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From AJR,   April/May 2009  issue

When Outrage Trumps Science   

Italian quake prediction produces tabloid tremors Online Exclusive posted 4/17/09 12:00 p.m.


By Jamie McIntyre
     

It was April 7, the day after a powerful earthquake rocked central Italy, and CNN's afternoon anchor Rick Sanchez was working up a full head of steam.

"They all matter, but this is a story that really tends to make you mad," he intoned into the camera, inviting his viewers to get outraged along with him.

By that point, 30 minutes into his hour-long show, Sanchez had already prodded his audience with four separate "teases," each time suggesting feckless government officials shrugged off legitimate warnings of an impending earthquake, and were therefore to blame for the hundreds of Italians who were injured or killed in the disaster.

"Now consider this," Sanchez said. "Their lives could have been saved if someone would have listened to a scientist who warned the earthquake was about to happen. Instead, officials there in Italy didn't listen to him. They called him an imbecile."

The scientist in question, Gioacchino Giuliani, works at Italy's National Institute of Physics, and has been monitoring radon gas emissions around seismically active areas, looking for a pattern that would predict when major seismic events are imminent.

Giuliani did in fact predict a major quake would hit central Italy, near L'Aquila, and based on his forecast, warnings were posted advising residents of some central Italian towns to evacuate their homes.

But Italian officials dismissed Giuliani's conclusions as unscientific, accused him of "spreading alarm," and forced him to remove his findings from the Internet.

Then the big one hit.

Giuliani was vindicated.

Or was he?

WWHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?

The question of whether Italian officials erred when they failed to heed Gioacchino Giuliani's warning hinges on the first question all responsible journalists should ask when reporting on scientific matters: "What does the science say?"

Science does not have all the answers. And scientific knowledge changes over time. Often there is not enough evidence to draw a definite conclusion to settle a debate. On some questions though, there is a mountain of evidence, and a consensus about what it shows--or in this case, doesn't show.

And the geophysicists' best data have indicate that earthquakes are not predictable, especially not within a few days or weeks.

For his scientific gut check, CNN's Sanchez turned to his colleague, CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers. "Does radon foretell earthquakes?" he asked.

"It can," Myers said. "It's one of the new ways they're trying to figure out whether any earthquake can be predicted."

Myers' response indicated, at the very least, that monitoring radon gas was a promising new avenue of inquiry, and in this case had proven useful.

In contrast, National Public Radio's program "Science Friday," took a more careful look at the research on the relationship between radon gas and earthquake prediction, and found just the opposite.

The radon method was neither new nor promising.

Host Ira Flatow called on Susan Hough, a geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey, based in Pasadena, California, for a reality check.

As convincing as Giuliani's predictive powers might seem in hindsight, Hough explained, years of study have produced no evidence that radon gas release is a helpful guide to future seismic activity.

"Investigating precursors like radon is a legitimate avenue of research," Hough wrote in a follow-up article in Sunday's New York Times, but until and unless the track record of a method is shown to be statistically significant, making public predictions is irresponsible."

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

It would have been helpful for the CNN audience to know that Giuliani did not correctly predict where the quake would strike. He thought it would hit the town of Sulmona, some 30 miles to the south of L'Aquila, the actual location.

He was also wrong on the date by a week. He predicted the quake would strike March 29, only to see that day come and go with no significant seismic event.

So if officials had heeded his warnings as Sanchez insisted they should have, they would have evacuated the wrong town on the wrong day.

Scientists have recognized for years that some seismic events, such as the release of radon gas and small tremors, often precede an earthquake, but say those events are so common they are not a reliable predictor of major events.

"We do know that some earthquakes, including the L'Aquila event, have foreshocks, but we can't sound alarm bells every time little earthquakes happen because the overwhelming majority--95 percent or so --will not indicate a coming major quake," Hough wrote.

INFORMING OR INFLAMING PUBLIC OPINION

Reuters and the New York Times were among the news organizations quoting scientists who explained why Giuliani's prediction was likely more coincidence than scientific breakthrough.

However, the more appealing narrative of the slighted scientist battling bumbling bureaucrats proved irresistible to CNN's Sanchez and Myers.

Sanchez says the CNN segment "treated the issue fairly," pointing out that a more complete version of the story--including the Italian government's response, was posted on CNN's Web site six hours before his 3:00 p.m. show began.

"I asked questions about whether the volcanologist's predictions were based on sound methodology, as well as whether the Italian government had acted responsibly," Sanchez wrote in an e-mail. "Chad [Myers] responded from an informed perspective and I think that approach gave the viewers very good insight that this particular angle to this story had more than one point of view."

Sanchez denied he was intent on whipping up outrage. "Our job is to inform, not panic or pick sides on issues like this," he wrote.

And Sanchez argues that Myers' explanation provided the appropriate context. "He explains both why the volcanologist's research was intriguing, but also why it has limitations," Sanchez wrote. Myers "offered some guidance as to potential reasons why the Italian government responded as it did."

But, in fact, Myers said nothing in the segment about the limitations of Giuliani's theory, and appeared to conclude the scientist was right in the end. "Lo and behold, there's an earthquake," Myers declared.

"Wow, lesson to be learned," Sanchez said at the end of the segment. "Scientists should be listened to, including you, Chad Myers."

Sanchez is undoubtedly right about that.

Scientists should be listened to.

And consulted.

Especially before airing a story that provokes indignation, rather than providing useful information.

Jamie McIntyre is the former senior pentagon correspondent for CNN. He is now a graduate student at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.