It might be time for journalists to think again.
An Italian judge just ruled not only that the people have a legal right to know but that criminal penalties can be imposed when the people don’t. That’s the media message I take from the recent convictions of six Italian seismologists and a government official for failing to keep the people in the loop. More than 300 lives were lost on April 6, 2009, when during the night an earthquake battered the town of L’Aquila, in the foothills of the earthquake-prone Appenine mountains in central Italy. Not for failure to prevent the catastrophe but for failure to inform the public of the possibility it would happen, the defendants were indicted for multiple manslaughter.
The L’Aquila region had been beset by for days by a swarm of small tremors; nerves were even further on edge because a local physics lab technician citing rising radon levels had predicted a major quake would hit a nearby town. Asked by the Italian government to weigh in, the seismologists convened, dismissed the prophetic significance of the radon, and quickly decided among themselves that there was no way of predicting the likelihood of a serious quake. Then they left town. It was up to the local civil defense official who’d run their meeting to tell the press what the scientists had concluded, and this he did flippantly and inaccurately. “The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable,” he said, advising the apprehensive locals to calm down and drink some wine. What the seismologists had actually agreed on was that the danger could not be measured. A week later, a 6.3-level earthquake flattened L’Aquila.
Several pages are devoted to the L’Aquila disaster in The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don't, a new book by Nate Silver, father of Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA algorithm for predicting pennant races and founder and custodian of FiveThirtyEight.com, the heavily bookmarked New York Times political blog. Like scientists around the world, Silver considers the trial “obviously ridiculous” (the book came out too soon to contain his reaction to the convictions) because science has yet to crack the code (if there is a code) that presages earthquakes. But Silver does allow, “It was not quite right to imply that everything was normal and that people should sit down and have a glass of wine.”
David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor whose speciality is risk perception and communication, has pushed this thought a lot further. He blogged that the case was never about the scientists’ failure to predict; it was about their failure to communicate. “Did that poor communication cause those tragic deaths?. . . . ” Ropeik wrote. “Certainly not, as the defense attorneys argued. But did it fail a frightened community looking to the scientific experts for help, for guidance, for whatever insights they could offer . . . a community so scared by the tremors and that lab tech’s prediction that hundreds of people were sleeping outdoors? Yes.”
The scientists “knew full well how frightened people were,” Ropeik continued, “and how important their opinions about the possibility of a major earthquake would be, and how urgently the community wanted . . . needed . . . to hear from them.”
But the community didn’t. Even if the scientists believed they had nothing useful to say to the townsfolk, it turned out to be a criminal mistake to say nothing. The message journalists can take from L’Aquila doesn’t require a lot of teasing out. The people need to know and have a right to know, and a price has just been set for abusing that right: The L’Aquila defendants were each sentenced to six years in prison.
The “noise” in the title of Nate Silver’s book means data—such as a radon reading or a harmless tremor—about which we have a right to wonder, does this signify anything important? A “signal” is a piece of data that actually does. Noise can look highly predictive and yet tell us nothing at all. That swarm of tremors was intriguing, but plenty of swarms dwindle away harmlessly, Silver writes; “the historical record of attempts to predict earthquakes is one of almost complete failure.”
In his book he makes the entertaining observation that prior to the invention of the printing press in 1440, “it required heroic effort to prevent the volume of recorded knowledge from actually decreasing, since the books might decay faster than they could be reproduced.” The printing press changed everything, and as journalists know only too well, the computer seems to have changed everything again.
The press flourished in the era of Gutenberg because noise was now cheap and easy to collect and store, and the press was unrivaled at purveying it. The media were the gatekeepers of incoming noise, and if it was hard to say which noise actually mattered (though pundits back in the op-ed pages did their damnedest to think it all through), so what? Noise was entertaining, exciting, the world brought to our doorsteps, and in time the signals in the noise would become clear. As journalists liked to say, newspapers were the first draft of history, the draft written before anyone had necessarily figured out what mattered.
Today the Internet drowns us in noise. Overwhelmed by sources of noise they can’t hope to compete with, journalists have fallen back to high ground—the proposition that what the public now needs is a cadre of skilled professionals able to sift the wheat from the chaff, that is, to identify the genuine signals in the hullabaloo. Naturally, journalists see themselves as uniquely suited to provide this service, their gate-keeping having shifted from ushering in to screening out.
But the transition is tricky. Imagine if instead of seismologists, L'Aquila had been visited by a committee of six old-fashioned reporters summoned by the government to assess the risk. Journalists are masters of the dark art of finding ominous portents of the future in the past. This committee would have scanned the globe for past disasters in which a series of small quakes did precede a cataclysm. Without saying for certain that anything like that would happen this time—for how would they know?—the committee of journalists would have done what journalists do so well: they would have viewed with concern.
And strangely enough, this seems to be exactly what L’Aquila, in retrospect, wishes the seismologists had done. If L'Aquila had been told the outlook was unreadable but there was no reason not to be a little worried about it, a lot of townspeople would have kept their mats outside a few nights longer and many lives would have been saved.
Journalists can collate old news clips and view with concern in their sleep. The problem is that today’s laity can now do all that for itself. So journalists claim to be capable of much more. And whenever someone claims expertise, the people expect accomplishment and accountability. When the people suffer, and they think it’s because of a failure of communication, there’s now a precedent for the radical notion of making the communicators pay.
Libel used to be journalists’ bugaboo. Tomorrow it could be malpractice.