In the early hours of 6th April 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit the city of L’Aquila, Italy. 309 people died and around 20,000 buildings were destroyed. Today, what most people remember isn’t the magnitude of the quake or where exactly L’Aquila is, but rather that six scientists and a government official were put on trial following the disaster and charged with manslaughter. Each has been sentenced to six years in prison.
Whether earthquakes can be predicted remains a hotly debated topic. In the case of L’Aquila, there were felt foreshocks that might have indicated what was to come. Yet, the prosecution of the scientists and government official is not focused on the inadequacy of their science (or otherwise), but on how they communicated it. In the days before the earthquake struck, the government official gave a television interview in which he stated that a large earthquake was unlikely and people could “go and enjoy a nice glass of wine.”
What was completely absent from the press statement was the uncertainty surrounding the advice. Yes, there was a possibility that the seismic swarm may have passed without further incident, but there were a range of other potential outcomes which received no mention at all. One of these played out on 6th April with disastrous consequences.
What the L’Aquila case has highlighted is the importance of effective science communication. Scientists should make their research as comprehensible and transparent as possible, regardless of whether that entails addressing a concerned population during a crisis, or a research group of five over a cup of tea. That includes specifying when things are and aren’t uncertain.
The rather long title of this post (all 45 letters of it!) was chosen as an illustration of a simple tip for improving written science communication.
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is a factitious word, alleged to mean “a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine sand and ash dust.” Whilst it might look impressive to use such longwinded terminology, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is simply another word for the more commonly used silicosis. Brevity is an art – don’t use 45 letters when nine will do just fine!