MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Scientists around the world were stunned yesterday when a judge in Italy found six Italian earthquake experts and a government official guilty of manslaughter. The judge found that the men downplayed the risk of a major earthquake in the city of L'Aquila. A 6.3 magnitude quake struck in early April 2009 and killed more than 300 people. Shortly before that earthquake struck, the scientists had held a meeting in L'Aquila to examine a recent spate of tremors, a so-called swarm of seismic activity.
A government official who was part of that group went on TV to offer reassurances to the public, going so far as to suggest that a glass of a good Montepulciano would help them relax.
Joining me to talk about the case is Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. He also led a commission after the Italian earthquake to advise the government on how to communicate earthquake risks to the public in the future.
Tom Jordan, welcome to the program.
TOM JORDAN: Good to be here, Melissa.
BLOCK: What was your reaction when this verdict came down?
JORDAN: Well, it was one of disbelief, actually. I can't imagine convicting scientists who are trying to do their job of criminal manslaughter. It's rather preposterous, don't you think?
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the context here because this meeting was convened in L'Aquila because there had been a man, I gather he wasn't a scientist, predicting that an earthquake would happen; that this swarm indicated that an earthquake, a big earthquake would happen, and he named a date.
JORDAN: He did. In fact, he issued several predictions through the press, very specific as to where and when earthquakes would occur. And, of course, you know, we can't predict earthquakes with that kind of accuracy. It caused quite a bit of panic in the population. Of course, they were feeling earthquakes during this time.
The government wanted to kind of shut him down. And so, part of the purpose of that March 31st meeting was to reassure the population that this guy's predictions were bogus.
BLOCK: Would there have been a reason to think that given that swarm of earthquakes in L'Aquila that were growing more frequent and more powerful, that a larger earthquake was more likely?
JORDAN: Yes. In fact, whenever we have seismic activity of that sort, we worry about the possibility of a larger event. These swarms often come and go without any big event. But occasionally there is a big event. So the chances of having an earthquake during one of these swarms is notably higher.
BLOCK: So the chances are raised. You can point to an increased probability. But you can't predict that it will in fact happen.
JORDAN: Yeah, that's right. Because to predict something is going to happen you want to have a pretty high probability. You know, if I'm going to predict there's going to be rain tomorrow, I'd like to make sure it was 50 percent probability or higher. The probability in advance of the L'Aquila main shock was probably about one percent. So that's much higher than it would be on any normal day, but it was not very high.
BLOCK: So the court in Italy heard testimony from a doctor in L'Aquila whose wife and daughter were both killed in the earthquake. He said that the commission meeting anesthetized people to the danger. He said, they instilled in us the idea that something terrible couldn't happen.
What should the role of seismologists be in a case like this? What should they be telling the public?
JORDAN: Well, what seismologists can tell you are probabilities of earthquakes that might happen. Scientists should not be put in a situation of trying to answer yes/no questions, you know, will there be an earthquake or not, because we can't say. The probabilistic information needs to be combined with lots of other information and used to make appropriate decisions for civil protection.
The situation in L'Aquila was, of course, very confused. And I think it's pretty clear, in the aftermath, that mistakes were made.
BLOCK: Do you think there will be a chilling effect in your field because of this verdict in Italy?
JORDAN: Well, it's certainly a big concern among my scientific colleagues. There's been a lot of discussion about this during this trial, because of the possibility that it's liable to squelch conversations that the scientists should be having with the public about the nature of risk.
I'm a little bit more optimistic because this provides us really with an opportunity to reassess how we communicate risk and to improve our risk systems.
BLOCK: Tom Jordan directs the Southern California Earthquake Center. Dr. Jordan, thank you so much.
JORDAN: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.