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Why Science Communication Matters

Earthquake damage near Abruzzo, Italy, 2009 (RaBoe via Wikimedia Commons)

Earthquake damage near Abruzzo, Italy, 2009. RaBoe via Wikimedia Commons

As you’ll know from my mission statement, the purpose of this blog is to help science tell its own story, in other words, to improve communication between scientists and non-scientists. While I believe this to be a noble goal, others may disagree. Sure, knowing about science might get you a better score down at your local pub trivia game, but you can drive a car perfectly well without understanding the subtle details of thermodynamics that make it go. Science, the argument goes, is interesting to a select few but not essential for the vast majority. If the general public doesn’t “get” science, so what?

Well here’s what: Last month, six Italian geoscientists were charged with manslaughter for failing to warn the public about the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009. On the face of it, this seems absurd, and has elicited howls of outrage from scientists and science-minded individuals. Predicting earthquakes, they argue, is simply not possible with current knowledge and expecting anyone to do so is preposterous.

This is of course true, but the case hinges not so much on the science itself, but rather the way in which risks were communicated to the public. Essentially what happened is that the scientists were unable to determine from their measurements whether the risk at this particular time was any higher than it would normally be – and “normal” in this case was quite high, as L’Aquila has experienced about a dozen major earthquakes since its founding. This is not the same as saying that everything is going to be fine, but that’s how it was interpreted by government officials, who in turn did not order an evacuation. The scientists, it should be noted, do not appear to have made an effort to correct this interpretation.

So who’s to blame? Predictably, the scientists and government officials are pointing fingers at each other, but there are also questions around how Italy manages its hazard assessment in general, and accusations that the whole system is set up to underestimate risk. I think it’s fair to say that mistakes were made on both sides, but accusing scientists of manslaughter is a pretty extreme step, and probably not helpful one. If there were to happen in Canada, I’d like to think the natural response would be to call an inquiry, the way we do when accidents happen on industrial sites.

The overarching lesson in this whole business is that communication between scientists and the public can have dramatic consequences, and that it’s really, really important to get it right. This point is elegantly made by Jacqueline Windh (a fellow Canadian and science writer) in this excellent article which I encourage you to go check out. Good science communication not only enriches our lives, sometimes it can even protect them.

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