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Michael Drew

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Scientists, Risk-aversion, Earthquakes and Transparency

Posted: 10/30/2012 12:00 pm

You've probably heard that Italy convicted six scientists and a civil defense official of manslaughter for not predicting the devastating earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009 that killed more than 300 people.

Before you think about what a dopey ruling this is, and that no one is perfect, etc., consider that maybe that this was a failure of communication, or of transparency, rather than negligence. Not exactly criminal, but out of synch with our age.

David Ropeik, writing a blog for Scientific American, made the point that these scientists should be chastised for not communicating well, since it was their duty as trusted, if fallible, experts, to offer the populace enough information so that individuals could make their own decisions.

As Ropeik wrote, "That is what this trial was all about; the poor risk communication from Dr. De Bernardinis -- one of those convicted -- and the non-communication by seismic experts, who would certainly have offered more careful and qualified comments."

Who knows whether the scientists will serve jail time, but that they are being castigated for retreating from offering their opinion when opinions were needed is saying something.

People want to know. They want to be included in the conversation. They want to be informed.
This is what society is after today.

I know this, because I've studied how social shifts have occurred over the last 3,000 years. And we're now in an age, what I call a "we" cycle, when people want the truth. I talk about this in my new book Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, which I wrote with Roy H. Williams. In it we talk about how society swings back and forth on an unseen pendulum every 40 years or so, moving from a more individualistic and egocentric "me" era (think of the 1960s and 1970s) to a more civic-minded "we" era (think of the World War II years).

In a "me" era, people are more likely to believe hype. But in a "we" cycle -- this current one began in 2003 -- we want to be told the truth about things, even if it's not exactly what we want to hear. We don't want reality sugar-coated (and let's not talk about politics here, or the lies of politicians: Politics exist outside of the scope of our Pendulum research, as you can well imagine, since politicians are a special breed of human being).

So if only those scientists had at least said something like, "We can't be sure there's going to be an earthquake, and earthquake prediction is faulty -- forgive the pun -- but it seems like you should take precautions because something tells us we're in for it. Here are the facts. Now you decide."

If they'd said something along those lines, those scientists wouldn't be facing prison, or ridicule, or the scorn of many Italians. Even if the scientists weren't 100 percent accurate, they'd at least have given people the chance to weigh the facts.

That's all we want: Just the facts. Then we can make up our own minds about what to do. But don't hide under a rock and let us believe we're all okay when we're not.

 

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