Should scientists be held accountable if their predictions are wrong?

Carolyn Y. Johnson | Globe Staff
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ahead of tomorrow's Talk Back 360 Event at the MIT Museum, Rob van der Hilst talks to the Globe about planing for the uncertainties surrounding earthquakes.

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Last fall, a former government official and six Italian scientists were found guilty of manslaughter in a trial centered on information they provided about earthquake risk just prior to the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. The ruling, now being appealed, sent waves of alarm through the scientific community, sparking concerns that researchers around the world could be held accountable for giving governments advice about natural disasters, which are inherently unpredictable.

This Wednesday at the MIT Museum, a panel including an Italian architect, a seismologist from MIT, and a specialist in dispute resolution from Harvard Law School will discuss at an open public event what happened in Italy and what its ripple effects could be on planning, policy, and scientists’ advisory role to governments and planners.

Robert van der Hilst, head of the department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT and a member of the panel, said the case attracted international attention because it could have a chilling effect on scientists’ communications with the public. If scientists feel they are really on the hook for predicting uncertain events, for example, they may bow out when asked to help policy makers and planners make informed decisions.

“It’s very much in good faith. ... You try to do your best, working with the data you have, looking at all the uncertainties,” said van der Hilst. “It may discourage people from giving proper advice to people when asked. Expanding that, extrapolating further, it may even discourage people to go into those areas, and in the long term, it will have a really negative effect.”

There is currently no way to predict earthquakes, but seismologists are often asked the question.

In Italy, a scientific panel was asked what to make of tremors that occurred prior to the devastating L’Aquila temblor. The scientists did the right thing, van der Hilst says: They assessed the likelihood of a large, devastating earthquake, and found it extremely low. However, the message given to the public was deemed too reassuring by the Italian judge.

“The concern was not so much they did not predict the earthquake, but that they were rather cavalier in what they said,” van der Hilst said. For example, the BBC reported that a government official advised the public to go home and have a glass of wine, even specifying the type: “Absolutely a Montepulciano.”

It’s not easy to communicate uncertain risks to the public. For example, no scientist can guarantee that there is no possibility a massive earthquake will hit Boston this week. So should government officials send out a warning about a tiny, but non-zero risk of a catastrophic earthquake? It would not make sense for people to take protective actions and leave the area. And if every high-risk but extremely-low-frequency event were to be treated like a serious short-term risk, the credibility of governments and scientists would rapidly wither.

Van der Hilst said that scientists and professional societies are talking about what can be done to help scientists and policy makers communicate uncertain risks to the public accurately—without falsely reassuring them, and without inciting a panic. The obvious thing to do is to take long-term preventive steps: create buildings that will not fall down and kill people, for example. Another idea, he said, is to take a page from weather forecasting and issue regular seismic forecasts.

People are used to uncertainty with the weather forecast—they don’t sue the meteorologist if he or she is wrong about the high or the low temperature.

“People know it is uncertain; there’s a very high level of familiarity with that notion,” van der Hilst said. A seismicity forecast could “get people used to the background seismicity; there’s always activity going on.”

But the issue at the heart of the court battle over the L’Aquila earthquake also reverberates beyond the challenge of predicting earthquakes. Other complicated systems that evolve over time, such as the climate and the economy, present prediction challenges for scientists.

Learning to communicate both what the findings are in those areas—and their inherent uncertainties—might help protect scientists from landing in court if their predictions turn out to be wrong. That also might help insulate scientists from the wrath of the public, which too often assumes that if a prediction is wrong, science doesn’t work and is corrupt.

“TalkBack 360: Science on Trial” will be held on Wed., March 20, at the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, from 6 to 8 p.m



Rob van der Hilst received his PhD in Geophysics from Utrecht University in 1990. After postdoctoral research at the University of Leeds (1990-1992) and the Australian National University (1992-1995) he joined the faculty of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) in 1996. From 2004 to 2012 he was the Director of the Earth Resources Laboratory (ERL) and since the beginning of 2012 he has been Head of EAPS. In addition to his work at MIT, Rob has been a Visiting Professor at the Institut de Physique de Globe de Paris (France).

Rob's cross-disciplinary and collaborative research focuses on understanding geological processes in Earth's deep interior, both on a regional scale – for instance, continental structure and evolution of Tibet, East Asia, and North America, the subduction of oceanic plates beneath western Pacific island arcs, the upper mantle transition zone beneath Hawaii, and the complex region just above the core mantle boundary beneath Asia and Central America – and the global scale, unraveling, for instance, the pattern and nature of mantle convection. The main tools he uses (and develops) are global reflection seismology and seismic tomography, but he integrates these findings with constraints from geology, (geomagnetic) plate reconstructions, mineral physics, and geodynamics.

MIT News announcement about Van der Hilst's appointment


TalkBack 360: Science on Trial
Rebuilding Credibility in the Face of Natural Disaster
Wed, March 20, 6 pm - 9pm, MIT Museum MORE