The impact of the communication of earthquake location: are we seismologists aware ?

The seismic crisis in the Central Apennines in Italy does not stop. Although the number of earthquakes per day decreased a lot since January 18, however many seismic events still struck the “crater”. This name, used by the press for the area of the Central Apennines where the seismic events occur  since last summer, gives a good feeling about how tough is life in those areas.

Recently the web and italian newspapers hosted a debate about the information used to list the earthquakes’s foci. In fact some mayors complained about a possibly distorted use by the media of the data provided by the seismological agencies. As known, for every seismic location  several information are available (coordinates, depth, magnitude, closest cities, shake maps when available, amplitudes and so on), but they are often reduced to very basic by journalists. The position of the earthquake is often simply described by the name of the closest town to the epicenter, its province or even the region. According to the mayors of some of the towns inside the crater, this simplification has a very negative impact on the public and especially on the potential tourists.

As expected, people are not willing to spend time in places where the chance to be shaken by an earthquake is high. Disseminating very generic information, the mayors say, causes tourists to believe that the whole region is at danger, and they will not book their vacations in these areas.

It is questionnable whether a region that has experienced a strong earthquake might stand the burden of an increased flow of tourists. For example, the driveability may suffer from the increased traffic jam, and in turn this may interfere with the reconstruction. But it is also clear that flagging out a region from touristic routes now will mean to work hard to get back tourists in future. Thus, since only a part of the regions (there are in fact four regions interested Umbria-Lazio-Abruzzo-Marche) have been damaged by the earthquakes, the message should be more precise in showing where tourists may have problem in finding hotels, open roads, restaurants and so on and which areas are not recommended .

From the point of view of a seismologist, this piece of news makes evident the necessity of a stronger cooperation between scientists, press and public. And it should make us meditate on the impact that the information we provide may have on the community.

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Science is not democratic

Dr. Roberto Burioni, virologist at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milano, Italy, takes care of a Facebook page where he comments on vaccines with the aim to discourage false information on the topic. In the last years a strong movement against vaccination is acting in Europe based on the convinction that the cons are less than the pros and that vaccination can cause serious diseases; the debate on the two positions is rising up.

Dr. Burioni describes on  the  popular social network his point of view based on a 35 years experience and especially on the scientific findings that are behind. Recently his page was overwhelmed by thousands of comments (not always kind) mainly aiming at defending the position of those who are against vaccination; these comments are often not scientific and do not take into account medical aspects but are based on personal opinions or false information. Roberto Burioni therefore decided to cancel most of these comments  and justified by stating that “the page is not a place meant for non-expert to discuss  with experts; there is no”civilized debate” to discuss with me…..Here only people who have studied can express opinions: science is not democratic“.

Of course this action was very controversial, and Burioni’s position gave rise to a heated debate that spread over the internet eventually finding spots on many national and international italian newspapers.

There are many aspects that are worth to be discussed. Science is not opinion or a personal preference for a single interpretation. A researcher has to show the exactness of any hypothesis by using scientific methods and results, and a similar behaviour should be taken by the opponent. In this vision, the debate can take place only among experts, as envisaged by Burioni. However this is very restricitve because most of the products of Science are turned into applications, cures, facilities used in everyday life, therefore the communication must be addressed to the society too.

But this may be an issue in terms of communication: the language should not be too technical to be understood by a public of non-expert, and is even more difficult to convey the message when other more appealing or convincing (even if uncorrect or fake) hypotheses or ideas are around. The issues in our field (Seismology or more in general Geophysics) are very similar: translating to public is an additional effort to which we may not be ready yet.

Coming back to Burioni, scientists are not obliged or due to disseminate their results to the public, but if they decide to do so they should avoid “selection” of the interlocutor. Which means in turn to deal with nonsense criticisms or personal opinions. The solution is always to get credit before communicating, in order to have an audience that trusts in what the scientist declares since it trusts in the person. Certainly banning comments does not go in that direction.