Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Elizabeth Angell.
Yesterday an Italian appeals court reversed the convictions of all but one of seven scientists and experts charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. (The conviction of Bernardo De Bernardinis, former deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, was partially upheld, but his sentence was reduced to two years instead of six.1) As an anthropologist studying disaster and risk, I’m doubly interested in the L’Aquila story, both as an example of the search for accountability in the aftermath of disaster, and for what it tells us about the ways knowledge, particularly knowledge about risk, circulates between expert communities of scientists and officials and broader publics.
If you’re not familiar with the L’Aquila case, the short version of the story goes like this: in the winter and spring of 2009, Italy’s Abruzzo region experienced a swarm of small earthquakes. The tremors prompted public anxiety in a place with a long history of deadly earthquakes—particularly after a local technician who claims to have developed a method for predicting earthquakes based on radon emissions suggested that a big one might be on the way (and was subsequently served with an injunction forcing him to remove his warning from the internet). Concerned about the potential for panic, members of Italy’s National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks called a meeting on March 30 to respond to the public’s fears. The scientists and civil protection officials at the meeting struck a note of calm—pointing out that no method has yet been found to accurately predict an earthquake before it occurs, and there was no evidence to support the idea that the swarm of small earthquakes meant a bigger one was imminent—although, as they noted, the possibility of one couldn’t be ruled out, either.
Six days later, on 6 April, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital, killing 297 people, and injuring at least a thousand. In the aftermath, many locals blamed the commission for downplaying the risk, leading residents—some of whom had taken to sleeping outside or staying elsewhere because of the earlier tremors—to return to their homes. Abruzzo’s public prosecutor charged seven scientists and experts who had attended the meeting with involuntary manslaughter—not for failing to predict the earthquake (as some media accounts later suggested) but for giving the public a sense of false reassurance. On October 22, 2012, all seven were convicted and sentenced to six-year prison terms, pending the appeal process that led to the judgments today. (For a fuller account, see this NYT article, or David Wolman’s longform story at Matter, which is excellent.)
My research deals on earthquake anticipation in Istanbul, and many of the seismologists (and earthquake engineers, and disaster preparedness professionals) I’ve spoken to over the past few years, both in Turkey and the United States, have brought up L’Aquila as a particularly fraught example of the challenges of public discourse on risk. Their anxieties are not only about being blamed for failing to warn of a future disaster—particularly since they’re sometimes called upon to comment on the claims of self-declared earthquake predictors like the one in L’Aquila—but also about the problem of how best to communicate risk in a way that persuades both policymakers and public audiences to take precautionary measures. For example, as a senior researcher at Istanbul’s Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute explained to me, is it better to tell people that the probability of a major earthquake in Istanbul within the next 30 years is 65%, or that the current annual probability is 2%? Which combination of percent and time frame is more likely to prompt action? How do you strike the balance between preventing panic, and getting people to take the problem seriously?
The dilemmas of science in public, especially around questions of risk and uncertainty, are hardly unique to earthquakes—they crop up in all kinds of contexts, from the recent fracas over Ebola quarantines to the problems posed by anti-vaccine movements and climate change denial. The example of L’Aquila hovered in the back of my mind as I read a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed story about Yale law professor Dan Kahan, and his argument for an approach to science communication that takes into account the way politicized worldviews might shape perceptions of climate science in the United States. Kahan’s “cultural cognition” framework turns out to have been inspired by Mary Douglas’s cultural theory of risk—which he discovered as a result of conversations with a then-graduate student in the department of anthropology. (The Chronicle piece hints at the tragicomic complications that often ensure when anthropological arguments are transmuted into behavioral science—Douglas herself apparently had some reservations about the way Kahan adapted her appraoch.)
Douglas’s theory has come under plenty of fire from subsequent anthropological scholarship, particularly for its functionalist understanding of risk as simply the “modern” equivalent of taboo or sin, a social mechanism for defining and regulating culturally determined sources of danger. But what continues to interest me about her work on this topic is the emphasis she places on the relationship between risk and blame: in their 1982 book Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers, Douglas and co-author Aaron Wildavsky write that “risk, like worldliness, is an ideal target for criticism. It is immeasurable and its unacceptability is unlimited….there can never be sufficient holiness or safety” (194). (Douglas’s subsequent volume of essays was actually titled Risk and Blame). What’s key here, I think, is the suggestion that these controversies are not just about failures of communication or a mistrust of science—they’re also about the moral context in which communities understand and confront risk.
Wolman suggests that “what happened in L’Aquila is a window onto how we think about, communicate, and live with risk, and about impediments to clear thinking that afflict us all.” It’s also a window into how people reckoning with disaster try to make sense of the devastation they have experienced by determining responsibility and apportioning blame. In my next post, I’ll talk about the debates over accountability in the aftermath of another disaster—the 1999 Marmara earthquake in Turkey—but for now, I want to suggest that anthropologists have something useful to add to these conversations by focusing on how the politics of risk and responsibility play out in specific cultural contexts. Sometimes, these debates focus on the broader social and economic structures that create vulnerability to certain hazards—think of the rhetoric of “unnatural” disaster surrounding Hurricane Katrina—but they often also target particular groups or individuals as scapegoats for the failures—political, ethical, or otherwise—that made the disaster possible. The verdict in the L’Aquila appeal comes as a relief, but in the words of one of the defendants, Giulio Selvaggi, the former director of Italy’s National Earthquake Centre, “There is nothing to celebrate — because the pain of the people of L’Aquila remains.”
- The court partly upheld the conviction of De Bernardinis—a hydrologist by training who had inaccurately suggested, in an interview before the meeting, that the ongoing earthquake swarm might have reduced hazard by releasing pent-up energy—on the grounds that his was the only case in which a clear link existed between the inaccurate statements and the behavior of the victims. ↩