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INGV head ponders keeping seismic data secret 15 September 2010

Posted by admin in Italy, natural hazards.

Dr Enzo Boschi, director of the Italian Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, when not thinking aloud about Marsili seamount erupting and unleashing a tsunami on Southern Italy (‘it could happen tomorrow’), is concerned that the easy availability of scientific data in the non-specialist public arena is causing unnecessary fear and alarm. Perhaps, for example, the seismic data collected by the INGV should not be published? The media, says Boschi, distort the data and act as scaremongers, spreading panic and feeding the ‘prophets of doom’.

Apparently Boschi may just have been joking about halting the publication of data. But he will certainly have had his reasons for floating the idea.

IMPORTANT NOTE: please take the time to read an invaluable comment on this issue (also cross-posted to this thread at Eruptions) from Boris Behncke of the INGV.

UPDATE. Interesting sidelights on the Chinese approach to earthquake science in this article in New Humanist magazine: ‘An official from China’s national earthquake administration spoke positively on the programme about parrots that can predict tremblors and the paranormal abilities of a man who claimed he heard ringing in his ears before the April earthquake in Yushu, northwest China’. Following the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which killed around 240,000 people, ‘Officials were singled out for having ignored purported natural indicators of disaster: these apparently included the migration of yellow weasels and unusually large catches of fish’. Italian seismologists have their problems, but things could be worse.

Italians consider hiding seismic data to reduce public ‘melodrama’ – ScienceInsider, 14 September 2010

The Volcanism Blog


1. Mr.Moho - 15 September 2010

INGV already keep most seismic data secret to the public (especially waveform data from seismic stations). This time they’re actually referring to the earthquake locations (!).

2. Chris Rowan - 15 September 2010

This is daft. Keeping the data out of the public domain will not stop the ‘prophets of doom’; indeed, they will probably use the ‘cover-up’ to their advantage (‘what the INGV won’t tell you!’).

What the INGV need to do instead is be much more pro-active in explaining what the data actually mean, being especially careful to emphasise the divergence between the scientific and popular understanding of phrases like ‘imminent’ and ‘soon’.

3. Gijs de Reijke - 15 September 2010

It’s easy to misinterpret seismic data. Two interesting examples can be found on Eruptions Blog, where during the earthquake swarm at Yellowstone last year ‘laypeople’ were getting worried about an imminent eruption. Same thing for Eyjafjallajökull and Katla, where the activity at Eyjafjallajökull caused people to think that every little earthquake at Katla will cause an enormous eruption. They lead to semi public discussions, but if they would’ve happened on a truly large scale…

Maybe Boris Behncke has something to say on the matter, too :)

4. admin - 15 September 2010

Mr. Moho: Blimey, I didn’t realize that.

Chris: Agree completely. A lack of data never stops the apocalypse nuts and doom prophets doing their thing – becomes self-justifying, in fact. When a seismometer at Yellowstone breaks down it’s never just a breakdown – there’s something happening that THEY don’t want us to know.

Gijs: You’re right, and of course people see what they want to see. If they start from the assumption that Katla (or Yellowstone, or Toba, or whatever) is trembling on the brink of catastrophe then every bit of evidence is viewed from that perspective. ‘Eruptions’ threads do feature this kind of thing, but fortunately there is enough real expertise and information there (along with simple common sense) to counter-balance it. And yes, I’m hoping Boris will be tempted to add a word or two about what his boss has been saying!

5. Henrik - 15 September 2010

At present, Eruptions is the only place which offers the layman a tutored “crash course” in vulcanology. What tends to happen is that (some) people, who are “volcanic freshmen” and whose knowledge may be limited to a) volcanic eruptions are preceeded by earthquakes, and b) have learnt from ill-formulated articles by professionals that Eyjafjallajökull and Katla are “twin volcanoes” and “an eruption of Eyjafjall is followed within months by Katla”, naturally get excited when they see a few earthquakes plotted in or close to the Katla caldera on the IMO map. With time, as knowledge and experience grows, interpretations do get better. A year ago, I knew next to nothing, but what I learnt through Eruptions, from professionals as well as laymen, allowed me to present a balanced view to many people (family, friends, colleagues at work) who only had access to newspaper and TV reports when Lady E put on her show. Keep the information available, but remember that information without interpretation will result in misinterpretation and subsequent misrepresentation!
(As far as I recall, Eruptions has had only one scare-mongerer who refused to learn, was unable to find an admiring audience and, thankfully, removed himself.)

6. parclair - 16 September 2010

The ideas of the INGV (I really blame the elected politicians who “don’t want no stinkin’ problems) are crazier than the fear-mongerers. Open data and open discussion are way better for both civilians and governments. Keep the data secret, and the voters will ask “why weren’t we warned”.

7. admin - 16 September 2010

Henrik, I hope it didn’t seem, when I picked up on Gijs’s point, that I was having a go at Eruptions. As a lay person myself (unlike Dr Klemetti, I am not a scientist or in any way professionally involved in volcanology) I agree with you, both about the specific value of the discussions at Eruptions and with your more general point about the importance of such well-informed debate. Eruptions is an *antidote* to sensationalism and scaremongering. There are plenty of places feeding the latter on the web – Eruptions isn’t one of them. That’s the achievement of Erik and of those who take part in the discussions there.

Parclair: open data and open discussion are indeed the ideal to aim for in all things. As you imply, politicians don’t always seem that keen, though.

8. Boris Behncke, Catania, Italy - 16 September 2010

hmmm … that’s a delicate issue we have here. I will try to make it as clear as possible, and I fear this will be a long comment. I will post this simultaneously at the Eruptions blog.

(1) I think that open communication with the public – especially those people who are directly concerned, and that’s those who live in areas at risk from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes – must be given the highest priority, as soon as there is something to communicate. Obviously, in such areas there is plenty to communicate, and in some countries, like the U.S., a fine job is made of it, whereas other countries are still struggling to live up to the demands. One is certainly Italy. The problem here is that there are decades of negligence to recover, and the task is enormous. Entire generations have grown up in the shades of Italy’s potentially dangerous volcanoes and all they learned about them was the local folklore and what garbled information came across the news media. A vast number of (mostly false) notions and beliefs are now profoundly anchored in many of the people, which I have personally made the experience on numerous occasions, is extremely difficult to substitute with correct facts.
Since a few years, there is a growing effort to go out and speak directly to the concerned people, at schools, at meetings organized by a variety of local organizations, and via the local news media. Our institute (in this case I specifically talk about our seat in Catania) is open to visits by the public and offers guided visits to groups of school kids at determined intervals, which many of us feel are still far too limited. Not everybody in our administrations is convinced such efforts are really necessary, so there is also some opposition to be met within our institute. But my experience (and that of many of my colleagues) is that such visits do leave a deep impression on the kids, especially the control room where you can see all the instrumental data come in in real time.

(2) I do, however, understand very well the frustrations voiced by our Big Boss Enzo Boschi. And here it is necessary that all of you understand that there is a fundamental difference between being folks like you bloggers and lurkers here, who have a vivid interest in things volcanic and seismic and beyond, and those who are specifically trained in these things, and who are paid to (a) take a bunch of public responsibilities and (b) sometimes risk their lives to obtain the information that should, in the end, be used to protect an outrageously huge number of people and their property, plus a similarly vast value of public property, plus the value of innumerable enterprises. This difference is anything but trivial.
While you can comfortably lean back in your seats before your computers and muse about the sense of all that comes along these blogs and whatever media handling the information, and loudly voice your impressions, your concerns, your fears, even your forecasts or predictions, none of you will ever be subject to legal issues unless somebody pretends to be formally authorized to declaring that there is a danger or not and that action needs to be taken or not. Such a case occurred during one of the recent seismic crises at Yellowstone, where some dude faked being an USGS employee and publicly declared that Yellowstone was about to produce a cataclysm and evacuations were imperative.
For many years I have been in nearly the same position as you bloggers and lurkers, while doing my Ph.D. at the University of Catania, and not being part of who is formally charged with monitoring the Sicilian volcanoes and earthquakes (that is, the INGV, or formerly the “Istituto Internazionale di Vulcanologia” and for a short time, a structure called “Poseidon”). I was free to venture around on Etna and happily shared all the information I thus obtained with a worldwide public. In certain moments I also dared making some sort of forecasts about what was going to happen next on Etna, and in many cases I was right, whereas in others I f***ed up royally. I gradually learned how immensely complicated volcanic systems are (and let’s not speak about structures producing earthquakes) and how difficult it is at times to make sense of the signals that a volcano sends out. Now, fifteen years later, I sometimes believe that the single one thing that I understand perfectly is that I don’t understand very much.
Since a number of years I am part of an organism – the INGV – that is funded by the Italian Government (quite meagerly and with a sharp reduction recently), and, more significantly, by Civil Defense. This institute is in the first place funded to deliver all the necessary information to Civil Defense, the authority responsible for all logistical planning and action in case of whatever type of emergency. So it is to them that the data goes first (and it goes there after being already delayed and filtered, because glitches such as instrumental errors need to be discovered and smoothed out and explained before they can be misinterpreted by Civil Defense staff who are not exactly experts in volcanology or seismology). The way in which the public should be informed is much discussed, and not only here and not only in this time; this issue has been on the agenda since a few decades in volcanological circles, and there is a vast literature existing on it, which – unfortunately – is once more not easy to access by the general public. I should somehow make some of these publications available, because it’s there where the story is told.

(3) The Italian public – here I mean the people but also their elected leaders, regardless what one may think of them – is, as some of you may have perceived, a curious affair. One peculiar aspect is that whatever grips the attention of the public, creates a people of experts in all matters, be this soccer, be this medicine, be this seismology and volcanology. A crucial point was the April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, which killed 300 people – in the opinion of virtually everybody, these were unnecessary victims that could have been avoided. Opinions were split about whether these 300 deaths were due to a lack of a correct prediction of the earthquake, or to the insufficient standards of the buildings whose collapse caused the fatalities. The days following the earthquake were days of extreme tension, and I got my share of this when discussing with people on Facebook. There, I would encounter enraged housewives and employees of banks, tour operators and medical doctors, just every other normal person, and some were convinced that they fully understood what had gone wrong – the scientists. The scientists who have been trained and who are being paid to help reduce the impact of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, foremost the INGV staff. They also perfectly knew who was right – some technician who publicly declared to have found the magic pill, a radon monitoring system capable of giving clear hints of an imminent earthquake. Of all countries in the world, Italy would have produced that little, underrated genius who held the key to liberating humanity from one of its most feared plagues – earthquakes.
There is international consensus that earthquakes cannot, for the moment, be predicted with certainty. There is also the question to be raised about how useful predictions would effectively be. In my opinion the hope that dreadful events can be reasonably well predicted bears a number of problems, foremost what I call the “magic pill” concept. Live and let live, don’t bother about things because when the s**t hits the fan the Doctors will be there to tell you in time to get out of the way. It is anti-educational, it is against the necessity of people taking at least some responsibility for their lives and for their safety; in the end it’s some sort of letting everybody be comfortably numb and, behind the scenes, placing their lives and all that is theirs at stake. Honestly speaking, such a concept makes me feel very uncomfortable.
To come back to the INGV affair, you may have heard that some of its administrators, including Boschi, plus the heads of the Italian Civil Defense, are currently legally accused of having failed to predict the L’Aquila earthquake. The principal problem is much this particular case itself rather than the fact that, indeed, we who are getting paid to do our jobs, are formally and legally responsible for whatever is being voiced by anyone of us. So, when it comes down to predictions and forecasts, things have to be handled with extreme diplomacy, and it represents a considerable effort, in terms of time and intellect, but also often physical and economic, to meet this demand. Time and other resources are most wanting in times of crisis, in other words – there is a high level of stress which does not exactly helps decision-making and producing correct, meaningful statements to a public which, essentially, has no idea what this all is about. It is necessary to simplify information without falsifying it, and not everybody is a genius in doing this. Consider, then, that information that leaves our institute is consumed by most people still via the news media and thus risks to be fundamentally garbled before reaching the audience; many Internet forums do certainly not help to make things clearer, because that’s where you will find a number of self-declared experts who mostly suffer from a protagonism complex. In Italy, this problem is particularly conspicuous; this is a people caught in the rift between outdated catholic notions and a modern, multimedia world giving them access to virtually everything, and in particularly things sexually transgressive. Superstition is widely distributed, especially in the south of Italy, which also hosts most of the dangerous volcanoes and contains the areas of highest seismic risk.
Certainly not all who have the means to express themselves publicly in this country are as educated and disciplined, and willing to learn and understand, as you are here. The aim is not discussion but declaring of “truths” and of others being wrong.

(4) Finally, I am not convinced that making all instrumental data publicly available does necessarily help to prevent disasters (referring to parclair’s comment #6 in the Volcanism blog entry) – keeping the data secret does absolutely not mean that someone here does not want to warn the public. What it does is help educated people get some idea of what is happening – like, looking at seismic signals from a determined volcano you may understand when it’s worth looking up the web cams of the same volcano. But believe me folks, to really understand what’s going on within a volcano you need far more information than just some seismograms or tremor diagrams. Volcanic tremor is not worth much unless you also get the digital spectral data, and then every volcano produces its own specific signals which may or may not resemble those of some other volcanoes. Those of you who have gotten insights into the interpretation of the seismic data of Eyjafjallajökull would be surprised of how little they have in common (in terms of their meanings) with those of Etna.
Consider also that until, say, 10 years ago, none of you would have found any whatsoever real-time on-line seismic information and only a few working volcano web cams, of which the single one looking at Etna was actually also one of the first globally. How would you have fared? I grew interested in volcanoes as a kid during the Heimaey (Iceland) eruption in 1973, and would write my first ever e-mail twenty years later and have internet still one year later. Pinatubo happened still before my first ever e-mail, without public access to all sorts of complex instrumental data, and still, tens of thousands of people were saved. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that having access to nearly all information on-line does make us something like more intelligent, more sapient, more capable of handling critical issues. It simply allows us to exchange more information (which in itself is absolutely important even though I’d say a vast majority of the information that comes across Internet in general is crap), and, in the specific case of us volcano freaks, have much more fun and much more to phantasize about. Let us keep it there, let us avoid being like those Italians that become experts in whatever matter happens to be the talk of the day. Let us enjoy that we do have these means of feeding our desires of everything volcanic (except maybe the real thing, for those of you who do not live near a volcano) and related subjects.
A final advice is that everybody here should refrain from voicing formal-sounding declarations maybe using numerical units such as hazard levels – in many countries with volcanoes there are formally defined hazard levels used in communications from the scientists charged with monitoring, and at least in a few places enormous effort has been made to train the public to understand these hazard and warning levels. It cannot do any good if the public receives contrasting statements, this is well documented (remember the Soufrière, Guadeloupe, crisis of 1976-1977 and Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia, disaster of 1985).
Last but not least, I should say again that I am personally 100 per cent favorable regarding openness and making our observations and data available to the public. Certainly this must be flanked by thorough explanation of what is rendered public. Excuse those of us who simply do not always have the time and other resources to do that work, which is an immense effort, and which receives little of the attention by administrators and politicians that it deserves. As long as there is no fully-fledged, coordinated and well funded manoeuvre in order to do this work as it should be done, I fear there will be problems like those that are often the subject of our discussions on these extremely valuable and precious blogs.

9. Henrik - 16 September 2010

The basic problem then is one of education where government and schools today have little or no interest in providing an adequate general science education for everyone and Jane & Joe Public are even less interested in acquiring one. Therefore, the people who of their own volition are willing to learn “extra curriculum” should be a priority of scientists. Keeping all data and their interpretation from the public may protect scientists from being the victims of witch hunts in the short term, but in the long run, it’s counter-productive as scientists will not be able to communicate their findings to anyone outside the science in question and Giovanni & Gina Publico will regard them as being worse than (Italian) Freemasons are in the eye of the Pope. Where then Science?

Dr Harrington, no. I rather saw it as an opportunity to break down already open doors. ;)

10. admin - 16 September 2010

Boris: a big thank you – I hope everyone reads what you say and ponders it. You illuminate the dilemmas faced by professionals in your field – which are ulimately life and death matters – very clearly. I’ll link to your comment from the post.

Henrik: I understand, no worries!

11. Boris Behncke, Catania, Italy - 16 September 2010

@Henrik #9, there are several factors in this play, obviously one is the line pursued by administrators – the government and the schools supported by them, from elementary school to university level. You may have heard of the government we have here in Italy and then you are probably aware that it’s rather in favor of “panem et circensem” rather than having a bright, awake, educated population. This is obviously not of any great help for those who rely on support in the education sector – that is, us at the INGV. As much as many of us would like to work much more extensively in the public outreach section, our main job is to keep an eye on these volcanoes and on the seismic activity in this country, we’re chronically underfunded and are facing serious budget cuts this year, so that’s not exactly helpful either. Still, some of us are volunteering and passing extra hours to do the little educational work we’re able to do, and my contributions here on the Volcanism and Eruptions blogs are one attempt to do so.

I do strongly promote that the public be kept as informed as much as possible but this is not obtained by simply posting raw instrumental data, for which the only experts – except for a few – are inside the institution that produces the data. As long as there is little chance that the data will be immediately commented and explained by the scientists, I guess one solution could be to introduce some codes for the way the data are handled by whoever cites them, including people here on the blog and the likes. A code means, discussing the data, expressing opinions, making questions, is absolutely fine, if not obligatory. But going out using the data to pronounce anything sounding like a forecast or a prediction based on the data produced by a determined institution should be viewed with enormous caution – just because, as I mentioned in my previous remarks, the data that are accessible to the public still represent a very minor and incomplete fraction of the data that are being produced and the analysis of which is not accomplished by taking a brief look at how high and at what frequency certain spikes appear in a seismogram.

Let me say this, too – I agree that those who are eager to learn should have access to as much information as possible, even though you should understand why this is not given full priority: after all it’s not the interested laypeople who are responsible for handling volcanic and seismic emergencies. And I would say that at least as much outreach should go to those people who are immediately concerned – in the case of areas threatened by volcanic eruption that’s more than half a billion people worldwide. These should be the first to know what something they can see on the internet means, at least in its rough outlines! Why, oh why are so few of those people who are immediately concerned among the passionately interested laypeople?

I strongly hope that it will be the policy of our institute, at least as far as our Catania section is concerned, where I do have a certain role in the information output, to include some explanations of what can be seen in the instrumental data – like certain signatures in the seismograms. They did such a job for the Mount St Helens web cam, showing different sample images – like the volcano in the fog, or an insect sitting on the camera lens – and what they meant. This, I guess, will have to be done here as soon as possible, and if you never see it happen it’s because either someone (not me) doesn’t want it or we have too many other things to do. In any case whenever something interesting happens at Etna, be sure that I’ll let everybody know.

12. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

Yippee, line breaks! I think I’ll stay here ;-)

here’s my initial response to Boris that I posted at Eruptions:

Boris , a great post and I agree with most of it unreservedly, but, with all due respect, there is a bit of a contradiction in your reasoning.
On the one hand you obviously support public outreach, as evidenced by the amount of time you have invested in this blog putting us amateurs right and pointing us in the direction of the right scientific papers and so on. You obviously also fully support the (public) discussions and theorizing of rank amateurs that goes on here for the same reason. It is all part and parcel of improving public understanding of geosciences.
Yet at the same time you seem to worry that the “quasi” professional nature of some of the contributions here will be taken as gospel by the wider public which could lead to really damaging results. While this is a distinct possibility, I am not sure that you can have one without the other. I mean, is the onus on me to wear a badge around my neck that tells everyone I am a rank amateur and have no professional standing whatsoever or is it on the journalists or whoever reads this blog to take everything here with a good sized grain of salt? Personally, I am much in favour of the latter. The converse is just censorship by another name. (FWIW, I think the same about the engineer who “predicted” the Aquila quake – it’s not his fault the public gave him so much credence, it’s the public’s fault and lack of general education that is the issue here, not the existence of some isolated crackpot).

Secondly, the world is indeed changing because of the internet. Knowledge is getting disseminated to a degree that was previously totally unconceivable. At the same time the quality of it is getting diluted by a combination of noise, chit-chat, ignorance, grandstanding and a variety of other baser human qualities. Nothing new here and it is true in every avenue of human culture, not just in geosciences. We are getting simultaneously more educated individually yet lowering the level of public discourse at the same time. I don’t have any easy answers to that either except to continue open discussion on forums like this where rank amateurs like me get put right by more knowledgeable experts hopefully to everyone’s edification.

In fact I am being too bleak about this. Actually, I feel very optimistic that these geoblogs can make a huge contribution to the general public’s understanding of geosciences in a way that was previously unheard of. I mean where else can a bonzo like me ask a world expert some questions, get taken seriously and even given a response that I can do something with? That is a huge enrichment. I think the response to Erik’s blog coverage of Eyjafjallajökull is another good case in point.
Moreover, I am pretty confident that the wider public is internet-savvy enough to know the difference between wild theories on an internet blog and an official release from a publicly-funded research body with all the resources at its disposal. Perhaps you’ve just spent too long in Italy. (wish I could say that!)

/ just my 2c. I think I know where you are coming from and sympathize.

13. admin - 16 September 2010

Bruce: I think you make a very important point about the new accessibility of expertise which the web has brought. Among other things, it makes it possible for a layperson to run this very blog. Erik’s Eruptions blog is a model of how well bringing academic experts and the interested public together can work. The risks, and the problematic issues of authority and responsibility, some of which Boris has pointed out, are very real, but they must be balanced with the benefits. And yes, here at the Volcanism Blog we can offer our commenters line breaks!

14. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

I love line breaks!!

15. parclair, rank amateur, media ignore me - 16 September 2010

Boris, I hope you understand that I was talking to the politicians, not INGV. I’m sorry if I offended you. I truly understand the pressures that you are under. I’ve written funding proposals for projects where the funds were cut by more than half before the project ever got out of my organization (without any reduction in project scope).

Having worked in government in the US, I understand the mechanisms of politics. Italy isn’t the only country that has pols who prefer bread and circuses to real education.

Nor is Italy the only country who have a majority of people who believe in superstition over facts. (We’ve a whooping cough epidemic in CA because parents believe that the vaccination causes autism, even tho’ no facts support this belief)

I’m fully in favor of full disclosure on the part of governments in the area of data and information (and analysis of disasters), if for no other reason than to make certain that the populace understands more completely that in an emergency, they will have to rely on each other, and not the government.

There is another question in here. How can the uninformed get accurate and reliable information? How can we know what information is valid and what is not? If primary data is kept from us, and the government’s attitude is “it’s easier to apologize afterwards” (ref Katrina) how can we prepare to take care of ourselves and our neighbors? What if the potential path of hurricanes (cyclones, typhoons) were never published, because it might upset the masses? Not to mention getting the warnings too late to move out.

One of my motivations for finally studying geology now that I’ve the time is that I can be affected by 4 (possibly 5) volcanos in my vicinity. I avidly watch and learn from the discussions on this, and other blogs to learn how to read and interpret the data coming from these volcanos. Mainly, so that I can give a low-key heads up to my neighbors and friends. (Believe me, at this point I feel no where near competent to do this).

But, I’m studying it with the internet and with the references suggested by the folks I’ve learned to trust as informed and expert. If govt agencies stop publishing data, I can’t learn. If a kid in Catania wants to learn about her volcano, how else can she learn?

Sorry to sound like a rant, but I’m passionate about the free and open exchange of information. I feel it can only enlighten the world.

16. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

PS I guess in retrospect I am not too sure what the real issue here is. Is it:
1) the role of professional bodies in public life and their duties to publish (or not) / advise (or not) the public and/or government, or
2) the role of blogs like this one per se, or
3) the conflict between blogs like this with the work of public advisory bodies like INGV?

Is there even a conflict? If so, why and in what regard?

As a case in point, from my (uneducated) perspective I think the Icelandic authorities did a really good job of handling Eyjaf. They issued relatively sparse but well-reasoned public statements. They were obviously really on the ball (as can be seen by their response to the crater eruption) yet they made (also via IMO) a wealth of information available for those with more than a casual interest to delve into and interprete at their own risk.

Isn’t the real problem really just one of public perception /expectations?

(And Ralph, for a layman you do a damn fine job!!)

17. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

@parclair, rank amateur :lol: t-shirts !! we need t-shirts! We’ll start a club.

18. Boris Behncke, Catania, Italy - 16 September 2010

@Parclair, I fully agree with you as far as the free and open information exchange is concerned. As a matter of fact, in my above contribution I did not mean to justify any idea of keeping data secret, but to explain it. I do understand that sometimes someone can lose your patience with people and media insisting on twisting things and turning words in your mouth and so on and so on. Yet I believe that we must never give up insisting on our findings and our truths and never quit trying to explain. However, Boschi has been in the business for many decades and I feel there’s a point of getting really fed up.

However, after all, I don’t think that INGV will keep any more data secret than at present. And in any case, the aim remains to protect the public, not to deceive it, data on the internet or not. The L’Aquila experience has been a tough lesson, although the principle message remains the same as it was before the disaster: Not earthquakes kill people, but (poorly constructed) buildings do. So whatever public outreach is being done, it does not prevent the authorities – and in the end, also the end user who elects his authorities – from being responsible for the application of building codes and land use planning in order to reduce the effects of potentially disastrous geological events.

19. Raving - 16 September 2010

@Boris Behncke … “Not earthquakes kill people, but (poorly constructed) buildings do” …

The 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch NZ was a real eye opener. I was astonished by the casual Kiwi response to what must surely have been a major catastrophe. When I saw that mag 7+ quakes were a regular historic occurrence, I appreciated the causal attitude to the event.

Later the big surprise is what was obvious after the fact. Not many people were injured but the damage was massive and truly catastrophic.

As evident by New Zealand, it is very possible to reduce fatalities and injury. Perhaps it is not so easy to prevent the massive structural destruction which accompanies it.

20. Gijs de Reijke - 16 September 2010

Me want! Where get? Oh! And we can immediately do the ‘correlation/causation’ shirts too ;-) .

Anyway! Nothing to discuss after Boris’ statement, for as far I’m concerned ^_^ . Because of my geographical background, I like to see myself as a little bit more than an ‘interested layperson’, although my passion has never lead me to the ‘real deal’: studying to become a geologist/volcanologist. Or at least not until now. I’m currently doing Teacher Education, which does open doors to having to deal with volcanoes a lot during the rest of my professional life. One of my dreams is to run a succesful company that organises field work for students, high school pupils and, ofcourse, ‘interested laypeople’. This field work should focus on the volcanism of the Eifel region. Maybe I’ll start my own educational centre! Who knows… Whatever it’s going to be, I’d like to do something with the so much needed education of the public. In the case of Boris and other volcanologists, that usually means telling people who live in the vicinity of potentially dangerous volcanoes what to do in the case of a volcanic crisis. But I also agree that topics like natural hazards in general should be getting more attention in schools. Even, and maybe especially, here in the Netherlands, where everyone seems to think he/she’s perfectly safe from nature’s harm because we’ve built some big dikes and dams to keep the North Sea where, in ‘our opinion’, it should be.

Such education will have to be focused on what is relevant for pupils/students/interested laypeople to know, so in most cases about topics that concern their every day life. As we’ve discussed on Eruptions Blog on several occasions, concerning different topics, it’s awareness that’s the most important thing. To let people start thinking about earthquakes, about volcanoes, about all different kinds of damaging weather phenomena. Even diseases! Not to let them feel fear, but to get to a situation where people will not be surprised so easily anymore by natural threats, and also to avoid the inherent ‘blame game’.

Thanks for all the comments here, people! Especially Boris. And ofcourse thanks to Dr. Harrington, for bringing this very important topic to our attention! Especially during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and after(?) that the ridiculous prosecution of people of INGV, I felt it was important to have it brought to attention.

21. Henrik - 16 September 2010

Indeed it is an important topic! However, there’s nothing new about the situation Director Boschi finds himself and the institution he heads in. Throughout human history, people have wanted to “get on with their lives” and woe betide the ruler (or shaman if the ruler was more cunning) who failed to appease the Gods! It does not matter what the true facts are – because offerings had been made (ie. funding), it was the sacred duty of the High Priest (Dir Boschi & the INGV) to make certain the Gods were appeased. Since L’Aquila happened anyway, the INGV has failed in its duties and must thus be sacrificed to appease the angry Gods. Primitive, yes, but then civilisation is but thin veneer hiding the savage underneath from direct view.

Ancient shamen did have one advantage though – they could always explain such disasters away as due to the “sinful actions of an ungodly people” or “the people not having been generous enough in their sacrifices”. Unfortunately for Director Boschi and the INGV, science and modern education have denied them this recourse.

Should we then give it up as a bad job? Never! Joshua must warn the people even if scorned. Even if only one in a hundred thousand might listen, the Noahs of this world deserve fair warning in the hope that they in turn will save many more.

22. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

Great! so we have consensus.

•We all want public availability of data.
•We all want to avoid the media grabbing anything we say and misconstruing it for their own purposes
•We all want to wear t-shirts. Possible captions:

rank amateur, media ignore me (my personal fave)
correlation is not causation
volcanology is a wok in process (a very hot one)
my name is noah, please warn me in advance
Don’t build in brick stoopid
f(bed) > f(pf in your lifetime)
where f(1) is terminal
Hey, I’m not Noah! What’s the soccer score?

23. Gijs de Reijke - 16 September 2010

– ‘I survived a night in a caldera’
– A ‘falling rocks’ road sign, with someone being hit by such a rock on the front side of the shirt, and below that or on the back ‘tuff luck’

24. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

ha, what about
Me speak Eyjafjallajökull.

25. Gijs de Reijke - 16 September 2010

Yeah, on the front side ^_^ . On the back side ‘Tindfjallajökull’ ;-)

26. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

kick em jenny


27. Henrik - 16 September 2010

Bruce, thanks for the reality check! Like the ideas for tees as well (yours and Gijs’). May I add a couple to the collection?

“Vesuvio? That’s the one with tomato, cheese and ham, right?”
“I like science. What’s the sentence?”

28. Gijs de Reijke - 16 September 2010
29. bruce stout - 16 September 2010

Hi Henrik,

yeah, I don’t want to trivialize the issue either.. it is important and I realize how professionals like Boris are kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I don’t envy them that.. then again that get to do this for a living so maybe I do envy them… !!

seriously, I think the biggest source of friction lies in public ignorance. The more we can work on that, whatever way we can, the better. Media soundbites are all well and good but they just don’t lend themselves well to geoscience which is riddled by vagaries and uncertainties.

On the up side, I think there is a huge amount of latent interest in geosciences in the general population. We just need to tap into it and then hopefully Boris and his colleagues will get the audience (and funding) they deserve.

30. Chris, Reykjavik - 16 September 2010

@Bruce, #24: T-Shirts with the phonetic spelling of Eyjafjallajökull are already available at icelandic gift stores.

31. Henrik - 16 September 2010

Bruce, my grandfather, who lived to the ripe old age of 94, used to say “You can improve a human but not humanity”. Throw in a few observations from people such as C Northcote Parkinson and Jerry Pournelle – “dim men elect dim men”, “people invaribly get promoted to their level of incompetence” and “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely”.

Now, with this as a backdrop, please contemplate the implications of the Bell Curve which results when you plot “intelligence” on the x-axis and number of individuals on the y-axis. Mission Impossible, yes?

32. parclair, rank amateur, media ignore me - 17 September 2010

Well, after watching disasters for many years, I find the bell curve holds true: in any event, 30 percent of the population will be incapable of caring for themselves. The question then becomes, do the rest of us have an obligation to care for them? (My answer is yes)

And, 30 percent of the population are capable of a lot. Should we deprive them of the data and information they could use to improve the lot of everyone?

(By the way, I used to think everything was hopeless (ie, all those “big ones rise to the top in a septic tank” allusions) until I ran into the teachings of Dr. Demming, a wonderful, brilliant statistician who was able to make statistics understandable to anyone. He’s been given credit for the Japanese industrial miracle. Through his teachings, I learned about the holes in any bureaucratic system that can give the lie to those cynical statements.)

Finally, I want Rank Amateur, Media Ignore Me on the front of my shirt and Blup Blup on the back….. or vice versa.)

33. Henrik - 17 September 2010

Folks, what about the inverse of the Parclairianism – “I know NOTHING. Please quote me!”?

Re the bell curve: It’s more like 30% can understand popularised versions of science, 10% have the potential to understand scientific problems or performed applied science if educated, ½% could explain what is not yet understood, but to 99+% what’s on their business card, pay check or TV is of far greater importance. Last point – the ayes have it.

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