Lost in translation

Does the recent conviction of six Italian seismologists for manslaughter in connection with the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake suggest a breakdown in communication between the natural sciences and a lay population, and what does it mean for the communcation of climate science?

News that six Italian seismologists were recently found guilty of manslaughter following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 has been met with widespread astonishment. The six were convicted because it was deemed that their statements regarding tremors prior to the earthquake were “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” and, because of this, the actions taken (or otherwise) by some residents of L’Aquila had resulted in tragic consequences.

A few of the people I’ve talked to about this have reacted by asking ‘where would that leave Michael Fish?’ following his (in)famous assurances prior to the Great Storm of 1987. With our tongues firmly in our cheeks, we can speculate what fate would have befallen any surviving oracles and soothsayers around Pompeii and Herculaneum who failed to predict the severity of what happened in AD79, or we could ponder if the six seismologists were only found guilty upon observing that they floated after having been ducked into a pond (or, to paraphrase the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we’ve found some seismologists – may we burn them?”).

On the face of it, the verdict would presuppose that predicting earthquakes is an exact science and suggest that the seismologists were negligent in their duties. It isn’t and they weren’t. Surely all that seismologists can do, and be expected to do, is to assess the data – the strength, depth, location and frequency of tremors – and present their best guess as to how, where and when an earthquake may strike. And that’s it.

That the six were convicted of failing to communicate the earthquake risk adequately, as opposed to failing to predict the earthquake itself, is of little consequence; that they were convicted at all is troubling. The judgement has brought comparisons with Galileo’s trial in 1633 for suggesting the heliocentric nature of the universe and, to me, the sentences do indeed have an almost medieval whiff about them, while also possessing a very 21st Century mix of litigiousness along with a consumer indignation borne of ignorance.

The L’Aquila ruling begs the question of what, in the light of the sentences meted out to the six seismologists, are the implications for climate scientists? Is the L’Aquila judgement symptomatic of a wider disconnect with nature and, if so, how can climate scientists disseminate their observations and perceived outcomes in a way that doesn’t alienate and bemuse the public or even lead to criminal prosecution?

In The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, Daniel Steuer describes Goethe’s own scientific epistemology as a ‘perspectivism’, whereby knowledge can be defined as the mediation of one’s own experiences and the tradition (or field/direction?) from which a researcher or scientist comes. From an autohabitus point of view, this could pertain to the way we regard and ‘consume’ the car – our ‘knowledges’ – based on mediating our own opinions and experiences with what information we receive from manufacturers or other ‘experts’. For example, I wonder how much currency the views of Clarkson, Hammond and May carry regarding the UK’s automotive psyche?

The climate system is an extremely complex one and, to muddy the communicative waters for scientists, climate change and/or global warming aren’t just scientific issues. Because of potential impacts upon food security, energy policy, mobility and global economics, they have also become political issues, and the way that climate change has been used for various political ends illustrates Goethe’s ‘perspectivism’. For example, international climate accords, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, tend to be subject to sometimes intense political negotiations prior to ratification, despite what the scientists’ numbers and observations may say. Meanwhile, newspapers in the UK such as the Guardian and Independent try to reflect and report climate concerns, whereas others such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail seem unashamedly climate-sceptic. In both cases, the presented views and opinions seem to reflect their respective political left- and right-leanings.

The coalition government has also played its part in climate confusion. David Cameron’s cry of ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, exhorting ‘the greenest government ever’, seems to become ever more hollow with Owen Patterson, an apparent climate-sceptic, put in charge of DEFRA and, more recently, Peter Lilley, one of only 3 MPs to vote against the Climate Change Act of 2008, appointed as a member of the House of Commons Energy Select Committee. Only yesterday, (Liberal Democrat) DECC Secretary Ed Davey had to deny claims made by (Conservative) energy minister John Hayes of ‘enough is enough’ in declaring ‘an end to onshore windfarms’.

What are the public supposed to make of such a polarising issue that can also be communicated in ways that people may find conflicting and/or confusing? It never ceases to amaze me how often Daily Mail-types spontaneously adopt the mantle of palaeoclimatologist in declaring that climate change has happened before and, in their doing so, I wonder how much of this ‘knowledge’ comes from what they have been told, and by whom. That said, the ‘Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists’ are indeed correct in asserting that climate change has occurred before – it has, but the climate record, for example data from ice and ocean cores, would suggest that it has never done so as quickly as is the case today. How would climate change from a global warming be manifest if it was purely natural and we discount our contribution? What were the effects in previous climate regime changes and how will our fragile societies and sensibilities experience these effects today?

The world’s weather has been somewhat chaotic in 2012 – droughts and heatwaves across the USA and Russia have affected grain harvests and will no doubt inflate global food prices; we’ve had a washout summer in the UK with several flooding events across the country; there has also been record ice loss in the Arctic; and, more recently, the collision and combination of a US mainland winter storm and Hurricane Sandy in the Atlantic ocean – christened ‘Frankenstorm’ by commentators – brought widespread flooding to the eastern seaboard of the USA, affecting large population centres like New York City. Is this what climate change and/or a global warming future looks like? Hardly the balmy conditions facilitating the growing of vines in Cumbria that some of the more, shall we say flippant, commentators have posited in the past.

Perspectivism is the key to how a public which may be uninformed, confused, sceptical or even uninterested understands climate science, all the while receiving conflicting opinion from various media. The climate debate and the verdicts on the six Italian seismologists suggest a disconnect between ourselves and nature, and there is a danger that the causes, effects and risks of climate change aren’t being communicated in terms that people fully understand – witness the Daily Mail palaeoclimatolgists and the Cumbrian vintners. If, as some have posited, climate change is the greatest challenge humanity faces today (and, despite my reverence for the car, I believe it is), then the L’Aquila ruling suggests that the issue of communicating the science and the impacts of climate change needs to be addressed, and as a matter of urgency. It could be criminal not to.