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A USU View: In Italian Verdict's Wake, Are Scientists on Shaky Ground?

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

USU faculty member Shane Larson

Shane Larson is an assistant professor in USU's Department of Physics. He serves as chair of Science Unwrapped and is a frequent contributor to blog, 'Write Science.’

The following is a commentary written by Utah State University faculty member and physicist Shane Larson.

As many of you have likely heard or read in the news this week, a group of seismology experts in Italy were convicted of manslaughter on Oct. 22, 2012, for offering the public “false assurances” prior to a 2009 earthquake that struck in the medieval town of L’Aquila.

More than 300 people died as a result of the 6.3-magnitude tremor, centered in Italy’s Abruzzo region, which decimated L’Aquila’s historic district. More than 1,000 people suffered injuries and tens of thousands were left homeless.

Four scientists, two engineers and a government official, all members of Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were sentenced to six years in jail and ordered to pay nearly $12 million in damages to survivors.

Much has been made of this case: several government scientists in Italy have resigned their posts in protest, scientific societies around the world have voiced protest and many scientists have expressed concern over the difficulty in predicting earthquakes and other natural disasters. Many point to the consequences of holding scientists liable for not providing definitive information — information that is impossible to provide.

The Italian scientists’ defense team plans to appeal the ruling. And while some observers express the notion that concerns about this case are wildly overblown, I think it is wise for all of us to consider the fact that anti-science sentiment is on the rise in many parts of the world, including here in the United States.  Given the current political climate, it is ideologically proper to have anti-science viewpoints in many instances because people do not understand the process of science or how scientific knowledge evolves. As I tell my class all the time, “Science is not politics. If you don't allow yourself to flip-flop in the face of new data, then you aren't doing it right.”

I think this event is a good one for all of us to reflect on as we think about how we communicate science. For those of us USU faculty members who are scientists, this is an opportunity to talk with our students about their roles in science. We should encourage them to watch this stage of the Italian case closely.

As a land grant university, Utah State University has a distinctive mission that includes “serving the public through learning, discovery, and engagement.” Cases such as the one we’re watching unfold in Italy reinforce my commitment to science communication with the public. I strongly advocate the crucial importance of all scientists, adopting as part of our professional culture, the obligation to learn how to explain what science is and how science works to everyone who isn’t part of the scientific enterprise. Learning to effectively communicate is easily as important as our research enterprise, especially in the current global climate of politics and Internet noise.

Resources on campus, in our public organizations and in our professional societies exist to help us in this endeavor. I encourage all USU scientists — whether seasoned educators or first-year students — to step out of your comfort zone and up to the podium. Avail yourselves of books, workshops, classes, online resources as well as presentation and publication opportunities to improve your skills in articulating the wonders, the frustrations, the joys and the unexpected revelations of this remarkable discipline we call science. Our ability to continue our important work as scientists depends on it.

Shane Larson is an assistant professor in USU’s Department of Physics and serves a chair of Science Unwrapped, the USU College of Science’s public outreach program. He is a frequent contributor to the blog Write Science.

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