Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 39 (2014) 557–576
©2014 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation

Earthquake Controversies, the L’Aquila Trials, and the Argumentative Struggles for both Cultural and Scientific Power

Marouf Hasian, Jr., Nicholas S. Paliewicz, & Robert W. Gehl
University of Utah

Marouf Hasian, Jr., Professor, Department of Communication, University of Utah. Email: .

Nicholas S. Paliewicz, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Communication, University of Utah. Email: .

Robert W. Gehl, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Utah. Email: .

ABSTRACT  This article extends the work of researchers from the rhetoric of science and science and technology studies communities, and interprets the communicative aftershocks of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. The authors argue that some of the scientists belonging to the Italian Serious Risk Commission ended up being charged with manslaughter, and, at various times during this controversy, provided publics with different ways of assessing aleatory and epistemic risk. While the defendants originally inflated their ethos to quell concerns about earthquake predictions that came from a technician named Giuliani, they later dismantled some of their own authority in sociotechnical ways once they appeared in court.

KEYWORDS  L’Aquila earthquake; Aleatory risk; Epistemic risk; Ethos; Boundary work

RÉSUMÉ  Cet article continues le travail des rechercheurs de la rhétorique scientifique et les communautés des études science et la technologie. En plus, il interprète les secousses secondaires communicatives du tremblement de terre de L’Aquila en 2009. Les auteurs argumentent que quelques scientifiques du Italian Serious Risk Commission étaient chargés avec homicide involontaire et plusieurs fois partout la controverse ils ont fourni le public avec des méthodes diverses pour évaluer la risque aléatoire et épistémique. Bien que les accusés soient gonflés, leur ethos pour réprimer l’inquiétude à propos les prédictions des tremblements de terre par Giuliani, un technicien, ils soient démantelés leur propre autorité dans une façon “sociotechnique” dès qu’ils ont apparu au tribunal.

MOTS CLÉS  L’Aquila tremblement de terre; Aléatoire risque; Épistémique risque; Travail limite

Only fools and charlatans predict earthquakes.

—Charles Richter, inventor of Richter scale (quoted in Elkin, 2012, para. 7)

[The defendants] provided “incomplete, imprecise, and
contradictory information about the nature, causes,
and future development of the seismic hazards.”

—Prosecutorial claim in the L’Aquila case (Jordan, 2011, para. 2)

On April 6, 2009, a major earthquake—that was preceded by a series of smaller tremors, or swarms—hit the Italian town of L’Aquila, and more than 300 individuals lost their lives. 25,000 more people lost their homes, and the cost of reconstructing the town was estimated to be more than U.S. $16 billion. Within a matter of days, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi vowed to rebuild the stricken town, while others spoke of the need for more stringent building codes and tougher enforcement of existing regulations (Momigliano, 2009).

By 2010 Italian prosecutors and judges pressed forward with legal proceedings against several members of the Italian Commissione Nazionale per la Prevenzione dei Grandi Rischi, or National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (NCFPMR), an advisory organization involved with the evaluation and communication of seismic risk. The scientists who had visited L’Aquila prior to the major earthquake later argued that they had conveyed to the public in that region the accurate messages that a major earthquake was unlikely, and that earthquakes cannot be predicted. Surviving residents and a local prosecutor, however, were convinced that the “scientists had failed them” (Woodman, 2013, p. 3). As we note in more detail below, the members of this risk commission were trying to walk a fine line between warning the public and avoiding panic, something that under Italian law can result in the issuance of a procurato allarme, a type of gag order aimed at preventing false predictions. In this particular case, several key social actors were convinced that seven members of the Risk Commission did not maintain a balance, which resulted in them being put on trial for involuntary manslaughter (omicidio colposo).

The charge was premised on the notion that at least 29 L’Aquila residents would have slept outdoors and survived had they not listened to what the prosecution deemed to be false assurances circulated by the defendants. The prosecution maintained that at a meeting of the Risk Commission in L’Aquila prior to the earthquake, members provided local residents with ambiguous statements that did not help the average person in the town to understand what seismologists knew about the relationships between smaller “swarms” and major earthquakes, the risk, or the precautions that needed to be taken. As Woodman (2013) explains, a review of the minutes of the Risk Commission meeting shows that they did not discuss the damage that might be caused by a large earthquake, and their statements to the press were “simultaneously platitudinous and falsely reassuring” (Woodman, 2013, p. 8).

Among the scientists (Jordan, 2011), journalists (Hall, 2011), lay persons, and others who attended the trial, there is much disagreement about the motives of the local prosecutor, Fabio Picuti, who handled the case, as well as those of the judge, Marco Billi, who eventually sentenced the seven defendants to six years of imprisonment. For example, it can be argued that the legal authorities in L’Aquila who supervised the trial seemed to be in a hurry, as is evidenced by the judge hearing testimony from some 300 witnesses in a single week. Furthermore, the prosecutors adopted a theory of legal culpability that allowed them to argue that if no members of the Risk Commission openly disputed the more ambiguous or erroneous statements being circulated about earthquakes by other members of the Commission, then they were all jointly culpable under Italian law and could be tried in a non-jury trial. Indictments were handed down by Picuti on June 3, 2010. The trial of the seven L’Aquila defendants began on September 20, 2011. Judge Billi published the reasons for his decision months later, and these cases are currently under appeal.

The members of the Major Risk Commission who faced both civil and criminal proceedings were Franco Barberi, Enzo Boschi, Gian Michele Calvi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, Giulio Selvaggi, and Bernardo De Bernardinis. Six of these seven individuals were seismologists and one, De Bernardinis, was an engineer and government administrator. They were shocked to find themselves accused of providing the citizens of L’Aquila with false assurances and problematic seismic information in the aftermath of the earthquake. They countered these accusations by claiming that they were simply forecasting and not predicting, and that the prosecutors and public communities misunderstood their balanced, cautionary statements. For example, Franco Barberi, the chair of the Risk Commission, claimed there was nothing wrong with stating that “there is no reason which would lead one to say that a sequence of low magnitude earthquakes may be considered a precursor to a larger one” (quoted in Woodman, 2013, p. 7). Echoing this view, one journalist wrote that the L’Aquila prosecutors were accusing the seven defendants of providing only “an approximate, generic and ineffective assessment of seismic activity risks,” and characterized the trial as the “most execrable display of judicial ignorance since 1633,” when Galileo went before the Spanish Inquisition (Holland, 2012, para. 14, 18). Other observers, like Woodman (2013), contend that those who sympathize with the defendants are conflating the courts’ commentaries about liability for the communication of risk with culpability for failing to predict the earthquake.

These individuals had travelled to L’Aquila in late March 2009, one week prior to the April earthquake, for a meeting of the Major Risks Commission. Although there is some dispute regarding the exact nature of their task, much evidence suggests this group of scientists may have believed that their mission involved providing accurate information about earthquakes to local populations. There also is evidence that they were sent to L’Aquila by their political bosses to counter the claims of supposed charlatans who were said to be predicting earthquakes and fostering fear among the local population (Barberi, 2009, cited in Woodman, 2013).

Many observers argued that members of the Commission who made the trip were trying to pacify communities agitated by the claims of Giampaolo Giuliani, a laboratory technician who once worked at the Gran Sasso National Physics Laboratory, who was predicting a major earthquake. Members of the Major Risk Commission openly disputed his credentials, lampooned his methods, and ridiculed his claims of being able to predict the location of earthquakes by measuring radon emissions. This backdrop set the stage for an epic clash between scientific and public perceptions regarding the purposes of risk communication, the status of seismic forecasting, the ethos of various parties, and the responsibilities of the Major Risk Commission members.

There are two complicating factors with which communication scholars studying the corpus of texts produced during this controversy must contend. First, is the fact that the minutes of the March 2009 meeting were not recorded until after the earthquake hit L’Aquila. Second, at one of the press conferences given in front of television journalists, one of the seven defendants, Italy’s Department of Civil Protection (DCP) vice-president Bernardo De Bernardinis, remarked that “[t]he scientific community tells us there is no danger … the scientific community continues to confirm to me that in fact it is a favorable situation, that is to say a continuous discourse of energy” (Cartlidge, 2012, para. 2). He also suggested that local L’Aquila residents needed to sit back and enjoy a glass of [Montepulciano] wine instead of panicking.1 Four members of the Commission had left L’Aquila before the comments were made; however, two others who heard the remarks did not openly contest the claim despite its deviation from conventional wisdom among seismologists.2

Lawyers for several of the defendants argued that a clear line needed to exist between the dissemination of non-political “scientific” information about earthquakes and the “policies” that needed to be discussed by Italian decision-makers. Their critics countered that these self-serving demarcations were being used to avoid taking responsibility. Fabio Picuti and others alleged that the defendants had participated in acts of commission as well as omission by conveying incomplete information, thereby hindering the efforts of those who wanted to make informed choices about what to do prior to the earthquake. From a legal point of view, this meant that they had provided false assurances to the local population (Prats, 2012), and breached their fiduciary duty to the local public.

In this article, we argue that the controversies surrounding this case need not be viewed as binary disputes that pit supporters of the trial against those who viewed the proceedings as an attack on science. As Campbell (1996) explains, scholars who use rhetorical methodologies treat rhetoric as the study of public or technical arguments that have to be “explained, defended, and spread through language, argumentation, and appeal” (p. 3). Unlike more social scientific approaches that often treat rhetoric as “hot air” that can be juxtaposed with reality or more accurate scientific information, a rhetorical methodology (often called rhetorical criticism), assumes that all discourse and texts involve some perspective and therefore may be distorted or biased (Campbell, 1996). Critical scholars using this approach treat scientific disputes as matters involving issues of influence, power, ideology, and persuasion (Delicath & DeLuca, 2003).

We contend that in focusing attention on how the journalists, prosecutors, and judges understood or misunderstood the consensus of Italian and international scientific opinion regarding objective truth as it relates to seismic forecasting, non-rhetorical approaches often miss the ideological dimensions of this dispute and fail to investigate the motives underlying claims about who has the right to speak authoritatively about earthquake forecasting or the uncertainty surrounding earthquake prediction. This, in turn, leads to truncated ways of thinking about risk communication. For example, if we treat the communication of risk as an activity that is supposed to convey some a-rhetorical, universal, and consensual seismic scientific truth, we overlook the ways in which various publics, decision-makers, seismological groups, and other scientists actively engage in boundary work (Gieryn, 1983) in their efforts to reach a supposed consensus.

We posit that many of the defendants in this case had no trouble using notions of scientific falsification (Popper, 1963) as they tried to undermine the ethos of those they considered to be mere technicians or pseudo-scientists who were causing unnecessary panic. These same defendants, however, were rarely self-reflexive and seemed to have difficulty openly displaying their own skepticism about claims regarding seismic swarms, releasing tensions, and the lowering of risk made by their fellow Commission members. For example, some defendants made sweeping generalizations about the irrelevance of swarms before earthquakes or the fact that researchers believed the presence of minor tremors plays only a minor role in increasing overall risk of a major earthquake. Yet, they did not provide residents of L’Aquila with any detailed commentaries about the relative probabilities and risks. At the very time when they should have been clarifying their positions on aleatory and epistemic uncertainty in seismological contexts (Kiureghian & Ditlevsen, 2009), some defendants had left the scene, while others failed to speak up at press conferences.

Following Weingart (1999) and Law (2007), we believe it is essential that communication scholars study the nexus that exists between communication epistemics, on the one hand, and ontological material realities, on the other. We assert that this needs to be done in rhetorical ways that attend to both politicized science and the scientification of politics (Weingart, 1999,). We agree with the positions that have been articulated in Science and Technology Studies (STS) (Jasanoff, 2004; Latour 1987, 2005; Latour & Woolgar, 1979) and in with the rhetoric of science fields (cf. Gross, 1990a; 1990b; 1991) that aver that, rather than neatly mapping knowledge onto a clearly discernible ontological world, many of the procedures and normative practices of science are inherently rhetorical, social, political, and messy. For our purposes, this entails studying what is or is not accepted as seismic knowledge during the L’Aquila trial. Our goal is to illustrate how Italian and Anglo-American commentaries about this trial were used to privilege select notions of what constituted accurate seismic information and legal culpability. While excellent commentaries about the importance of this case for studying risk communication exist, we are just beginning to decode the more complex rhetorical and sociotechnical dimensions of seismological disputation that involves the interplay of scientific boundary work, policy decisions, and legal responsibility for disaster forecasting.

With this in mind, we adapt a perspectival methodological approach, focusing on how various texts and contexts are used to produce truth effects that are organized into various scientific archives and archaeologies of power (Foucault, 1994). Following Condit and Lucaites’ (1993) suggestion that critics pay attention to the argumentative usages of key characterizations, topoi, ideographs, narratives, and other units of analysis, we employed purposive sampling approach that began with a corpus of some 100 scientific articles, newspaper articles, law reviews, internet blogs, and other texts identified using Google Scholar searches, Lexis-Nexis, HeinOnline, and EBSCOHost databases. We then purposely chose materials that provided readers with representative samples of arguments about communication of risk, liability, and prediction, and that illustrated conflicting ways of conceptualizing the legitimacy of the L’Aquila trials. We then narrowed this list to focus on critiques of the trial proceedings and the reasoning of Judge Billi.

While some of our analysis is logocentric, we recognize that many of the disputes over seismic forecasting and the communication of risk need to be treated as image events (Delicath & DeLuca, 2003), wherein the parties involved often used visual displays as platforms for circulating their own ideologies regarding earthquake forecasting, risk management, and/or the explanatory power of particular scientific modalities. For example, by using paintings of Galileo’s trial, a number of journalists treated the L’Aquila trials as proceedings that put science in the docks. This type of mediated framing enabled many different scientific communities to voice complaints about the politicization of science and the supposed illiteracy of politicians and public communities.

Many of the defendants and their supporters around the world may have sincerely believed that they were in possession of some accurate, impartial information regarding the current status of some scientific communities’ ability or inability to predict earthquakes. We maintain that this alleged consensus is itself a rhetorical and sociotechnical achievement, requiring inventional resources. 

The remainder of this article is divided into five major sections. In the first, we provide a brief theoretical overview of the relationships between some of the communicative arts and scientific theories, and underscore the importance of understanding the strategizing that goes into the framing of aleatory and epistemic uncertainty. We then explain how the six seismologists in the L’Aquila case initially magnified their own social agency and elite status, while simultaneously belittling the efforts of Giuliani, the technician who was accused of alarming citizens. In the fourth section, we extend this analysis by showing how some of defendants deconstructed some of their own power upon arrival in the courtrooms. In the fifth section, we investigate the rhetoric that circulated in national and international spheres. We conclude by proposing future ways of using this case study to continue working toward bridging the rhetoric of science with science and technology studies.

Understanding the shifting rhetorical foundations of risk communication

As Foucault (1994) once observed, humans are often hard at work inventing their own social agency that is dedicated to ordering, nominalizing, and categorizing the observable world. There are many truisms about the rhetorical nature of science and technologies (see Gross, 1990a; Latour 1987; McGuire & Melia, 1991), but what intrigues us are pragmatic questions about the resources and boundaries that enable and constrain those working within science communities. While there may be natural limits to how researchers think about hazards, risks, and the material information that goes into crafting probability models, we contend that the power and epistemic features of risk assessment also involve rhetorical practices. For example, and as we note below, supporters of the L’Aquila defendants sought to create the impression that there was a monolithic scientific community, standing in solidarity with fellow scientists who were being wrongly scapegoated. Yet, there were many dissenting scientists, engineers, and experts on the communication of risk who interpreted the impact of swarms, the instrumental and technical production of seismic models, and the supposed neutrality of the Major Risk Commission differently. Growing numbers of researchers interested in Science and Technologies Studies (STS) underscore the importance of human agency, power, the polysemy swirling around any science, and ideological viewpoints in studying risk assessments. Pellizzoni (2010), for example, emphasizes the importance of considering the influence of neoliberal worldviews in scientific theories of human invention and discovery. He asserts that contemporary global society has moved from assessments of risk to assessments of uncertainty. As the possessors of worldly knowledge, humans use assumptions about uncertainty in crafting policy solutions, which, in turn, impacts how we think about epistemic caution.

Approaching statistical information and probability assessment as rhetorical constructs that involve the negotiation of human and non-human information, as well as actors who alter the ways in which we think about politics and power, helps to draw lines between scientific certainty and mere probability, or scientific forecasting and policy risk assessments. The very notion of uncertainty is no longer conceptualized as some material object existing apart and independent from rhetorical agency, but rather as the product of negotiations that take place between, and among, scientists and publics. Given the polyvalent features of scientific language, this also means that audiences do not always have to think of uncertainty as some problematic feature of risk assessment that needs to be treated as a gap standing in the way of scientific progress. Pellizzoni (2010) develops this point:

Uncertainty, as a consequence, is no longer considered a restraining, but an enabling factor. Contingency is equated to lack of constraint, rather than lack of order. Agency expands together with world instability, retaining its capacity for control over events … This vision of contingency as enhanced manageability stands in stark contrast with public concerns over techno-science’s ‘unwarranted’ claims of prediction and control. (p. 466)

One key issue, of course, is how various public communities will react to the open embrace or articulation of this uncertainty. Will they also view this as information that contributes to enhanced manageability?

Following Pellizzoni’s (2010) suggestion that STS researchers focus on the co-productive capacities of various social and natural sciences, we use the L’Aquila legal proceedings to illustrate how many of the scientists involved in these controversies engaged in boundary work that maintained the scientific ethos of seismologists, while absolving them of legal responsibility. Through their use of various argumentative practices, advocates for the defendants advanced what they viewed as the accurate way of thinking about uncertainty, while downplaying the contingencies and partialities of scientific knowledge.

STS scholars have long recognized the argumentative features of epistemic knowledge. Nonetheless, many scientists still treat disputation as part of the policy and political risk assessment realms, rather than a key feature of scientific discovery. This distinction between science and deliberation does more than just preserve the illusion of objectivity and neutrality; it also helps maintain the supposed autonomy of researchers, and circumscribes their legal or moral culpability. This is especially true for scientific communities, like seismologists, who claim to be studying and forecasting natural phenomena that cannot be investigated in the same manner that one examines volcanoes, hurricanes, or other disasters. As Pellizzoni (2010) notes, the management of epistemic uncertainty—which for many seismologists means placing studies of prediction and control in the hands of the knowledgeable—becomes an enabling factor for select human agents. While this type of reasoning may not resonate with other spheres of knowledge production (e.g., legal communities), or with publics that have different expectations about how to cope with uncertainty and natural hazards, it is evident in the vast literature about the predictive abilities and limits of seismology, in the supposed failures of members of the press, and in illiterate publics (Kluger, 2012). Here, science is relied upon to deliver deliberative answers about the conditions of the natural world in order to guide human-centered policy solutions, and, in theory, is not politicized. In this idealized construction, publics are left with Sally Jackson’s (2008, 2012) black box argumentation predicament, wherein science is dropped into the public sphere like a black box that can only be interpreted by credentialed scientists.

We are not interested in simply studying whether Italian media outlets or local publics misunderstood the positions articulated by De Bernardinis and the other defendants. Although communication scholars need to attend to these positions, they also need to use argumentative critiques to explain hidden features of the disputation that took place during the L’Aquila trial, when seismologists sought to shield the defendants from legal liability by invoking the scientific ethos of their colleagues. While there were times when scientists and non-scientists miscommunicated, in other instances, various communities engaged in power struggles over who was in control of earthquake forecasting in Italy, who engaged in shoddy research, and who needed to be held accountable for the damage caused by the earthquake.

The question of how much influence these social struggles play in the boundary work separating scientific discourse from non-scientific rhetoric is intriguing. Gieryn (1983) argues that certain persuasive styles are used to enlarge the financial and the symbolic resources of scientists who also seek to defend their professional autonomy. In contrast to Merton’s (1973) observations about teaching public and technical audiences universalist principles—which presume that scientific knowledge is universally applicable and reproducible, to all corners of social life—it is clear that not everyone shares the same scientific ethos. Constant negotiations take place within scientific communities as different groups fight for the right to speak authoritatively about degrees of certainty or probability, the randomness of natural disasters, the best methods, and the epistemic constraints placed in the paths of those who must explain principles of uncertainty (Taylor, 1996; also see Allen, 2003, for a discussion of this in the context of environmental discourse).

For the purposes of this article we focus in on the rhetorical construction of risk assessment, nature hazard forecasting, and the perils of prediction for scientific and public communities. This public-technical interaction in specific ontological situations means that various audiences may possess competing notions regarding what thorough risk assessment entails, and/or who has the right to speak authoritatively about the status of a science like seismology. Cultural and scientific negotiations are manifest as various participants in these debates argue about scientific applications of aleatory and epistemic knowledge. Aleatory risk references the “intrinsic randomness of a phenomenon” (Kiureghian & Ditlevsen, 2009, p. 106), while epistemic risk denotes uncertainty from lack of knowledge. Since aleatory risk assessment focuses on naturally occurring ontological randomness or regularity, it is said to be predicted, while epistemic uncertainty underscores how much humans do or do not know about those same phenomenon. This is why theorists argue that epistemic uncertainty requires interpretation (Bommer, 2003; Krinitzsky, 2002).

Some scientists create the impression that scientific methods, rules of universality, and the testing of phenomena helps scientific communities improve their categorization of aleatory and epistemic uncertainty. We counter that apportionment of uncertainty is often itself an ideological, rhetorical, and sociotechnical achievement. Tacit or acknowledged cultural assumptions and particular associations of humans, tools, and techniques influence the formation of types of natural or human randomness or predictability that inform the aleatory and epistemic categories. While the application of each category is largely circumstantial (Kiureghian & Ditlevsen, 2009), some geological engineers claim that semantic variation is responsible for ongoing seismologic complication, warranting a “unique and universal definition of their meaning” (Bommer, 2003, p. 166) or a shift from probabilistic to determinist methods (Krinitzsky, 2002). The utopian dream, according to Kiureghian and Ditlevsen (2009), is to eliminate aleatory uncertainty altogether by replacing it with epistemic knowledge.

In theory, it is the ability to discern between aleatory and epistemic categories of uncertainty, and to accept as fact that earthquakes cannot be predicted in the same ways as other phenomenon that separates real scientists from charlatans. If eliminating aleatory uncertainty requires “that we learn about all missing variables and exact form of models” (Kiureghian & Ditlevsen, 2009, p. 109), proper risk assessments can only take place when both scientific and public communities understand these differing ways of conceptualizing uncertainty. The aleatory/epistemic distinction is important for scientists and decision-makers because it can impact how various audiences think about natural hazards, the ethos and responsibility of scientists, and the evidence that exists to undergird specific assertions of uncertainty. Those who focus on epistemic uncertainty, for instance, may write about probabilities of earthquakes in ways that highlight high- or low-risk fault zones. Those accentuating the significance of aleatory uncertainty, on the other hand, are more likely to promote taking measures to prepare publics for the random occurrences of natural events.

This is not to suggest that all seismological modelling is constrained to rhetorical maneuvering. Both categories of uncertainty are potentially useful for scientists and publics. Arguing from an engineering perspective, Krinitzsky (2002) criticizes some of the distinctions made between these categories, asserting that seismic probabilists use aleatory and epistemic uncertainties to control the range of data gathered, rather than to question uncertainties inherent in models such as the b-line projection (a model used for predicting earthquakes based on scattered data). He maintains that the determinist method of thinking about seismic risk is better suited for thinking about forecasting because it bases decisions on the historic placements of earthquakes as “representative of the seismogenic capability of the surrounding region” (Krinitzsky, 2002, p. 158).

Regardless of what one thinks of Krinitzsky’s claims, when it comes to actually communicating risks to publics, it is clear that cases like the L’Aquila trial illustrate the pitfalls of providing vague commentaries about seismic conditions that do not take into account different types of uncertainties. Atkinson (2011), for instance, concludes that failure to jointly account for aleatory and epistemic variabilities can result in overestimations of uncertainty concerning ground motion amplitudes from earthquakes, especially aleatory ones. Major questions arise, therefore, about the application of epistemic and aleatory uncertainties. For example, are scientists able to successfully communicate the interplay between both categories to publics dependent on earthquake forecasts or projections? Perhaps the public assumes that scientific projections already account for aleatory uncertainties, whereas in practice, seismological projections are primarily centred on epistemic uncertainties.

This raises another intriguing question: is it possible that the Italian seismologists were talking strategically about the lines between aleatory and epistemic uncertainty, and did they shift their arguments about these degrees of uncertainty, based on their rhetorical situations? If so, both they and the defendants in the L’Aquila trials were taking on the role of sly rhetors, magnifying their own epistemic powers during the early parts of their controversies with Giuliani, while relying more on aleatory uncertainty once they were called upon to appear in court. How one argues about the ontological randomness of earthquakes, or how one frames one’s own abilities to forecast or predict, thus depends on a host of situational factors.

Epistemic fights over scientific ethos: Trust us, we’re the experts!

The story of the L’Aquila proceedings begins with the actions of a local scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, who claimed that a major earthquake would strike the region sometime during late March, 2009. He worked as a technician in a physics laboratory for more than 30 years, and in his spare time researched methods for predicting earthquakes by measuring radon gas emissions. He spoke with the local press about increased radon gas concentrations in the area, pointing out that this was an anomalous occurrence, indicating an earthquake was on the way.

Giuliani was not a trained seismologist. The manufacturing of his ethos involved a great deal of boundary work aimed at placing him outside the parameters of accepted science. Scientists around the world ridiculed the idea that some technician working in a geophysics laboratory could come up with patents that accurately predicted anything. To many, he was a quack; the very type of busy-body pseudo-scientist who knows nothing about the apportionment of aleatory and epistemic uncertainty (see Woodman, 2013). Italian civil administrators worried that, if left unchecked, his predictions would unnecessarily frighten citizens or inure them to real warnings. To this day, his predictions of the L’Aquila earthquake are framed by the scientific community as lucky guesses.

Scientific boundaries are never that clear; rather, their formation involves power and politics. Giuliani did not belong to prevailing networks of seismic research (Momigliano, 2011), but reputable outlets of scientific journalism carried stories about his contentions. Yet, because purveyors of dominant scientific methodologies did not support his call to action, Italy’s elite scientists did not take him seriously and the former head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, Guido Bertolaso, denounced him as an imbecile (Willan, 2009). Local police even threatened him with possible jail time for spreading panic. After the earthquake, however, he was hailed by some as an independent researcher who truly cared about the people of L’Aquila.

In their disputes with Giuliani, the Major Risk Commission seismologists, and the scientists from around the world who subsequently defended them, often magnified their own social agency as they talked about their expertise, the problems with radon tests, and/or differences between forecasting and predicting earthquakes. These actors were resolute in their conviction that predicting earthquakes is impossible by any method, an assertion used to reinforce their own stature as careful, responsible scientists (see Hall, 2011). If the seismologists’ epistemic knowledge could not confidently predict earthquakes, how could Giuliani? The comments made by United States Geological Survey geophysicist Susan Hough (2009) in refuting Giuliani’s claims on the basis of verifiability is illustrative of this discursive mode:

[i]nvestigating precursors like radon is a legitimate avenue of research, but until and unless the track record of a method is shown to be statistically significant, making public predictions is irresponsible. Progress is slow in developing prediction methods … The public would like scientists to predict earthquakes. We can’t do that. We might never be able to do that. (para. 8–10)

This discourse enabled the press to configure L’Aquila residents who believed Giuliani’s predictions as social agents who did not know the difference between aleatory and epistemic uncertainty, thereby relegating many to the domain of non-scientists. Moreover, public acceptance of many of Giuliani’s claims—which were anathema to the received wisdom among scientific communities that earthquakes cannot be predicted because of the amount of aleatory uncertainty—provided international scientific audiences with evidence of the illiteracy of those supporting the trial.

When the seven members of the commission were put on trial, they continued this process of boundary work as they, and their lawyers, advanced their defenses. Some defendants helped establish their own scientific credentials by disqualifying Giuliani’s claims, and occasionally relying on sheer authority by calling themselves the “highest scientific authorities of the seismic sector” (Barberi, Boschi, Selvaggi, Calvi, Eva, De Bernardinis & Dolce, 2009, para. 3). At other times, they used the argumentative strategy of disassociation to rhetorically distinguish their substantive research from Giuliani’s, thus preserving the integrity of their discipline. Dr. Boschi’s deputy, Dr. Walter Mazzochi, averred that Giuliani was practicing poor science, telling one news outlet that “[t]he things Giuliani has presented are at a very low level, from a scientific point of view. I didn’t see any evidence that the method could work” (Dollar, 2010, para. 14).

This type of contextual framing was buttressed by the visual imagining of Galileo used by newspapers carrying early stories about the L’Aquila proceedings. At the same time, talk of Giuliani’s quackery added more ideological layers to the positions of those wanting to paint this as another medieval trial with the citizenry persecuting true scientists. Images of grieving local populations, pressured prosecutors, and a motivated technician could be configured as passionate and (mis)educated purveyors of misinformation searching for people to blame. From an argumentative perspective, Giuliani became the embodiment of anti-scientific analyses. In other words, he turned into a symbol for everything that could go wrong when publics demand scientific certainty. His ostracism served as a means of policing boundary work (Gieryn, 1983), wherein true or normal science was to be protected from the contagions of passions, false claims, and legal misunderstanding. In the name of scientific acceptance of falsification, degrees of uncertainty, and the separation of science from politics, both scientists and the public needed to be protected from ancient and modern superstitions.

“No danger”

This case was not a simple matter of a public looking to blame scientists for the ravages of an earthquake. At the same time that Giuliani was circulating his epistemic radon predictions, local populations were worrying about a series of small tremors, or swarms. From a communication perspective, a key question at the core of this disputation focuses on how local populations were meant to react to the growing alarm emanating from months of swarms and from the publication of Giuliani’s predictions. Members of the Major Risk Commission had been monitoring the tremors since December 2008 and, at the behest of Guido Bertolaso, agreed to travel to L’Aquila to help with the dissemination of accurate seismic information.

Police wiretaps of Bertolaso’s phone conservations subsequently provided evidence that this meeting was intended as “a media operation,” where “top seismologists … will say (that) that we need quakes to release energy and there will never be the big earthquake …” (Struggles In Italy, 2012, para. 4). During the trial the defendants and their lawyers refused to concede that they knew beforehand that this meeting was meant to be a public relations event. Boschi, for example, claimed that “the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn’t understand that [meeting as a PR event] until later on” (Hall, 2011, p. 268).

The seismologists in the Major Risks Commission may not have shared Bertolaso’s views, but they did not help their own cause when their open meeting in March 2009 lasted less than an hour. Moreover, it was shortly after this meeting that De Bernadis infamously said that there was “no danger” of a major earthquake in L’Aquila (Nosengo, 2012, para. 2). Regardless of the intentions of the Commission seismologists, the publication of the De Bernadis’ statement made it appear as if he was expressing the consensus view of the Commission. It also could be interpreted as a statement involving seismological certainty.

It was only later that the scientific members of the Major Risk Commission reacted to his commentary, and, when they did, they treated it in the same manner that they treated Giuliani’s radon prediction: this is not science. During the trial, the defendants and their lawyers tried to distance themselves from his remarks. We posit that it was at this point in the proceedings that the defendants made some key rhetorical choices regarding when they were going to rely on the scientific principle of falsification. A review of the minutes of the March 2009 meeting, the comments made during press meetings, and the statements given later to journalists shows how the defendants often offered hedging forecasts that did not always clarify their positions on aleatory uncertainty. In other words, they avoided providing detailed information about the type(s) of natural uncertainty hindering their own forecasting and did little to inform publics about the factors affecting probabilities associated with swarms.

This omission illustrates how, despite “talking the talk” of scientists, by their own standards, the defendants also acted in unscientific ways. In failing to provide L’Aquila audiences with detailed information about relative aleatory and epistemic risks, they did not fully participate in the falsification of all types of scientific claims, including those made by individuals representing their own commission. Popper (1963) might call this tactic a “soothsay[ing] trick” (para. 24), one used by astrologists or others who make field knowledge untestable in order to avoid refutation.

A textual analysis of the minutes from the April meeting shows that the session was not used as a venue for talking about competing seismology theories, nor as forum for audiences to hear differing views about the relationship between swarms and major earthquakes. In a translated transcript of the meeting, the defendants are identified as “the highest scientific authorities of the seismic sector,” who are “able to provide the most current and reliable picture of what is happening” (Barberi et al, 2009, para. 3). Franco Barberi is quoted as setting out two purposes for the meeting: “1) to make an objective assessment of the seismic events taking place in relation to what can be predicted; 2) to discuss and provide indications on the sense of alarm that has become widespread among the population” (Barberi et al., 2009, para. 8). The apparent avoidance of any language indicating that they are meant to counter the sense of alarm is noteworthy.

In later comments, the meeting panelists gesture toward aleatory uncertainty by remarking that an earthquake similar to the one that occurred in 1703 “cannot be completely excluded” (Barberi et al., 2009, para. 6). Echoing this view, Claudio Eva noted,

there is a very limited number of case studies. This is also because small earthquakes of this kind were not recorded in the past. Strong events have not taken place in recent history, rather numerous swarms that have however not preceded large events (e.g., in Garfagnana). Obviously, since the L’Aquila area is a seismic zone, it cannot be stated that earthquakes will not take place. (Barberi et al., 2009, para. 10)

Despite the absence of any discussion of previous studies of swarms that show how they are linked to higher risks of an earthquake in earthquake prone regions, the panelists’ apparent confidence in their understanding of epistemic uncertainty leads them to conclude that the sequence of swarms is not directly indicative of a looming major event.

Instead of mentioning rising risks, Eva and the other panelists shift the discussion away from forecasting and epistemic uncertainty toward the realities of coping with natural, aleatory uncertainty: “the only defense against earthquakes is that of strengthening constructions and improving their ability to resist earthquakes” (Barberi et al., 2009, para. 13).

While the L’Aquila prosecutors did not use Popperian falsification language in their discussions of “false assurances,” they did note that the scientists seemed to be preoccupied with countering Giuliani’s claims. The defendants did not deny that they were countering Giuliani’s pseudoscience and assiduously distanced themselves from the remarks made by Guidi Bertolaso and Bernardo De Bernadinis.

This pivotal moment was an image event (DeLuca & Peeples, 2002) that mollified alarms provoked by Giuliani without properly grounding the “no danger” claim in its necessary epistemic context. Without actually debating the merits of radon as an indicator of earthquakes, the scientists used their ethos to falsify such claims. At the same time, De Barnadinis, who is not a seismologist, did not specify the criteria that he used to reach his scientific conclusions about seismic uncertainty (Kington & Davies, 2012).

Although the scientists carefully qualified their remarks about epistemic uncertainty during the March 2009 meeting, they failed to notice disagreements about aleatory risks and swarm studies. The consequences of this oversight were further magnified when they failed to correct De Barnadinis’ assertion to Italian television audiences that the scientists in the Major Risk Commission had concluded that “the situation looks favorable” (Nosenga, 2010, p. 992). We contend that this was done, in part, to preserve the boundaries of what was regarded as credible seismology.

Altered seismic visions, changing legal realities, and the L’Aquila proceedings

Many members of international scientific organizations were caught off-guard by the L’Aquila cases not being thrown out of court. Realizing that the prosecutors were serious, in autumn 2009 the defendants started commenting on their innocence and the problematic nature of the negligence cases being brought against them. As noted by Aspinall (2011), there were few precedents for scientists facing negligence charges for offering allegedly faulty hazard-assessment advice. In his view, part of the cultural and jurisprudential problems in the L’Aquila case stemmed from how seismologists and decision-makers had been influenced by the host of notoriously failed earthquake predictions that had circulated during the 1970s. Contemporary scientists worry about the dangers that come with inciting prediction-based panic and the attendant costs of too many Cassandra-like prognostications. This may have made members of the Major Risk Commission leery of talk of impending crises.

We maintain that, in this particular instance, fear of legal liability created a situation wherein the scientists and civil servants who magnified their scientific expertise for their cultural battles with Giuliani started to dismantle their own rhetorical status as they tried to cope with the realities of courtroom conflicts. While reconfiguring select ways of thinking about aleatory and epistemic uncertainty in seismic situations for the press, many of the defendants simultaneously tried to shift the blame for this attack on science onto those who supposedly misinterpreted their views.

Several defendants argued that they were not responsible for building codes or public relations campaigns. Insisting that they worked with imperfect tools enabled these seismologists to affirm that the best they could do is to explain to audiences that scientists have to look at past patterns of earthquakes in order to offer probabilistic estimates of future seismic activity (Holland, 2012). This narrowed the scope of their responsibility because it was up to others to decide how to use the scientific information provided. It should come as no surprise that many of these defences highlighted aleatory uncertainty in Italian seismological contexts. To this end, the defence attorneys for some of the members of the Major Risk Commission argued that it was generally known that earthquakes cannot be predicted, and that trained scientists who study seismology know that there is no accepted method in existence for predicting earthquakes (Prats, 2012).

In reviewing samples of the comments made by the defendants, one observes how most of these individuals tried to take legal stances that positioned themselves as reasonable thinkers who avoided the extremes of providing false assurance or statements that might cause unwarranted panic. For example, several defendants maintained that the appearance of swarms of tremors provides little in the way of predictable information that can help with forecasting of major earthquakes. De Bernardinis noted that he had used the word “favourable” during the press meeting because his study of research articles had indicated to him that the advent of swarms neither increased nor decreased the probability of a major earthquake striking the L’Aquila region (Cartlidge, 2012).3 He argued that his impression was that all of this was normal seismicity, and that had the scientists in attendance at the March 2009 meeting indicated that the risk had increased, then he would have immediately informed his superior, Guido Bertolaso, that danger was in the air. Put simply, De Bernardinis was complaining about the information that he was receiving from the other six defendants who should have been clear regarding the line to be drawn between aleatory and epistemic uncertainty.

During May 2012, several defendants took the stand. They all averred that the Major Risk Commission had not committed any act of legal mis-, mal-, or non-feasance. Enzo Boschi, who at the time of the L’Aquila earthquake was president of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV), told the courtroom that swarms of tremors cannot be considered precursors to earthquakes, but he was also adamant that the discharge of energy did not reduce the chance of a major earthquake. “It is neither favorable nor unfavorable,” he explained (Cartlidge, 2012, para. 4). Boschi also admitted to having been surprised that the March meeting had only lasted some 45-60 minutes, noting that it was only after the meeting that he had learned that its “fundamental point” was to “understand whether or not one can predict earthquakes” (Cartlidge, 2012, para. 6). In other words, instead of having a meeting aimed at providing attendees with information about the specific categorization of aleatory and epistemic uncertainties in this situation, everything was collapsed into some general reassuring remarks about whether the scientists on the panel were, or were not, predicting that the recent swarms of tremors were a precursor to a major earthquake.

As far as many of the defendants were concerned, the prosecutors’ paucity of evidence regarding what was or was not said during the March 2009 meeting and subsequent press conferences provided international communities with sufficient evidence of their reasonableness and caution. Their alleged reticence to comment on matters falling outside their areas of expertise could also explain why there had been so little discussion of risk assessment or evacuation plans. Boschi and the other defendants created the impression that part of their mission involved reducing scientific illiteracy, so that local populations would stop listening to quacks like Giuliani. Legal culpability, then, could be avoided if the defence attorneys managed to convincingly argue that the defendants had not given any faulty reassurances to the people of L’Aquila.

The adoption of this rhetorical strategy allowed the defendants to appear as guileless researchers who were caught up in the politicization of seismology. As noted above, the courtrooms in L’Aquila where often characterized as forums from the Middle Ages. Claudio Eva argued that the sentencing of the Italian scientists was “a very Italian and medieval decision,” an act that stemmed from an “eye for an eye” way of thinking about dealing with tragedies (quoted in Kington, 2012, para. 4). This helped create the impression that the defendants who battled Giuliani should be treated as beleaguered heroes who were protecting publics from the greater dangers accompanying unwarranted panic.

Conclusion: Future directions for research

The L’Aquila earthquake illustrates the messy intersection of discourses: volcanology, seismology, what we might call (following Bart Simon, 2002) “the undead science” of predicting earthquakes via radon gas measurement, engineering, law, media, politics, and lay knowledge. Further work building on the “rhetoric of science” approach that we have adopted could be undertaken in order to better understand this event. Those seeking to extend our approach might ask how the sundry elements comprising organizations such as the Major Risk Commission have been associated. Here, one could follow STS theorists like Latour (2005) and Law (1989, 1992) to trace articulations between seismology, volcanology, public relations, modern statecraft, engineering, building codes, technical instruments, academic journals, and legal precedents heterogeneously engineered into the cohesive punctualization (Law, 1992) of the actor-network known as the Major Risk Commission. One way of illustrating this potential research direction is to consider a somewhat strange question: what if the L’Aquila earthquake had never happened? In that case, it seems plausible that the Major Risk Commission would appear to be a cohesive actor-network, and we would not concern ourselves with its internal heterogeneity and construction:

Indeed, much of the time we are not even in a position to detect network complexities. So what is happening? The answer is that if a network acts as a single block, then it disappears, to be replaced by the action itself and the seemingly simple author of that action. At the same time, the way in which the effect is generated is also effaced: for the time being it is neither visible, nor relevant. (Law, 1992, p. 385)

Put simply, if the earthquake had not happened, the Major Risk Commission would have maintained its integrity as an actor-network, disappearing into the background and occasionally emerging with risk assessments given to a largely oblivious populace going about its day-to-day life. In this particular case, however, the residents of L’Aquila, the mere technician Giuliani, journalists, criminal prosecutors, the statement of “no danger,” and, of course, the earth itself all formed a resistant force capable of dissociating the Commission in the manner described above, drawing global attention to the arcane inner workings of this otherwise unremarkable group.

Thus, a future direction for an actor-network theory-based approach would involve studying actors who try to (re)construct government entities, such as the Major Risk Commission, in light of this case. How can these various elements be brought together to produce a comprehensible, legally defensible, yet useful form of consensus? Could better risk communication—that is, the scrupulous avoidance of phrases like “no danger”—hold this network together? Could the Major Risk Commission be held together by integrating scientists working on radon-based prediction systems (even if at a token level)? Will engineers and architects rise in stature against seismologists because of their ability to devise building codes that can better withstand earthquakes (assuming builders follow such codes)? Or, more likely, could geological time play a role in keeping such a network together (by not producing another major earthquake in that region for generations)? Or, perhaps the Major Risk Commission, as an actor-network, is on the way out as the Italian state abdicates its role in dealing with unpredictable risk. Regardless, the creation and maintenance of such an organization is not about scientific knowledge mapping onto the natural world; rather, it is about the political economy of the production of knowledge.

Another, similar future research direction at the intersection of communication and STS would be to examine how scientific instruments create rhetoric. Following Latour, one might consider the rhetoric produced by “inscription devices” (Latour, 1987, p. 64)—that is, devices that provide “an inscription that is used as the final layer in a scientific text” (p. 68). Here, considering the ways in which various types of seismological equipment are constructed, interpreted, used, and critiqued by different scientists would be key. Why are the inscriptions of one seismological device considered to be more scientific than another, and especially more so than those of a radon-measuring device? How do academic journals, peer reviewers, and reporters read the rhetoric produced by these inscription devices? Following Winner (1986), what politics of probability and certainty are engineered into these instruments by their manufacturers, and how? How does the rhetoric produced by these instruments determine subsequent science and risk communication? Finally, how does lay knowledge of earthquakes contrast, contradict, and constitute scientific knowledge of earthquakes? Following STS scholars such as Allen (2003), Epstein (2000), and Collins and Evans (2007), future work could investigate the relationship between tacit lay knowledge of earthquakes in earthquake-prone regions and the expert discourses analyzed above. The image of older L’Aquila residents teaching children to sleep in open piazzas is striking: it demonstrates embodied, intergenerational knowledge of how the earth moves that differs from the knowledge arising from a seismograph. How does this form of knowledge production compete with knowledge produced by technical and governmental spokespersons? How did residents of L’Aquila decide that the “no danger” statement was more reliable than the feeling of the ground moving beneath their feet? After the earthquake, how will the residents reintegrate their tacit knowledge into the discourses produced by future seismologists?

Following Latour’s (2004) famous lament, this last task is probably most important, given that we live in a time where experts are under attack, doubting climate science and refusing childhood vaccination are legitimated on the grounds that all knowledge is socially constructed. Turning to Allen’s (2003) work on environmental science in Louisiana, it seems plausible that associating lay knowledge of earthquakes with the official knowledge of institutions like the Major Risk Commission could produce “strong objectivity” (p. 6), a science borne of multiple streams of situated knowledge—including expert knowledge—and articulated out of material realities that can better serve people as they deal with risks. After all, and despite our ability to socially construct multiple competing ontological realities (Law, 2007), there is no way to wish away an earthquake. Seismological expertise is needed.

To do this work, and to bring together the fields of communication and STS, requires multidisciplinary efforts: ethnography, legal studies, political economy, philosophy, and, of course, the rhetoric of science, to trace associations between materiality and discourse.


The authors would like to thank Megan A. Davis for kindly translating our abstract from English to French.


1. De Bernardinis flatly denied making these remarks, contending that he was simply responding to a journalist’s question of whether or not he should have a glass of wine while waiting for the meeting to be adjourned (Kington & Davies, 2012). Regardless, it is our contention that this public comment reassured the people of L’Aquila that a major quake was not anticipated, and that local seismological authorities were the credible experts that should be trusted, and not Giuliani.

2. Many seismologists maintain that they work with probabilities, not certainty. They avoid using the phrase “no danger” because there is always some risk of disaster in places with high levels of seismic activity.

3. Some of the defendants appear to have been unaware that the area around L’Aquila had previously been subject to swarms of tremors. Although he agreed with his colleagues that swarms could not predict the occurrence of earthquakes, Claudio Eva testified in court that he did not know that two major historical earthquakes in the region had been preceded by such swarms (Cartlidge, 2012).


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