In February of this year, a group of seismologists was indicted in Italy for manslaughter because in 2009, they had asked the public to “relax with a glass of wine” for there was no serious threat of a major earthquake in their (Abruzzo) region. Then 300 people died in a disastrous quake within a week of this assurance in the same area the scientists predicted as safe. This incident of indictment of seismologists invokes the question of responsibility associated with government-funded research. For BNV, I contacted American earth scientist Jason Sents with some questions about this topic.
Jason Sents is the President of LumiViz, a geospatial mapping and data visualization firm specializing in computer modeling, analysis, and presentation of various data types and how they relate to people. He holds a Master’s degree in the Geological Sciences and Environmental Studies from Binghamton University where his concentration was re-evaluating a 3-dimensional groundwater flow model using recently-collected hydraulic data in conjunction with an alternative grid refinement process.
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Ernest: Thank you for taking time for this chat. First of all, let me ask, do you think the way Italian scientists conveyed their conclusions to the public via media was appropriate or professional?
Jason: Without the intent of underestimating the intelligence level of laypeople, seismology is not for the technically timid. There is a great deal of foundational work required to understand the threats and hazards of earthquakes that simply cannot be addressed in a news conference venue. With that being said, I think the scientists could have chosen two better routes here. First, run this up to the public policymakers: the politicians. Politicians love to assume control over more and more aspects of our lives, so have them take the brunt of public backlash.
Second, if the scientists were intent on holding this news conference themselves, a better route psychologically, probably, would have been from the Disaster Preparedness point of view. This would have allowed them to maintain error bars around the public’s expectations for concrete answers while simultaneously creating a mindset with the goal of solving the problem of preparedness. Humans often stay at optimal psychological levels in stressful situations by staying focused and busy with clear, well-defined goals.
Ernest: We hear that the indictment of seismologists may ‘chill’ science. How would you comment on it?
Jason: Science does not have to become ‘chilled’. What needs to occur is that scientists must learn to communicate concepts and ideas to audiences of variable technical background in an engaging and effective way. Trying to communicate advanced concepts of hydrogeology found in a 400 level course classroom is not going to translate to a layperson with no-science training. What concerns me more is the selective filtering of scientific conclusions by public policymakers to the degree at which they have a public policy agenda and are only presenting the analyses and conclusions that support convincing the public that the policy is needed. Although many may disagree with me, I cannot ignore this as a potential driving mechanism behind the global warming/climate change movement.
Ernest: Of seismologists in particular, is their failure to predict a disastrous quake accurately the same in effect as epidemiologists failing in predicting an epidemic or economists failing to predict an economic crisis?
Jason: No. Economics are derived by Humans. However, a major natural disaster event may have catastrophic effects on an economic system. Earth System Science for the most part possesses its own internal cause-effect relationships separate from those internal to Economics.
Ernest: In your opinion, do incidents like this damage the trust the public puts in science or scientists?
Jason: Unfortunately, yes it does. This was seen to occur over the evolution and leading up to the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the State of Washington. Weeks of steam and ash eruptions interspersed temporally with erratic seismicity forced public safety agencies to evacuate cities and towns. After some time, the calls for evacuation took on a modern form of “the boy who called wolf” in the public’s mindset. When the eruption and long run-out landslide actually occurred, 57 people, who decided to stay, were killed.
Ernest: Do you believe that being a government-paid scientist — as the indicted Italian seismologists — one is in a position of more serious responsibility in terms of the application of their research?
Jason: In an ideological sense, all scientists should strive at all times for the highest ethical standards available to them and within their training. Often times we see conclusions being filtered in private industries because they have ownership in a client’s best interest. Similarly, the layer of public policy agenda and selectively filtering conclusions must be examined. However, with ethics, basic scientific principles, and truth, it becomes increasingly difficult to obfuscate conclusions by this often-used practice of selective filtering. The public’s reaction in favor or against can be mitigated by effective communication, also previously mentioned.
Ernest: Critically looking at all things, what really have seismologists achieved after decades of research spending who knows how many millions on prediction and control of disaster? I mean they still can’t predict a disaster accurately to help people move to safety; and they can’t control disasters? So what is the practical use of all this costly research after all?
Jason: One would hope they would have found something to act as part of an early warning detection system, but alas, they haven’t. There have been positive advances in tsunami warnings; however, even those warnings fall apart if the off-shore subsurface displacement is proximal to a populated coastal region. Aside from that, there have been leaps and bounds in structural engineering as it relates to buildings and infrastructure in densely populated metropolitan areas, but that does little in the predictive sense.
Ernest: What are some of the most important recent achievements of public importance in the US in the field of earth science?
Jason: I can’t really think of one, at least in a predictive sense on a regional or larger scale. I’ll caveat that by saying that I’ve been extremely busy to stay abreast of the latest developments in geosciences news.
Ernest: Do you think our major research programs (in the US) are in line with what the people’s current needs?
Jason: Again and without being on top of the latest developments in the geosciences, I can’t really say that I see that. What I see is education as an industry where participation is largely required to obtain employment because employers demand a degree. Then the employer pays the employee a salary that is not commensurate with the time and expense of getting the 4-, 6-, or 8+ year degree. The research that does address a need is sporadic and isolated to one pocket in the overall aspects of life, at best.
Ernest: Finally, do you feel that there should be some well-defined law applicable to scientific research that fails to yield the desired result?
Jason: I don’t believe that the research is the problem, or that the researchers should be held liable. Remember that in all science, as we gather more data, we may eventually reach different conclusions. If there should be any laws, they should be directed to the elected or appointed public policy “officials” whose job is to gather evaluations, perform due diligence, and convey this through decisions in the best interest of those who put them there (namely, The People). Failure to do so should result in their immediate dismissal and not subject to protective immunity umbrella of their supervisors upward to and including any President of the United States.
Ernest: Many thanks Jason for sharing your thoughts with us!
Jason: Thank you for the opportunity, Ernest.
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To read more about Jason Sents and his work, visit his blog http://geolojay.com/blog/.