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April 2013

The Public’s Right to the Right Information

The recent conviction for manslaughter of seven Italian scientists and engineers in connection with announcements made prior to the deadly L’Aquila earthquake, which struck in 2009, has been greeted with shock and outrage by many in the scientific community. Regardless of the merits of this controversial criminal verdict—expected to be the subject of appeals for many months, if not years—the facts of the case present a striking illustration of the importance of professional ethics in conveying scientific and technical information to the public.

 Situation:

The Italian city of L’Aquila, which, including its environs, has a population of some 80,000, has a long history of earthquakes. Built on the site of an ancient lake in one of Europe’s most seismically active regions, L’Aquila has a soil structure that serves to amplify seismic waves. In 1703 an earthquake leveled much of the city and resulted in some 5,000 deaths.

In the early months of 2009, L’Aquila and its residents are shaken by a series of minor ground tremors. Fears that this series, or swarm, of earthquakes may betoken a major quake are stoked by Gioacchino Giuliani, a laboratory technician at a local physics institute. Although
Giuliani has no formal training in seismology, he claims to have developed a technique for predicting earthquakes that relies on measurements of radon emissions and announces that a major temblor is imminent. Acting on his information, local authorities at first warn residents to evacuate, but when the earthquake fails to occur, Giuliani is told to desist because he is needlessly inciting panic.

 In response to the growing public alarm and confusion, government officials convene a special meeting of the Commissione Nazionale per la Previsione e Prevenzione dei Grandi Rischi (National Commission for Forecasting and Preventing Major Risks). The primary topic of discussion at this one-hour meeting is whether the continuing earthquake swarm is a precursor of a larger earthquake. The seismologists in attendance note that in an earthquake-prone area such as L’Aquila, the possibility of an earthquake can never be excluded. However, they ultimately conclude that such swarms are common and cannot be considered as predictors.

Although accurate, this assessment does not capture the full spectrum of seismological understanding. In fact, a well-respected study of Italian earthquakes had found that a medium-sized shock in a swarm is an accurate predictor of a major quake roughly 2 percent of the time, and conventional analysis of the frequency and intensity of L’Aquila’s foreshocks suggested that the risk of a major quake in the near future was significantly higher than usual, even though the overall likelihood was still extremely small.

No discussion takes place at the meeting of the vulnerabilities of L’Aquila’s structures, and no recommendations are made as to what information should be given to the public.

Indeed, the information conveyed to the public differs even from the commission’s conclusion that the swarm is not a predictor. In press conferences before and after the commission meeting, the commission’s spokesperson, a public official with a background in hydraulic engineering and no expertise in seismology, states that the situation is completely normal and presents no danger. In fact, the official inaccurately claims, the earthquake swarm is actually beneficial for L’Aquila in that the tremors represent a smaller, ongoing discharge of seismic energy. When asked by a journalist if this means that people should relax and have a drink, the official laughingly agrees and recommends a local red wine.

Six days after this press conference, a strong tremor shakes the city of L’Aquila, and four hours later, at 3:32 AM on April 6, 2009, an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 causes 309 deaths and forces some 65,000 people from their homes. 

At the subsequent trial of the seven commission members, prosecutors claim that the commission proceedings were designed to allay the concerns of the public without regard for the truth. They attribute many of the deaths to the residents’ belief in the statement that more tremors meant less danger. Many victims, they note, had departed from the local custom of sleeping outside after a small tremor and were trapped in collapsing buildings when the earthquake hit. The judge ultimately agrees, faulting the commission members for a superficial analysis of the risks and ruling that they had voluntarily participated in a media campaign that gave the public a false sense of security.

Question:

How would the conduct of the members of the Commissione Nazionale per la Previsione e Prevenzione dei Grandi Rischi be viewed under ASCE’s Code of Ethics?

Discussion:

While serious questions can be raised about the finding of criminal culpability on the part of the seven commission members, the circumstances raise a number of ethical issues.

First, in press statements made before and after the commission meeting, the group’s spokesperson misrepresented the risks of a major earthquake and, in what was apparently an attempt to allay the public’s fears, offered a scientifically inaccurate assessment. Moreover, at no time prior to the earthquake did any other member of the commission take steps to correct those misstatements to the public or to clarify the commission’s conclusions. The minutes of the commission meeting reveal little attention to relevant scientific studies or similar data and suggest that the commission’s purpose in convening the meeting was merely to dismiss the concept of reliable earthquake prediction rather than provide a reasoned, scientific assessment of the situation.

As stated in canon 3 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, “Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner,” and category (b) in the guidelines to practice for this canon has this to say: “Engineers...shall include all relevant and pertinent information in [professional] reports, statements, or testimony.” In failing to provide accurate and complete information to the public and in addressing the public’s fear of a cataclysmic event with platitudes rather than informed analysis, the commission’s conduct would probably fall short of the obligation set forth in ASCE’s Code of Ethics to provide objective and relevant statements.

Furthermore, the task of conveying vital information to the public about the risk of a major earthquake was left to a spokesperson with no background in seismology, leading to wide dissemination of an inaccurate and misleading statement about seismic discharge. In view of the stricture contained in canon 2 of ASCE’s code that engineers are to “perform services only in areas of their competence,” the misstatements made by the commission spokesperson demonstrate the need for professionals to ensure that appropriate persons are selected to communicate with the public, especially when vital information is conveyed in a potential emergency.

Finally, the way in which the misstatements about the dangers may have affected those living in or near L’Aquila underscores the effect of professional judgment on the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Canon 1 of the code reminds professionals of the need to “hold paramount” their responsibility to the public. What happened in L’Aquila demonstrates that, when providing information to the public, lives may depend on precautions taken—or not taken—in response to expert advice and analysis.

Last November, the Board of Governors of ASCE’s Structural Engineering Institute published a statement emphasizing three principles that were brought into sharp focus by the tragedy in L’Aquila: that public officials must be educated on ways to properly communicate uncertainties surrounding natural hazards; that emergency preparedness and strict attention to building codes are essential to mitigate the effects of tragedies; and that the Code of Ethics requires professionals to carefully convey opinions and to do so in a truthful manner that properly acknowledges uncertainties in the data and methods used to support a conclusion. 

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case, that some details may have been altered for purposes of illustration or confidentiality, and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s assistant general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

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