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Scientists found guilty for ‘causing’ earthquake deaths

By Legal Eagle

I was very interested to read that some scientists had been found guilty of manslaughter in relation to advice given about an earthquake:

Six Italian scientists and a government official have been found guilty of multiple manslaughter for underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009.

They were sentenced to six years in jail in a case that has provoked outrage among scientists worldwide.

The experts were also ordered to pay more than €9 million ($11.5 million) in damages to survivors and inhabitants. Under the Italian justice system, the seven will remain free until they have exhausted two chances to appeal against the verdict.

All seven were members of the Major Risks Committee, which met in the central Italian town on March 31, 2009, six days before the quake devastated the region, tearing down houses and churches and leaving thousands homeless.

The government committee met after a series of small tremors in the preceding weeks had sown panic – particularly after a resident began making worrying unofficial earthquake predictions.

Italy’s top seismologists were called to evaluate the situation and the then-vice-director of the Civil Protection Agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, gave media interviews saying the seismic activity in L’Aquila posed “no danger”.

“The scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy,” he said.

A son of one of the victims, Aldo Scimia, said, “We cannot call this a victory. It’s a tragedy, whatever way you look at it, it won’t bring our loved ones back. I continue to call this a massacre at the hand of the state, but at least now we hope that our children may live safer lives.”

This case interests me, because it raises so many legal issues and social policy questions. I posted a link to the article on my Facebook account yesterday and immediately got a chain of outraged responses in support of the scientists.

I’ve been working lately on the concepts of causation and remoteness in private law. The law has a concept that defendants should only be responsible for loss that they cause, generally in a ‘but for’ sense – i.e. ‘but for’ the defendant’s actions, would the plaintiff still have suffered the loss. Of course it gets more complex when you’ve got multiple sufficient causes, or where you’ve got later intervening events which might be a more direct cause of the loss. ‘But for’ doesn’t really work.

Even if the defendant is found to have caused the loss, often that is not the end of the inquiry. In many areas of private law, there is still a question of whether the loss is too remote, particularly where the loss is unusual or a distant consequence of the defendant’s action. Mixed up in the concept of remoteness are ideas of personal responsibility and awareness of a defendant’s ability to control the outcome of an event. If the defendant couldn’t have exercised control over the event, it seems more unfair to make him liable, unless there are other broader concerns which mean we might want to make him strictly liable. There is a concern not to place defendants under an unjust burden. There are social utility concerns: we sometimes let defendants get away with conduct which causes loss to an individual when that conduct has social utility; conversely, we are unlikely to let defendants get away with loss-making conduct if there is no social utility in that conduct. Of course, the case here was in a criminal context, which makes the consequences for the defendants all the more important.

I want to suggest that it is these kinds of concerns which inform our instinctive doubt about the court’s conclusion with regard to the scientists above. Part of the issue is the nature of prediction. Recently I read Tim Harford’s book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure (Abacus, 2011). In the first chapter (pgs 6 – 8), Harford recounts an experiment undertaken by a psychologist, Philip Tetlock, who asked a wide range of experts to make specific, quantifiable predictions about certain complex occurrences. He then measured how accurate the predictions were. In fact, the experts’ predictions were rarely correct, although they were more accurate than a control group of undergraduate students. (Fascinatingly, the least accurate experts tended to be those who frequently gave expert predictions in the media). But, before you crow too much over that latter tidbit…is the fault with the experts, or is it with the problems that they were asked to face? Harford says (at pg 7 -8):

‘his [Tetlock's] results clearly show that experts do outperform non-experts. These intelligent, educated and experienced professionals have insights to contribute – it’s just that those insights go only so far. The problem is not the experts; it is the world they inhabit – the world we all inhabit – which is simply too complicated for anyone to analyse with much success.’

Keep this in mind with detailed predictions as to the future made by experts. They are likely to be more accurate than the predictions a layperson might make, but perhaps only somewhat more accurate, and perhaps they are more likely to be wrong than right. This is not because the experts are stupid, and it’s not that they are trying to dupe us. This is because the world is a very, very complex place, and it is impossible to factor in all the complex variables. In fact, our solutions to problems are evolutionary, and Harford convincingly argues that we need to be accepting of and leave room for failures – they are all part of the evolutionary process. Because, sometimes, just sometimes, those crazy ‘out there’ ideas do not fail.

Harford’s example came back to me in relation to the seismologists who incorrectly predicted that the small tremors in L’Aquila did not presage a larger earthquake. Part of the issue, I suggest, is that when an expert says something, often people assume it must be true. And the family members of victims are really angry that the prediction in this case did not turn out to be true: they’ve learned the message of the Tetlock experiment in the hardest way. But…seismology deals with random and unpredictable forces of immense complexity. It is, if you like, an Act of Nature, something over which humans have very little control. We do our absolute best to understand it, but we cannot fully understand it, and we cannot fully predict everything that will occur. Indeed, the very nature of science is that you can never categorically say that something is true. All you can say is that on the evidence we have available, the present hypothesis as to what is occurring here appears to be the best explanation. And the scientists are giving their expert opinion from that basis – knowing that they can never be absolutely accurate. Hence the outrage of scientists around the world with regard to this case: science doesn’t work like that, we can never be absolutely confident in our hypotheses. (Indeed, Einstein is said to have quipped, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”) There’s a mismatch between the public’s expectations of the scientists’ opinion, and the scientists’ understanding of their opinion and the context in which it should be understood.

The other thing which came to mind is the issues of causation and remoteness which have concerned me recently. The issue is this: the experts’ prediction was wrong. The small tremors were not a discharge of energy, they were a build-up to a giant earthquake which led to deaths. The experts allayed the fears of L’Aquila locals, and told them it was safe to be indoors. I’m sure the feeling among people who lost family members is that those family members might otherwise have left the area or stayed outdoors if the experts had not reassured them, and therefore the deaths would not have occurred. But then we get to the point of the ‘but for’ test. It’s really hard to say, ‘but for’ the statement by the experts, whether the deaths would still have occurred. Maybe if nothing had been said by experts, the deaths would still have occurred?

And that statement by the family member of a victim that this was ‘a massacre at the hand of the state’ bothers me, although it should be forgiven in the circumstances. The bottom line is this: the most direct cause of the deaths was the earthquake. ‘But for’ the huge earthquake, the deaths would not have occurred. It was a subsequent intervening cause (in legal-speak) – an event which came after the statement of the experts and most directly caused the death. It is hyperbole to say that this was a ‘massacre’, which suggests some kind of personal responsibility in a direct sense for the deaths, as if the experts went and personally shot the victims. There is no way in which the experts intended the death of the victims. I presume that they are devastated by the deaths and if they could take back their advice prior to the earthquake, I’m sure that they would.

So then the question is whether the actions of the experts are, or should be, too remote. Then we get to questions of responsibility and control, questions of unjust burdens, and questions of social utility. The prevailing feeling seems to be that the scientists were not directly responsible for the deaths (the earthquake was), that it would be an unjust burden to subject them to criminal liability for those deaths, and that holding them liable for the deaths may lead to undesirable social consequences (experts will not want to advise governments in future as to the likelihood of things such as this occurring). I would not have held the scientists liable for manslaughter. But I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!

39 Comments

  1. Posted October 24, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Italy? The Bunga State?
    Are there not people living on lava flow around Mt Etna?

    IF those experts had said, every day for a week, on all media ‘There is big danger you all must prepare’ – what would the whiners have done?
    I suggest ‘very little’, based on Melbourne’s experience of the terrible trauma of a recent ‘bush’fire which killed and destroyed so much I have to block it out. teenage girls refused to abandon their ponies and died together. that sort of thing, yet the warnings were made for a week before that the day was going to be very very bad.

    (stands back and waits to be attacked by MEL people who suffered loss and trauma)

  2. Posted October 24, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    As is always the case, there is more to this than meets the eye:

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/mischaracterizations-of-laquila-lawsuit.html

    /Italian speaker slinks off…

  3. Moz on a bike
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    SL, the clarification is amusing in its own way – perhaps the media should be tried for being wrong about the facts of the case?

    I do think this is one where the social consequences need to be foremost in the mind of the judges. Going the way the current case has been says that when any random citizen stands up and makes alarming statements experts had best keep their heads down. If the citizen is wrong then such is life, but if the experts are wrong they go to prison. I can see this resulting in even more hedging from experts on these panels, as they try desperately to balance the social good of firmly refuting uninformed alarmists with the desire not to rot in jail. We already have “vaxxines cause autism!!!!” vs “we are quite sure that the repeated studies of vaccination over many years do fairly conclusively show that the population as a whole benefits when herd immunity results in reduced child mortality”. It’s much harder to parse the latter view, but if you make “vaccines are safe!” an acceptance of criminal liability you’re not going to hear it very often.

    I’m thinking particularly of people like Ken Ring in Christchurch, who has repeatedly predicted major earthquakes and been repeatedly wrong. But the experts have also been wrong. The difference is that Ken Ring being wrong won’t kill people directly, he just wants central Canterbury evacuated for 2-3 days each side of each predicted earthquake (he thinks they happen at every full moon, for example, so that’s one week a month). If he was asked to accept liability for costs incurred if his predictions were wrong he’d shut up just as fast as a real expert, but that’s not happening.

  4. Miss Candy
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, this extended to criminal convictions. I know little about the Italian legal system, but here that would have to have been “gross negligence”. That is a far higher burden than that of which you speak, LE. It involves a criminal standard of proof (as I say, I know virtually nothing about how it works in Italy, but I presume there is something of a distinction between compensable incidents and jailable ones).

    In either case, surely there would need to be some sort of abdication of their professional duties of care and perhaps the scientists were using political rather than scientific motives to reassure the community.

    After all, they were specifically appointed with the trust of the people to advise as to earthquake likelihood. If they were unable to predict, they should have simply said so.

  5. Posted October 24, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Miss Candy, according to this they did effectively say so:

    “The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence … (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L’Aquila,” the civil protection agency said in a statement on the eve of that meeting. “It is useful to underline that it is not in any way possible to predict an earthquake,” it said, adding that the agency saw no reason for alarm but was nonetheless effecting “continuous monitoring and attention”.

    Of course if they did ignore evidence of increased risk and stated there was no increased risk, or went further than saying they couldn’t predict an earthquake to suggesting they believed there would not be an earthquake then their statement could be problematic. It could also be problematic if they went beyond the science and suggested what courses of action were appropriate in the circumstance, particularly if they failed to properly investigate the risks.

    That said, I’m still uncomfortable with such problems being considered criminal in nature or even the source of civil liability for the individuals involved. Particularly given the context, and potential political pressure, the statements were made in that might have justified somewhat overstating the case for not being too concerned:

    Mr Giuliani told locals to evacuate their houses and posted a video on YouTube in which he said a build-up of radon gas around the seismically active area suggested a major earthquake was imminent. Several tremors had been felt in the medieval city of L’Aquila, around 60 miles east of Rome, from mid-January onwards, and vans with loudspeakers had driven around the city spreading the warning.

  6. Posted October 24, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that Harford’s characterisation of Tetlock’s work gives the full picture.

    Are experts better than undergraduates? Yes. Are some experts better than others? Yes. By how much?

    Very little.

    And all of them are absolutely roflstomped by the simplest, most pissweak, naive statistical models.

  7. Posted October 24, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I wrote a review of Tetlock’s book, which I heartily recommend.

  8. Moz on a bike
    Posted October 24, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, you should perhaps have thrown the “political expert” qualifier in there. I’m optimistic that Ben Goldacre’s blog-approval of a couple of political experiments in the UK might herald the start of a quiet revolution in the political realm. The problem there is that government by press release is well established and superficially attractive (FFS, Wayne Swan and the Reserve Bank are both doing it), making the whole slow, tedious scientific approach difficult for all concerned. http://bengoldacre.posterous.com/who-wants-a-job-running-randomised-trials-on

  9. Posted October 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Tetlock says he went out of his way to pick the messiest domain he could think of. The most degenerate case.

    Thing is, humans in other fields suck at prediction also. I feel reasonably confident in saying humans are not good at forecasting the future in any domain more complicated than predicting the trajectory of a ball.

  10. Posted October 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ll really enjoy it. It’s made ignoring politics that much easier.

  11. Posted October 24, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    the other question is how often the geeks are told by senior managers (appointed by political masters as being more “pragmatic”) to adopt a certain tone or emphasis that suits “pragmatic” objectives.

    i am imagining the pragmatic manager not wanting the disruption and having the proverbial quiet word to the geeks before the press conference.

    there are, of course, other disciplines in the earth sciences where the geeks are told by pragmatic managers to tone things down, leave the strong message in the raw data or between the lines, “avoid irresponsible alarmism” so as not to frighten the horses and disrupt the economy …

    but it is not just earth sciences – be it risks of certain types of unregulated financial instruments, risks of economic infection from the cilice of hyperausterity measures, inappropriate marketing claims with softened warnings on pharmaceuticals, day-after-pills, … the pragmatic managers are so often pressuring the geeks.

    i doubt italy is the beacon for public service geeks to resist the pressure from their masters given the levels of political corruption there.

  12. conrad
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I imagine the main outcome of this is that (a) no-one will do the job — it’s not like being a doctor where you get huge pay to make life and death judgements (and people still won’t become certain doctor professions anymore, even with the huge pay, due to this) — this is especially true of Italy where they get paid SFA; and (b) there will be endless warnings for everything that people will ignore — it’s not like people haven’t known the region was dangerous since the start of history.

    As for downplaying the risk of Earthquakes — presumably they make judgements like any other number of organizations. Are they paid to be perfect or paid to offer advice that can be wrong? Perhaps they need a statement like all of those you read on everything else “Anything we say or do is worthless. Use this advice at your own risk”

  13. Moz on a bike
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Jacques, I guess my negative reaction is based on my own knowledge of controlled trials, where people do make quite accurate predictions and are correct much more often that Tetlock suggests. Being quite specific about the type of predictions he’s talking about, and how to tell the difference between those predictions and the “Challenger will probably land on Mars” type is critically important. When my doctor says “take the hep c vaccination, it will almost certainly work” I have enough confidence in the research to believe her prediction. But then Tetlock apparently says that she’s probably wrong (But Tetlock is also an expert, so he’s probably wrong as well. So confusing!)

    It sounds nit-picky even to me. Objecting to a summary of the popularisation of a research paper often comes down to “but the language is so loose it has lost all meaning”. So “expert prediction” in this sense means the soft predictions about vague questions, rather than specific predictions about well-understood subjects. Just because he only chose questions with a sharp test at the end doesn’t mean they’re not soft questions. Weather forecasting springs to mind as a parallel. “what will be the temperature at 3pm tomorrow” is nice and sharp, easy to test, but multi-causal and full of soft factors, so it’s difficult to predict. Even with a lot more knowledge than most experts have. But climate? That can be nailed down to several significant figures for some measurements. Ditto the road toll. 1000 people a year in NSW does not mean 3 people every day, and predicting the daily toll is effectively guessing. But the annual toll? There’s a relatively smooth graph so we can say 2012: 870 +-10 with some confidence, and +/-50 even more so. The odds of NSW motorists choosing to kill only 100 people this year are close to zero [1].

    This does feed into the original question: what are the social implications of boldly saying that experts are little better than laymen and both are usually wrong? That seems likely to exacerbate a problem we already have. Global warming: the experts say it’s happening and we should panic. Pah, experts and their warnings… look, an expert agrees!

    [1] all numbers made up on the spot except the last one.

  14. Posted October 25, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Apologies for our spam filter catching some of you – just had to let another perfectly legit. comment out.

  15. Hasbeen
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    So here we have a host of “experts” complaining some experts just may be required to take responsibility for their output. Well it’s not before time.

    I am heartily sick of the continual procession of experts on our ABC predicting calamity. Calamity of course unless more money is allocated to their area of research.

    They want recognition, & returns for their expertise, but definitely do not want any of the responsibility that must go with their claim of expertise.

    We have to make experts responsible for their pontifications, so they will not support authority just because they are told to, or exaggerate to increase their funding or standing.

    Only when we have enforceable responsibility will we start to see the ethics of experts match their opinion of themselves.

  16. Mel
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Hmmm. This post brings to mind Jaws. The Sherriff wanted to close down the beach but the vested interests and rational optimists didn’t want to alarm the public. Other than that I have nothing sensible to say about the matter …

  17. Mel
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    caught in mod guys. Is it my rainbow coloured tie? Have I breached the dress code?

  18. Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Mel, you’ve been released!

  19. paul walter
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Not been a case like this since Giordano Bruno, four hundred years ago.
    Mind you, they only burned Bruno.

  20. Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Moz;

    There’s a difference between making predictions in simple systems and for complex systems. Tetlock specifically sought out the messiest domain he could: politics.

    Read the book. It deals with all your objections in great and thoughtful detail.

  21. kvd
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    SL’s link @2 is interesting. I think that if scientists, in any field, give their best opinions or estimates, based upon an examination of all available data, then they cannot be held accountable for anything more than ‘being wrong in this instance’. At the other end of the scale, if their qualifications are lent to findings ‘preferred’ by the authorities then they are guilty of being ‘bad scientists’.

    The other thing which annoys out of this is the effortless granting of absolute moral authority to any victim. Not just this case, but how often do you see the views of the bereaved mother, father, friend or schoolmate being elevated to highest priority. It is just wrong to grant that status imo.

  22. Jeannette
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    As a self-employed consultant in NSW I have to carry $5 million in professional liability and $20 million in public liability to get contracts from, ie to give advice to government – on heritage, not earthquake prediction! If you were advising on high risk matters (eg.engineering works, disaster prediction), presumably the insurance requirements would be higher. I wonder if this action is just a strategic first step in an attempt to access the scientists’ (or their employers’) insurance?

  23. Posted October 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    kvd@24, but what about the judgement of how much investigation into a particular issue is warranted? Suppose an expert’s initial (or subsequent) assessment is that the outcome can be confidently determined and further investigation or analysis would be a waste of time and resources. Is it fair to go back and judge that initial assessment with the benefit of hindsight? Should we effectively impose a legal obligation to investigate every issue to the maximum extent possible before providing advice, and just have society wear the costs and implications of such a policy?

    This case reminds me of the way the Queensland government went after the dam engineers following the major flooding of Brisbane. There was a lot of pressure by the various victims to find someone to blame. The lawyers in the inquiry ended up applying a legal (and rather contrived) interpretation of an engineering manual in order to pin blame on the engineers.

  24. Moz on a bike
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Jacques, that’s why I’m critiquing your review, not his book. It shouldn’t take three rounds of Q&A for some of the most important facts about the book to not come out. I’m struggling to maintain the assumption of charity so I think I’ll leave it there.

  25. kvd
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    desipis@26 I gave only two scenarios, accepting that the truth would lie somewhere in between. I do take your points, but they are “lawyer’s points”. Getting back to reality – does anyone seriously suggest the ability to predict the imminent occurrence and magnitude of an earthquake? Leaving aside the chicken littles – seriously?

    You ask if it is fair to judge in hindsight. I thought that’s all that judicial procedures ever do? Point me to a High (or any) Court ‘prediction’ if I’m wrong.

  26. Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    kvd, actually the comments are more from an experience of dealing with management who perceive investigation and estimation tasks as accurate and easily scoped processes. It’s very easy to look back and conclude that time was wasted on or that more time should have been spent on a particular issue involving uncertainty. It’s very difficult to make that call correctly at the time.

    My main concern with this type of case is having judges, even highly intelligent and broadly educated judges, who after spending a relatively short trial hearing about the issue make decisions about facts or reasonableness in complex matters that involve experts who have spent potentially decades studying and understanding the matter.

  27. kvd
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Another opinion piece.

  28. Mel
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    The opinion piece linked to by Kvd is dumb. It says the risk of a major earthquake should have been assessed at 2% yet bitches about the “attack on scientific independence” resulting from the trial verdict. The message given to the public was that there was zero danger. This advice was false and dangerous regardless of whether a major earthquake actually occurred.

    If someone has a 2% risk of death from a particular surgical procedure but the surgeon told the patient there was no risk, most people would hold the surgeon legal responsible for the false statement. The law has worked this way for many years and most medico-legal court cases involving such situations attract little or no media attention.

    The fuss surrounding this case is a media beat up combined with the squawking of vested interests.

  29. Posted October 26, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Mel, it wasn’t a 2% risk of death, it was a 2% risk of an earthquake. Based on the 29 deaths their advice is claimed to have caused, and the population of the province* there was an increased risk of death of a bit over 1 in a million. Even if one takes all the deaths in the earthquake (297) that’s a bit over 1 per 100,000. That means you’re as likely to die driving your car sometime during the next 3 months than the average person was likely to die not leaving the province based on the information available before the quake. Is that a risk it makes sense for the government to advise people as a danger and something to go out of your way to avoid? If a government official gave advice that it was safe to drive on the road and there was no danger, should they be convicted of manslaughter when someone dies?

    * I chose the province because there were predictions about the quake hitting Sulmona which is on the other side of the province to L’Aquila.

  30. Chris
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Mel – I think this part of the article is relevant

    They claim that 29 of the dead in L’Aquila intended to leave the city, after it was rocked by dozens of small tremors in the days before the quake, but were persuaded to stay by a statement given by Bernardo De Bernardinis, the government official, which said that ”the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” from the small tremors. That was wrong: there was a danger. But the scientists who advised him had said something different – that there was an increased risk of a major earthquake in the region, in the light of those small tremors, but that it was impossible to say anything more precise. That information may have been ”generic and ineffective”, but it was also the most that could be credibly said.

    So if this article is correct, the scientists did in fact give the right advice (there is an increased risk, but we can’t say much more than that). If anything it is the government official who should be held accountable.

    However, if the government gave regular warnings about increased risk and nothing happened (which will what occur with only 1 in 50 warnings actually leading to an earthquake). How long do you think it will be before the general population just ignore the warnings?

    We’ve had similar problems here in Australia over bushfire warnings. On very high risk prediction days schools in risky areas close down. What has been the public response? The authorities should raise the bar for declaring very high risk days because schools closing down is too inconvenient.

    Similar problems with electricity companies wanting to shut down power in areas of high risk on high risk days (eg very hot and windy) to reduce the chance of them accidentally starting fires. But who gets the blame if they do leave the power on and a fire starts?

  31. Mel
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Chris @33:

    “However, if the government gave regular warnings about increased risk and nothing happened (which will what occur with only 1 in 50 warnings actually leading to an earthquake). How long do you think it will be before the general population just ignore the warnings?”

    Agreed, but not relevant. What is relevant is an individual’s right to be protected from false information from authorities/experts that may impact his/her welfare should he/she *chose* to act on it.

    “So if this article is correct, the scientists did in fact give the right advice (there is an increased risk, but we can’t say much more than that). If anything it is the government official who should be held accountable.”

    What an odd thing to say. The scientists had a duty of care. That duty of care required them to take whatever steps were necessary to correct the false statement provided by the bureaucrat. But they didn’t, in fact they did absolutely nothing other than sit on their hands.

  32. Chris
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    What an odd thing to say. The scientists had a duty of care. That duty of care required them to take whatever steps were necessary to correct the false statement provided by the bureaucrat. But they didn’t, in fact they did absolutely nothing other than sit on their hands.

    Many organisations have a policy that only certain people are permitted to speak publicly. Now it may be reasonable to expect that the scientists have a moral duty of care to basically whistle blow (and publicly contradicting a government official would be a pretty big decision for many scientists as it could easily become a career ending one – annoy the government and say goodbye to any future funding), but do people really have a legal duty of care to whistle blow in these sorts of cases?

    I can’t remember where I heard it, but recently was listening to a discussion (the context was global warming) about how scientists help to establish the facts about a situation but its up to the politicians to establish policy. And public warnings, especially those of an immediate nature would seem to fall into one of government public policy.

    I think you’ll be putting a huge burden on scientists/engineers etc if you have an expectation that they will publicly contradict public officials when they make a statement that is not quite right (and I wonder what the relative risk change actually was – there is always some chance of an earthquake and they don’t always come with any warning). I’d guess that public statements on fairly complicated issues are often technically inaccurate in a few ways because of the way they are simplified so the public can easily digest them (and so they fit into 10 sec TV news grab).

  33. Mel
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    LE @37:

    I think the jail sentences imposed in this case are way too high. I would have preferred some nominal penalty, just enough to incentivise other office holders, be they scientists or whatever, to do their jobs properly. I suspect the penalties will be much reduced on appeal.

    C @ 36: I didn’t say the scientists had an obligation to whistle blow. All they needed to do to discharge their duty of care if internal options were exhausted and fruitless was contact the applicable minister in the government. How hard is that?

    Chris, I think it is good that you are considering the wider ramifications of this matter but one ramification you have chosen to ignore is a complete collapse in public confidence in authority if scientists and public office holders are not held to account when they recklessly provide false information.

  34. Chris
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    C @ 36: I didn’t say the scientists had an obligation to whistle blow. All they needed to do to discharge their duty of care if internal options were exhausted and fruitless was contact the applicable minister in the government. How hard is that?

    Its not clear to me what their exact job duties are, but if they have correctly given their report to the person they are meant to then why do they have criminal legal requirements beyond that to go outside of their normal duties?

    As an tech type person I find this rather interesting. If I make a report about something do I have some I legally obligation to follow up all uses of that report to make sure the information is not misused/misinterpreted?

    Chris, I think it is good that you are considering the wider ramifications of this matter but one ramification you have chosen to ignore is a complete collapse in public confidence in authority if scientists and public office holders are not held to account when they recklessly provide false information.

    Except that if the news report is correct the scientists didn’t do that. It sounds like they provided the correct information to the government official as they were supposed to. The government officer did. The scientists could be correctly accused of not correcting/contradicting the government officer but that to me is a much milder offence.

    The bigger chilling effect here will be that scientists will decide not to become involved in these sorts of matters in the first place. And also start making statements that are so defensive that they are in practice not helpful at all. Because although they were not wrong in this case, its pretty inevitable that they will despite best efforts be wrong in the future.

    And we’ve seen in the current climate change debate what happens when scientists use their standard hedging language amongst each other because they know that nothing is ever 100% certain in the scientific world.

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