Now more than ever, we need effective, ethical interaction between scientists and publics

Graduate Student Spotlight: Danielle DeVasto

PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition

Riddled with geologic faults, Italy has a long history of earthquakes and other seismic activity. So, the 6.3-magnitude earthquake (and its ensuing damage) that struck the central Italian city of L’Aquila on April 6, 2009, while tragic, is not surprising. Italy does not, however, have a history of holding trials over such seismicity. In the wake of the devastating earthquake, which resulted in over 300 deaths and 10 billion euros in damage, seven scientists were charged with manslaughter for failing to appropriately warn the public. Relatives of some of the victims argued that the victims changed their habits (i.e., staying at home the night of the earthquake) after hearing the interviews and press conferences. Lengthy public trials ensued from 2011-2015. The indictment, conviction, and now partial-acquittal have elicited international uproar, adding earthquakes to a growing body of high stakes scientific controversies – such as GMOs, vaccines, and climate change – in which publics must interact with scientists. This earthquake and its trial entangled the public, the political, and the technical, foregrounding the specific challenges of communication between experts and publics about risk and uncertainty. As the unprecedented occurrence of a criminal trial indicates, the stakes surrounding the communication of risk and uncertainty – for experts and publics alike – have never been higher.

My dissertation, then, explores the L’Aquila controversy, which provides a unique opportunity for studying the communication between scientists and publics. Seismology as a science is young, and, when it comes to understanding earthquakes, rather uncertain with no resolutions on the horizon; it involves complicated systems on a time scale that spans billions of years. Communication about these technical aspects is inherently difficult, let alone accounting for the political, personal, environmental, economic, and so forth. Ultimately, with this project, I want to understand how situations such as L’Aquila can be better negotiated both by expert and by public stakeholders. I suggest that rhetorically-oriented approaches can improve this fraught communication, and I explore new synergies among three concepts which rhetoricians have treated separately but which are inextricably entangled in situations like L’Aquila: agency, expertise, and uncertainty. I believe that contemporary rhetorical theory can help develop methods and frameworks that will improve communication about risk and uncertainty and support civic agency in risk communication, including in situations of potentially cataclysmic geological events