L’Aquila: earthquake, verdict, and statistics
Yesterday I read this blog entry by Peter Coles, a Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Cardiff and soon in Brighton, about L’Aquila earthquake verdict, condemning six Italian scientists to severe jail sentences. While most of the blogs around reacted against this verdict as an anti-scientific decision and as a 21st Century remake of Giordano Bruno‘s murder by the Roman Inquisition, Peter Coles argues in the opposite that the scientists were not scientific enough in that instance. And should have used statistics and probabilistic reasoning. While I did not look into the details of the L’Aquila earthquake judgement and thus have no idea whether or not the scientists were guilty in not signalling the potential for disaster, were an earthquake to occur, I cannot but repost one of Coles’ most relevant paragraphs:
I thought I’d take this opportunity to repeat the reasons I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance, it has to question itself.
Statistical reasoning also applies outside science to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level.
A bit further down, Peter Coles also bemoans the shortcuts and oversimplification of scientific journalism, which reminded me of the time Jean-Michel Marin had to deal with radio journalists about an “impossible” lottery coincidence:
Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.