Communicating uncertainty is a risky business

The conviction earlier this week for multiple manslaughter of six Italian geoscientists and a former government official has sent shockwaves through the research community. It should give everyone pause for thought, including journalists whose responsibility it is to communicate to the public the often complex issues surrounding hazard and risk.

In light of the manslaughter convictions, a predictable reaction of scientists would be to question whether it is worth their while advising government. In Italy it was an earthquake resulting in the deaths of over 300 people that led to the manslaughter trial, but in the tectonically quiet British Isles we also have issues with risk assessment and its public dissemination. Take public health advice, for example. Mr Brock has been spared for the time being, but for a while it seemed that the something-must-be-done mentality was trumping evidence and informed expert advice.

As regards the Italian case one would hope that common sense prevails, and the convicted scientists win on appeal against their six-year prison sentences. But the situation is not as clear-cut as was originally presented in the British media, and continues to be so in some quarters. That is, the Italians were not convicted for failing to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, but rather for failing to provide adequate advice to the affected population about the magnitude of the risks they faced. This was reported at the time in the journal Nature, but the full picture was not widely conveyed in the general news media.

It would seem that some members of the scientific commission involved made inaccurate and misleading statements concerning those risks, and did so partly in order to discredit an amateur investigator who was predicting a major earthquake based on scientifically unsound extrapolations from radon gas measurements, attracting considerable media attention in the process.

As a former research geophysicist turned science journalist, this is what really frightens me. Scientists engaged in public risk assessment have a professional and moral responsibility to get it right, to the best of their abilities. But so too do the messengers. Not only that, the public have a duty to inform themselves, and strive to understand in quantitative as well as qualitative terms such things as risk, probability and uncertainty. These concepts are taught in school, so there is no excuse for ignorance.

We cannot demand of scientists absolute certainty, because real-world complex systems do not behave in entirely predictable ways. Take weather and climate. Most of us understand reasonably well the difference between weather and climate, yet we only half-jokingly damn the meteorologists when their weather forecasts go badly wrong. Chaos rules on many levels.

If scientists are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, we should not be surprised if their response is to resign en masse and open tea shops instead. If they do this, or even take a far less drastic course of action such as to work to rule, refusing to to anything other than collect, crunch and publish data without comment, we are all in very serious trouble indeed.

As for the media, we science journalists need to take a long hard look at our own behaviour. We are not cheerleaders for science – that is the job of public relations – but we have a responsibility to report fairly and accurately, refrain from sensationalism, and not give undue weight to contrary opinion simply in order to spice up the story.