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Turning Scientists into Sybils

The full article was published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 25, 2012

Danger is ubiquitous but accurate and timely warnings of it are relatively rare; proper risk assessment is one of the great policy challenges of our time. A decision this week by an Italian court to sentence six scientists and a government official to prison for failing to predict an earthquake in the town of L’Aquila in 2009 will make it even more challenging than before.

Years ago, I lived in Italy on the bank of Lago d’Averno, just north of Naples. Described by the poet Virgil as the entrance to Hell, the lake is close to the tunnels of Cumae, where in ancient times the Sybil used to utter carefully vague prophecies. The whole area is part of a super-volcano known as the Campi Flegrei, the Fields of Fire. When the wind blew in the right direction, I could smell the sulphuric fumes of the nearby Solfatara volcano, while about 500 yards from my house was Monte Nuovo, the New Mountain which abruptly popped out of the ground in an eight-day eruption in 1538. One never knew when another event might occur.

The local authorities insisted that they had a plan to evacuate everybody before such a disaster happened, or in the even worse case that Vesuvius, looming over the city, decided once again to blow its top. This plan relied on advance warning from scientists of an eruption. A quick glance at the local road network and the densely packed housing surrounding all the volcanic craters of the Campi Flegrei suggested, however, that in practice the plan was unlikely to work well. The whole area seemed to have been developed without much thought of the danger. The prevailing attitude to the risk of disaster seemed remarkably blasé….

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