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What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

In April 2009, an earthquake hit L'Aquila, Italy, and killed 309 people. Now, says the Guardian's Jacqueline Windh, six Italian geoscientists and one government official have been charged with manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning that the earthquake was coming. Earthquakes cannot be predicted, however, and the best any geoscientist can do is calculate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a given region, Windh says. After a series of small earthquakes shook the Abruzzo region of Italy in 2008 and 2009, officials met with the six geoscientists to ask what the risks of a big earthquake were. Based on the available data, there was no scientific basis to determine that a big earthquake was coming. The government then told the citizens that there was no danger. "While to a layperson, those statements may appear identical, to a scientist they are not. The scientists concluded that they had no evidence indicating an increased risk. But the message given to the public was that there was no increased risk. So who, if anyone, is to blame?" Windh says. "The fundamental issue here is communication." Instead of speaking directly to the public, the scientists communicated with a government official who then spoke with the press, who communicated the statemen to the public — rather like a game of Telephone. In many instances, Windh says, science is reported by journalists who are not, themselves, scientists, and the message can get twisted. But the blame also lies with the public, a substantial portion of which doesn't have "sufficient grounding in basic sciences" to be able to understand the information presented by scientists, Windh says, adding, "This only widens the void between scientists and the public, forcing scientists to use intermediaries such as journalists or public relations personnel. And it also forces those media personnel to simplify concepts or ideas, often to the point where they are no longer strictly accurate." The challenges of conveying accurate scientific information are "substantial," she says, but it is necessary for scientists to be proactive in communicating their work with the public, and for the public to make an effort to understand.

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