Tremors from translating science into advice
A recently tried court case in Italy caused an uproar in the science community after jailing six scientists and one politician who failed to warn the public about an improbable seismic event in 2009. Accountability in such cases is surely difficult to determine, especially when people were acting according to their best understanding of the complex issues involved. The case is an example of
“statistically tricky no-man’s-land that separates complex, nuanced expert evidence from the blunt policy pronouncements they inform”
according to a science correspondent of the Financial Times. In the same article reads the line
“Many scientists are learning to keep their mouths shut.”
Now this, and any event leading to such a conclusion are in my view extremely saddening. What we must concentrate on, is the correct communication and interpretation of science, not a downright lowly way out by “shutting up”. It is definitely true as the article points out that there is an
“uneasy three-way relationship between the people charged with calculating risk, the people charged with spreading that knowledge and the rest of us who want straightforward advice”.
However true, we must work closer with people using the knowledge gathered from science in order to overcome the difficulties in interpreting them and translating them into advice. Although challenging, this is a task that must be part of the scientists’ repertoire, who is the most apt and educated of the involved parties to tackle the issue. It would not hurt to increase science education (e.g. understanding probability, causality and such) for all, but as a starting point, scientists must step up to become more aware and interested in translating science into policy and advice. One can only hope that such over-zealous criminal convictions as described in the full news article remain a blip and a mistake of the past.
Check out this link for a slightly related tale of how hard it is for a (typical) scientist to try the media game.