Episode 159 – 26th October 2012

Earthquake predictions, atheists and the scouts, a psychic challenge and Simon Singh explaining What Doctors Don’t Tell Him – and much more on this week’s Pod Delusion. We also speak to film maker Chris Atkins to preview the first meeting of Soho Skeptics, and find out what the BHA are doing about faith schools – and more!

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Predicting Earthquakes (2:07) by Drew Rae
Chris Atkins Interview (10:46) by James O’Malley
Scouting & Atheism (22:56) by Shaun Joynson
Psychic Challenge (31:14) by James O’Malley (ft Simon Singh, Chris French, and Kim the psychic)
A New Singh Libel Case? (48:36) by James O’Malley (ft Simon Singh, again!)
BHA Faith School Fundraiser (51:34) by James O’Malley (ft Richy Thompson)
The sketch at the end is by David Lovesy and Brian Two

Follow-Up Links:

Buy your ticket for Chris Atkins at Soho Skeptics!

2 thoughts on “Episode 159 – 26th October 2012

  1. I just posted this over on the “more earthquake stuff” link, and I thought I’d also post it here (I got a bit confused and thought that was on the Pod Delusion blog)

    I just finished listening to Drew Rae’s segment on the l’Aquila earthquake trial on the podcast, and it is the first time something has irritated me enough to go to the website to comment on it.

    (Full disclosure: I am doing a PhD in volcanology, and some of my colleagues in the lab know the scientists personally.)

    Firstly, I have to correct you about earthquake prediction. From a scientific point of view, the foreshocks are a complete red herring. Seismic swarms are common in tectonically active regions; sometimes they coincide with large earthquakes and sometimes they don’t. Their occurrence is not correlated in any meaningful way, and therefore seismic swarms should be ignored when calculating the short-term risk of a large earthquake. You use the analogy of looking for clouds to predict rain; I’d argue it is more like looking to see if the cows are sat down to predict rain. Also, the term ‘overdue for an earthquake’ tends to irk geologists slightly. While average recurrence times can give you an idea of how often large earthquakes happen, there is still far too much variability in the time between one earthquake and the next for the time since the last earthquake to be much use in predicting the short term probability. If you accept that there was no scientific reason to suggest an increased risk of a big earthquake, then the manslaughter charges become self-evidently ridiculous. No matter how good the communication was between the scientists and the public was, those 29 people still would have died. There was no scientific evidence to suggest they should have evacuated.

    While I agree with much of what you say about communicating risk, and I agree that this was an example of it done poorly, I take issue with your closing remarks. You say the job description of those scientists was to communicate risk? No, their job was to advise the government on the risk, and the did this in good faith and to the best of their (and anybody else’s) ability. The minutes of the meeting held in l’Aquila show that the scientists’ conclusion was that there was “no elevated risk”. Scientifically this is completely uncontroversial. I have heard (albeit anecdotally) that Italian scientists are under a lot of pressure politically to not discuss these issues in public. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the spokesman of the commission, and the one who made all the controversial comments, was not a scientist but a civil servant.

    I agree with you that the solution is better risk communication and more education, but this verdict is going to make things far more difficult. You dismiss the chilling effect of this court case with barely a second thought. How many scientists do you really think would be willing to provide advice, either in private to governments or to the public at large, if they can be held criminally responsible for any subsequent disaster (no matter how unexpected)? Already, the top three scientists on the Italian national commission for natural disasters have resigned.

    Here is what the AGU (American Geophysicists Union, probably the largest and most influential geoscience body and despite its name pretty international) had to say about it:

    “For scientists to be effective, they must be able to make good faith efforts to present the results of their research without the risk of prosecution. Outcomes such as the one seen in Italy could ultimately discourage scientists from advising their governments, from communicating the results of their research to the public, or even from studying and working in various fields of science.”

    Finally, here what is IAVCEI (International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior, the biggest volcanological association, who have to deal with much the same issues) have to say:

    “This conviction sets a terrible international precedent. It should cause all scientists employed in monitoring and advising government and civil authorities on potential natural hazards grave concern about the advice they give, and to cover all possibilities in great detail. There is also a flip side to this. What would have happened if the convicted scientists had forecast the worst-case scenario before the l’Aquila disaster, resulting in the evacuation of a half a million people of more in the region, but then nothing happened? Would they then also have been charged with providing misleading information and causing unnecessary costs to government and community?

    “Natural disasters are bad news for everyone – affected communities, governments, civil authorities, industry and the scientific community. The real concern now for the scientific community is that civil authorities could try to deflect attention from themselves and the relief effort after a crisis by playing the “blame game” and taking legal action against scientists for “providing inaccurate information”.”

  2. (Cross posted from where I replied on my own blog)

    Thanks for taking the time to make a detailed response. I just want to respond to a couple of the points you made:

    1) I don’t think makes sense to say that someone’s job is to advise the government, but not to communicate risk. Advice is
    a form of communication – and in this case the committee clearly had both a public policy role AND a public communication role. Advising
    the government arguably requires a higher degree of competence in communicating risk.

    I don’t think anyone is doing anyone any favours by conflating the issues of communicating risk and assessing risk. The scientists have not been
    accused of being wrong, or even being uncertain. As far as I can tell from secondary sources (I don’t speak Italian) the public announcement was not
    consistent with what they had discussed as a committee. The quotes you’ve given are from organisations pushing the “they didn’t predict the earthquake” interpretation
    which is perpetuating mis-information. I agree that if this is the message that comes out of this, it will have a chilling effect, but it will be the scientific community
    responsible for scaring themselves, not the prosecution.

    2) I’m not going to win an argument about earthquakes with a volcanologist. My understanding of the models is that both periodicity and foreshocks both have weak predictive power (contrasting weak
    with “none”, not with “strong”). Are you saying that there is a consensus view that this isn’t the case, or are you saying that its a matter of scientific debate whether this is the case?

    3) I think the manslaughter charge is ridiculuous even without accepting that there was no reason to believe in an increased risk. If there was an increased risk, it would apply over months, not
    over a few days, and the level of hearsay/mindreading/assumption necessary to draw a link between the communication and deaths is huge. If I wasn’t clear about this in the report, I apologise. There’s a lot of poorly directed outrage about this case, and it is unnecessary. There’s plenty to work with without misrepresenting what actually happened. (For clarity, I’m not accusing you of this – just some of the reporting and public letters).

    I’d appreciate your further thoughts on these. If I’m wrong about (2) particularly, I’ll put out a correction. Citable sources would be very helpful for this.

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