L’Aquila convictions about science communication

Press Release – GNS Science

The manslaughter conviction of six scientists and a government official in the wake of the magnitude 6.3 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 is a complex matter involving legal, scientific, emotional and political aspects. It is also concerned with a very …STATEMENT FROM GNS SCIENCE, 23 OCTOBER 2012

L’Aquila convictions about science communication, not about quake prediction

The manslaughter conviction of six scientists and a government official in the wake of the magnitude 6.3 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009 is a complex matter involving legal, scientific, emotional and political aspects. It is also concerned with a very specific set of circumstances.

We understand that the court case was not about failing to predict an earthquake. Most people understand this is not possible with current scientific knowledge. There are no proven precursory signs such as gas measurement, micro-earthquakes, animal behaviour, electrical phenomena, or lunar phenomena that can predict earthquakes. Despite decades of research into earthquake processes, the ability to predict earthquakes remains elusive.

The Italian case is really about the ineffective communication of science. In this instance, the scientists and government official were found to be deficient in the way they communicated the state of scientific knowledge and the possible threat of a large damaging earthquake.

The communication of risk and uncertainty is a challenging area for scientists. But to suggest that repeated small earthquakes in the area of L’Aquila were favourable because they unloaded seismic stress and reduced the chance of a big quake was unwise in our view. This, and other comments from officials, apparently inhibited many people from taking actions that might have saved their lives.

Equally, the L’Aquila area had a known history of earthquake activity and government officials could arguably have done more to prepare city infrastructure and the population for a large earthquake through measures such as setting appropriate building standards.

It is difficult to make any direct comparisons between L’Aquila and what happens in New Zealand. The roles and responsibilities of scientists and government officials are different in the two countries. However, the case does provide lessons about the communication of science and earthquake risks to officials and the public.

The most scientists can do is to estimate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a given region over a certain time frame such as months, a year, or longer. However, because natural events are inherently unpredictable, the limitations on the meaning of these probabilities need to be communicated clearly to the public.

GNS Science endorses the need for scientists to communicate meaningful information about natural hazards and probabilistic information to government agencies and the public. In this regard, for example, we update our aftershock probabilities for the Canterbury region on a monthly basis.

In relation to the Canterbury earthquake sequence, over the past two years GNS Science has undertaken hundreds of communications with a wide range of stakeholders via public seminars, briefings to government agencies, written reports, video and Youtube clips, plus many communications with the print and electronic media. It is worth noting that in the past 60 years in Italy, only six of 26 major earthquakes have been preceded by foreshocks and many earthquake swarms have occurred without subsequent large earthquakes.

As foreshocks are usually not any different to ‘background’ earthquake activity, it is impossible to make a diagnosis that they are precursors to a major earthquake. Worldwide, most major earthquakes do not have precursory foreshocks.

Scientists must weigh up the evidence carefully and be cautious about the possibility of saying too little and delivering a false sense of security that could cause complacency, or delivering a false alarm that could cause panic.

There is a need for balanced information so government agencies and the public have the ability to make informed decisions about their actions.

Part of GNS Science’s core purpose, established by the Government, is to increase New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards and reduce risks from these hazards. As its role requires, GNS Science will continue to communicate measured and meaningful information about natural hazards to government agencies and to the public.


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  1. Manslaughter?, 23. October 2012, 18:13

    Accountability for distributing misinformation?
    Just imagine the aftershocks.
    Since the new “seismic building code” will be based on an idea ,communication of misinformation and incomplete findings, if a”strengthened ” building falls to a 8 earthquake and people die will the scientists get tried for manslaughter?
    I think a manslaughter charge was daft, we saw in NZ after an earthquake some people love using a scape goat.

    Every real scientist knows that if there is a possibility then the chance of that something happening can be said to be probable .
    When one does not know one should say one doesn’t know.
    If you cannot predict then don’t.
    Its an embarrassing moment in science, when everyone should be saying they shouldn’t have said that BUT you should not convict them for manslaughter.
    Instead we have scientists claiming the scientists did not err, that it was just a case of ineffective communication.
    No I say it was a case of communicating misinformation or false information.

  2. ! M Q !, 26. October 2012, 10:17

    Everyone in NZ by now has been alerted to prepare as best they can for a natural disaster.Those who cannot afford the needed supplies do not have an emergency plan.
    Releasing much information to the public hat is useless, confusing and alarmist in nature is not scientific.
    An over reaction to the scientist’s manslaughter convictions(which will be appealed) is not necessary, people still live below tsunami lines and next to volcanos, yet now people are getting evicted from their homes due to “earthquake risk ‘ (which is being used to get high value land for developers.)
    So in summary, and for clarity, don’t think you must over react to the convictions and become alarmists .
    Think: Only knowledgeable and needed information.