plays in helping to drive public behavior, as it has with climate change or tsunami warnings. Because the public believes in the value of data, hypothesis, and even generalized predictions, it expected much better of the Italian scientists.

The residents of Aquila did not put their fate in God’s hands, but in science with all its imperfections.

That is the enduring legacy of Galileo.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.

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