Thursday, September 22, 2011

Liability for Risk Decisions

imageI am currently in-between positions, somewhat happily, and are casting my net of interest a bit wider than my traditional roles in IT Security and Risk. One position that caught my eye from a global reinsurer in town was the role of Earthquake Expert within their Natural Catastrophe department (or Nat Cat in insurance lingo). I really don’t have any specific background in this area but I sometimes entertain the idea that I can transfer hard-learnt crypto math skills into a numerate role like this one which calls for extensive modeling and prediction. You also think that this might be a nice and cozy niche area to ply your trade as a specialist, holding something of a privileged position.

Well I was disabused of any such notion this week when I read this week of six Italian scientists and a former government official are being put on trial for the alleged manslaughter of the 309 people who died in the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy.

The seven defendants were members of a government panel, called the Serious Risks Commission (seriously), who were asked to give an opinion (or risk statement) on the likelihood that  L'Aquila would be struck by a major earthquake, based on an analysis of the smaller tremors that the city was experiencing over the previous few months. The panel verdict delivered in March stated that there was "no reason to believe that a series of low-level tremors was a precursor to a larger event". A week later the city suffered an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 on the Richter Scale, denoting a “strong quake”.

The crux of the case against the scientists is that they did not predict the strong quake coming to L'Aquila to allow a proper evacuation of its inhabitants. The defense rebuttal is simply that such a prediction is impossible, and they cannot be held accountable for this unreasonable expectation. The scientists cannot be expected to function as a reliable advanced warning system. The international scientific community has weighed in to support the defendants with a one-page letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which supported the scientists by saying that there is no reliable scientific process for earthquake prediction, and they should not be treated as criminals for adhering to the accepted practices of their field.

Recently people were evacuated from New York City as precaution to the impact of Hurricane Irene. The hurricane passed by New York causing far less extensive damage than expected, and yet there were still complaints from residents about being asked to leave their homes “unnecessarily”. It seems that authorities cannot win in these matters unless they can predict the future accurately.