Italian scientists are convicted of manslaughter for making a Type II error

Six Italian scientists and a former government official were convicted of manslaugher this week for underestimating the risks of a possible large earthquake associated with weeks of smaller tremors. From the BBC:

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

The scientists were apparently on trial for making a type II error (failing to reject a false null hypothesis, or in this case, failing to “detect” or warn of the coming earthquake) and potentially for poorly communicating this risk to the general public. Earthquake forecasting is an inexact science, and the scientists’ opinions are only as good as the models that they have access to. Forecasting of any kind requires that decision-makers accept a “reasonable” level of risk when making decisions under uncertainty: this includes the acceptance of type I and II errors and the consequences associated with those errors.  Now we can debate what “reasonable” means, but let’s agree that a “zero risk” approach is fictitious.

Now, to be sure, there are good and bad ways to communicate risk to the general public (see this excellent article on risk communication for more).

What do you think about this trial and verdict?

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4 responses to “Italian scientists are convicted of manslaughter for making a Type II error

  • InvisibleHand

    Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t see a passage with a reasonable translation of what the scientists said/wrote. FWIW, my experience is that scientists are generally careful to provide the appropriate caveats. If we assume that they did not say “zero risk” or something along those lines and there is no evidence that the scientists were grossly negligent interpreting the science/evidence, it’s a ridiculous verdict and sentence by my tastes.

  • Laura McLay

    @InvisibleHand: I agree that scientists are usually careful to provide caveats, but I did not find passages from reports, etc., that show what the scientists said in the moment. I wanted to post before the story became cold, and I didn’t have the time to sift through the documentation.

  • David

    This is the most complete story I’ve been able to find: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/full/477264a.html

    Despite the claims that the scientists were on trial for failing to predict the earthquake, that article says that the real issue was that the scientists inadequately or improperly communicated the level of risk to the public (apparently there was no mention of proper earthquake procedures or the fact that the buildings were fragile in the public statement). However, I have not read any article anywhere that has provided me with any evidence that the things the scientists said were unreasonable. I think the conviction is absolutely ridiculous.

    This article provides an interesting hypothesis: “[They were] convicted because the public wanted revenge — and the scientists were their most obvious targets.”

    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/10/the_risks_of_tr.html

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with that assessment wholly, either — but I suspect there is at least an element of “revenge-seeking” in the conviction.

  • Laura McLay

    @David, thank you! I suspected that risk communication played a large role.

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