Italian scientists are convicted of manslaughter for making a Type II error
Posted by Laura McLay on October 24, 2012
Six Italian scientists and a former government official were convicted of manslaugher this week for underestimating the risks of a possible large earthquake associated with weeks of smaller tremors. From the BBC:
Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes. The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.
The scientists were apparently on trial for making a type II error (failing to reject a false null hypothesis, or in this case, failing to “detect” or warn of the coming earthquake) and potentially for poorly communicating this risk to the general public. Earthquake forecasting is an inexact science, and the scientists’ opinions are only as good as the models that they have access to. Forecasting of any kind requires that decision-makers accept a “reasonable” level of risk when making decisions under uncertainty: this includes the acceptance of type I and II errors and the consequences associated with those errors. Now we can debate what “reasonable” means, but let’s agree that a “zero risk” approach is fictitious.
Now, to be sure, there are good and bad ways to communicate risk to the general public (see this excellent article on risk communication for more).
What do you think about this trial and verdict?