Conviction of the Italian Scientists

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As reported by the APS (American Physical Society) December news bulletin, the conviction of the 6 Italian scientists + 1 administrator has raised questions about how risk of rare-but-not-impossible events should be communicated to the public.  The problem is basically that the statistics of these events do not follow the kind of statistical laws that insurance companies use, i.e., the Bell Curve, also called the Normal or Gaussian distribution.  Instead, the statistics are "fat-tail" or power law statistics.

Several decades ago, Benoit Mandelbrot, who coined the term "fractals", observed that cotton prices did not follow the statistics of the Bell Curve, but instead demonstrated what is now called fractional Brownian motion or geometric Brownian motion.  In these statistical distributions, very large events can happen far more frequently than in systems obeying Bell Curve or Gaussian statistics.  Earthquakes are one such system.  Since most of us including most scientists even today, feel comfortable only with the Bell Curve, it is not unusual to find that communication of difficult concepts to the public is difficult.  

In the Italian situation, the problem is compounded by the fact that the media act as intermediaries to the public, and so communication is further compromised.  At Open Hazards, we feel that we can at least partially solve the problem by communicating with you through web sites and blogs such as the one you are reading. 

The APS article can be found here:

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Italian Scientists, Earthquake Forecasting

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