Monday, October 29, 2012

The L’Aquila and Legal Protection for Scientists

Charlotte Pritchard’s recent BBC article ( raises an interesting question – should scientists stop giving advice and, if not, should they have professional indemnity insurance? This cover, as a lot of eager insurance website will tell you, is designed to protect professionals and their businesses if clients (or a third party) make a claim against them because they believe that they have suffered loss due to non-performance, breach of contract or professional negligence or all the above. Insurance cover is up to a maximum limit outlined in the policy and, presumably, based on the losses for similar types of professional activity in the past and the likelihood or probability of a claim being made against a particular type of professional. Such policies are standard tools of legal protection for architects, engineers, business consultants, insurance brokers (ironic?), solicitors, accountants and independent financial advisers. Pritchard points out that even the Met Office have a professional indemnity self-insurance fund in case a forecaster fails to predict a flood that results in the loss of life (how things have moved on since Michael Fish!)
Transferring this type of policy into the academic realm is not unusual, several of my colleagues have such policies when they undertake consultancy work and a lot of universities commercial branches offer such cover. A key question that should be asked is, is the nature of the information being provided the same for all these professions or is the scientific information of a different type? Is it the information that is the same or is it the intended use of that information that requires the provider to have legal protection? If I were an engineer advising on a building project, the audience, the investors, the builders, etc, employ me to ensure that the result is satisfactory – the building stays up (simplistic but you get the idea). There is a definite, time limited and clearly defined outcome that my advice is meant to help achieve. Is this the case for scientific advice about the possibility of a hazarduous event? Is the outcome clearly defined or is there variability in the expectations of the audience and those of the information provider? Aren’t experts in both cases offering their best ‘guesses’ given their expertise and standards in specific areas?
The development and (by implication from Pritchard) the almost essential nature of legal protection for people giving advice tells us a lot about current attitudes or beliefs about science and prediction. Pritchard quotes David Spiegelhalter, Professor of Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge as stating:

“At that point you start feeling exposed given the increasingly litigious society, and that's an awful shame…. It would be terrible if we started practising defensive science and the only statements we made were bland things that never actually drew one conclusion or another. But of course if scientists are worried, that's what will happen."

The belief that science can offer absolute statements concerning prediction underlies the issue at L’Aquila. Despite the careful nature of the scientific deliberations, the press conference communicated a level of certainty at odds with the understanding of seismic activity and at odds with the understanding of the nature of risk in seismology. Belief that seismic events are predictable in terms of absolute time and location is at odds with what is achievable in seismology. By extension this view believes that scientists understand the event and understand how it is caused and so understanding causation leads to accurate prediction. This ignores the level and nature of understanding in science. Scientists build up a model, a simplification of reality, in order to understand the events, the data that they collect. This model is modified as more information is produced but it is never perfect. The parts of the model are linked to one and other by the causes and processes the scientist believe are important, but these can be modified or even totally discarded as more events, more information is added. So it is feasible to understand, broadly, how seismic events occur without being able to translate this understanding to a fully functional and precise model of reality that can predict exactly when and where an earthquake will occur.

If scientists are held legally to account for the inexact nature of the scientific method then there are major problems with any scientist wanting to provide any information or advice to any organisation.

Communicating the inexact nature of our understanding of reality, however, is another issue. If the public and organisation want accuracy in predictions that scientists know is impossible then the ‘defensive science’ noted by Spiegelhalter, will become the norm in any communication. Bland statements of risk of an event will be provided and, to avoid blame, scientists and their associated civil servants will always err on the side of caution, i.e. state a risk level that is beyond the level they would state to colleagues. Even this type of risk communication carries its own risks – stating it will rain in the south of England on a bank holiday could deter visitors to the seaside and when that happens then couldn’t business in coastal resorts sue or provide their own information (Bournemouth launches own weather site - )? If the reports conflict then who should the public believe?

Bland science implies communication that scientists perceive to be of least risk to them personally. This could vary from person to person and from institution to institution so the level of ‘risk’ deemed acceptable to communicate as ‘real’ to the public will begin to vary.

There is no easy answer to this issue and whilst there isn’t then legal protection sounds a reasonable way to go if you want to make your scientific knowledge socially relevant. It may, however, be worth thinking about the ideas scientists try to transmit as messages. Three simple things then spring to mind: what is the transmitter? what is the message and what is the audience? The scientist (transmitter) will have their own agenda, language and views on the nature of the message. The message itself will be communicated in a specific form along specific channels, all of which can alter its original meaning or even shape its meaning. Likewise, the audience is not a blank, passive set of receivers – they have their own views, agenda and will interpret the message as such. More time spent understanding how the scientific message is communicate may help to ensure that the message is interpreted by the audience(s) in the way the scientist intended.

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