Friday, October 26, 2012

The ‘Michael Fish Effect’: The L’Aquila Case and Expectations of Science

On 15th October 1987 weather presenter Michael fish, dressed in the loud-ish tie and bland suit typical of the 1980s, delivered one of the most infamous statement in British science – Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way... well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!’ - hours later the most severe storm since 1703 hit the south-east of England killing 18 people. Although Michael Fish claims to have warned viewers to ‘batten down the hatches’ later in the report, the story of this error of scientific prediction have gone into meteorological folklore. Michael Fish, however, was not blamed for the storm, for its misprediction or the deaths that followed, in fact the whole incidence has taken on a mocking and good-humoured tone that has kept Michael Fish fondly in the public memory. The recent trial in L’Aquila has drawn comparisons with Michael Fish’s pronouncement, but the comparison is not that simple.

The trial and sentencing of seven Italians (six seismologists and a civil servant) by an Italian judge on 22nd October for ‘crimes’ in relation to the L’Aquila earthquake in on 6th April 2009 has, rightly, sent shockwaves around the scientific world (, The six-year jail sentences (although no sentence will be implemented until at least one appeal under Italian law) are for the crime of multiple manslaughter. The verdict was reached by after a trail by judge (rather than a jury trial) decided after only 4 hours of deliberation that the men were guilty of providing "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether the small tremors felt in the area some weeks and months before the larger earthquake were the basis for an earthquake warning. The implication of society persecuting science has even drawn parallels with the trail of Galileo in 1633 (

Behind the initial shock, however, the verdict can also be viewed to be about a failure to communicate risk rather than a failure of science to be able to accurately predict an event ( The prosecution in the case made it clear that the accusations were about poor communication of risk and not about science as such. The New Scientist article makes it clear that the communication of the risk was left to a civil servant with no specialism in seismology. His statement that:
 "The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable." 
should have rung alarm bells with the seismologists on the Major Hazard’s Committee but none were present at the press conference to correct this simplistic (and potentially incorrect) statement.

Nature offers an even more detailed analysis of the miscommunication of science involved in the statement issued by the civil servant ( Nature looked at the minutes of the meeting held between all seven men on 31st March 2009. In the meeting, none of the scientists stated that there was no danger of a large earthquake nor did they state that a swarm of small quakes meant there would not be a large one (or that there won’t be one). The prosecution claimed that the statement at the press conference persuaded a lot of people to remain in their homes who would otherwise have left the region, hence the charge of multiple manslaughter.

The whole case highlights, for me, two important issues. Firstly, what are the expectations of science from the public, from government and from the scientists themselves. The minutes of the meeting make it clear that the scientists put over views couched in clear scientific terms of uncertainty and unpredictability about seismic events. Uncertainty and unpredictability are commonplace in science. Recognizing the limits to what we know about the physical environment and how this impact on our ability to model what little we do know to produce predictions is an important aspect of science. Is this acceptance of our ignorance and inability what decision makers or the public want to hear in a crisis situation? Is the image that these groups have of science a bit different from that scientists have? The expectation of certainty, of clear yes or no answers to specific questions seems to be an expectation that science can not fulfill  The statement of the civil servant may reflect his interpretation of the committee discussion but the terms use are ones that reveal a desire to communicate certainty, a quality science by its very nature can not provide.  Science does not work by finding the truth but rather by eliminating the false. This is a long and painful process of rejecting errors and accepting, for the time being, whatever ideas are left even though you know that one-day these ideas themselves may be altered or rejected in the light of new evidence.

Secondly, the trail highlights that scientists should realise that they work in society and society has expectations of them. Leaving communication of a complex and inconclusive discussion to a civil servant may have seemed appropriate to the scientists but it also implies a view that it was not their responsibility. Sitting on a national committee such as the Major Hazards Committee not only means that you are a highly respected member of the scientific community, it also means that you believe there is a social benefit to be gained from your knowledge. The social benefit is drastically reduced if you are unable to communicate effectively to a vital audience, the public. Assuming that you do not have to work at communicating this knowledge or that it will be communicated accurately for you is delegating responsibility for your views to someone else. In this case delegation means loss of control of your views. Science is difficult and science is complex but just saying this does not mean that you should not try to communicate the issues involved in a complicated subject such as seismology. You may not be providing the answers people want to hear but then again you are not providing them with simplistic and wrong answers. At least Michael Fish didn’t rely on someone else to communicate his mistake - it was all his own work - just like his tie. 

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