Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cassandra's trap: the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter

In a debate that took place in 2008, Mr. Enzo Boschi, professor of seismology at the University of Bologna, made some statements that likely he regretted later on. As recorded in this video (in Italian) he said something that can be translated as, “we made a complex and precise model that shows that this area is not subjected to a large seismic risk. So, you may feel some tremors, but your house will not fall on your head.” Unfortunately, not much later, in April 2009, the region was struck by a major Earthquake that caused several victims.

Stating in public what science says about the risks of global warming is not an experience for the faint hearted. If you ever tried that, you know that you'll be assaulted and abused by legions of commenters who will accuse you, among other things, of being an "alarmist;" with the innuendo that you are saying that in order to bring money to the fat coffers of your research institute. This is something that I often call "Cassandra's curse"

However, in recent times, I started to note a flow, small but increasing, of comments that carry the opposite criticism: "scientists," they say, "have been poor at explaining how things really stand with climate. They didn't do enough to inform us on how serious the situation is". This is something that we could call "Cassandra's trap," the fear of alarming people, of telling of disasters that won't come, in short of looking like an alarmist.

The attitude of playing down risks is something that we recently saw with the case of the six Italian scientists found guilty of manslaughter because - the court said - they gave falsely reassuring statements before the quake that struck the region of Abruzzo, in Italy, in 2009.

The international press has been unanimous in criticizing the sentence, sometimes speaking of a "witch hunt,"and citing the case of Galileo Galilei. It may well be that the sentence was too harsh and it is true that earthquakes cannot be predicted. However, some of the statements by the sentenced scientists do look rather questionable - to say the least; especially the one that I have translated from the video, above. It is true that it was to be understood as referred to the seismic risk of a specific drilling project, but the way it was said it seemed to refer to the general seismic risk of the whole region. That could have misled people, indeed. My impression is that Mr. Boschi and his colleagues may have been victim of the "Cassandra's trap;" the fear of being branded as alarmists.

What we do as scientists often looks like a lot of fun. We make experiments, we publish the results, we speak at conferences, and the whole seems to have little to do with the real world. But sometimes we forget that science often deals with very dangerous things and that is true especially in some fields. Seismology is one: people die because of earthquakes. The experts in this field have the responsibility of telling people how things really stand.

The same holds for climate science: people die because of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other consequences of climate change. So, as scientists we have a heavy responsibility in what we say in public. We must be very careful in avoiding to exaggerate the threats we face, but also in not making the opposite mistake: minimizing them. It is not easy but, if we are real professionals, we must be able to tell the truth.

You know, sometimes I have this feeling that some climate scientists, are falling in the Cassandra's trap; that is they have a habit of playing down or not mentioning the risks we face. Considering the tone of some comments that I received, lately, I wonder: will that lead, one day, to some of us being sentenced to jail for manslaughter? Hopefully not, but it is not to early to tell people how things really stand!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)