social science, earthquakes, and the law

L’Aquila, after the 2009 earthquake. Source.

I just had the pleasure of reading Federico Brandmayr’s forthcoming article in Science, Technology, & Human Values on “How Social Scientists Make Causal Claims in Court: Evidence from the L’Aquila Trial.” I highly recommend it. The article examines the testimony of three expert witnesses in a surreal trial about the culpability of scientists for making a bad prediction, and specifically the possibility that the scientists’ claims could have affected the behavior of individuals (to evacuate or not).

The case dates to a deadly 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. Just before the big earthquake, a group of seven scientists met to discuss the possibility that a series of smaller earthquakes (a “seismic swarm”) might indicate a larger earthquake was imminent. Based on their discussions, they determined that it was unlikely that a big earthquake would occur and communicated that belief to officials and the public. Less than a week later, the big one hit, and 309 people died. The seven scientists were charged with manslaughter (!) and convicted, though six had their convictions overturned by a higher court (the seventh was the leader of the advisory group, who made his own public statements, and his conviction was upheld).

Brandmayr’s article focuses on the testimony of a cultural anthropologist (for the prosecution) and a media sociologist and a social/neuro psychologist (for the defense), focusing especially on how they narrate causality and free will in the context of expert communication about risks to a lay public. The anthropologist argued that science has an immense cultural authority, and thus that individuals were constrained to follow the experts’ advice not to worry. The media sociologist, in contrast, argued (drawing on Lazarsfeld’s work!), that individuals rely on friends and family to interpret events, and also that the media’s interpretation was more influential that the scientists’ claims themselves. Finally, the psychologist argued that information from experts influences behavior only when it is coherent, consistent, and long in duration (like 40 years of anti-smoking campaigns), along with the somewhat confusing argument (to someone trained in cultural sociology, anyway) that cultural elements don’t enter into decisionmaking in situations of ambiguity.

Here are some choice quotes. Remember, these are from a trial of seven people for manslaughter. From Ciccozzi, the prosecution’s cultural anthropologist:

In the secularized horizon of the bourgeois West, science is perceived as the last faith and scientists as its ministers. Thus common sense distorts the hypothetical, partial and problematic character of scientific knowledge and turns it into absolute truth (and, more generally, science feigns ignorance of its charisma, hence disavowing the professional duty to produce discourse that demystifies the magical aura conferred on it by social practice. In this way, far from a tool of emancipation, science becomes a device for mass control, revealing its pervasively coercive attitude with a bio- political character).

And from Ciccozzi’s cross-examination:

Defense Attorney: [I]t seems to me that by now, since the ‘50s, ever since Popper more or less, science is something differ- ent, something that each time has to be called into question. [ . . . ]

Ciccozzi: Certainly, but, if I may, you are confusing the level of superior knowledge with the level of common sense. At the level of common sense, science is a form of knowledge that cannot be questioned; at a sophisticated level of thinking, it’s a different matter.

Check out the article for more, including Brandmayr’s analysis of how social scientific invocations of free-will vs. institutional constraint are themselves shaped by their positions in an antagonistic process. But mostly just check it out for the strange feeling of reading cultural anthropology and neuropsychology fight over whether seven scientists are culpable for the deaths of 306 earthquake victims.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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