Italians Consider Hiding Seismic Data to Reduce Public 'Melodrama'

Should scientists remove seismic databases from public view to prevent panic among civilians living in hazardous areas? Last week, the head of the Italian National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), which monitors quakes through 400 stations spread all over Italy, said he is considering the possibility of refraining from publishing seismic data it collects. When questioned about the idea, the institute backtracked.

The goal of INGV head Enzo Boschi's idea, apparently, is to reduce the chance of the public and media overreacting to possible quakes. The proposal comes 3 months after an indictment was issued against seven members of the Italian committee for the evaluation of major risks—among them Boschi—for failing to predict last year's quake in L'Aquila, central Italy.

Last week, Boschi told the press agency ANSA that he is evaluating the possibility of shutting down the online national seismic database. Data, he says, are often used by media to get to unrealistic conclusions. "Anytime there is an earthquake [in Italy], there is always a melodrama."

Boschi blames Italian media for misrepresenting scientific data and acting as scaremongers. Head of the Italian Agency for Civil Protection Guido Bertolaso told the National Geological Society last week in Pisa, Italy: "I see as a negative sign the affirmation of the prophets of doom, instead of those who chose earth science as a reason for living."

Boschi and Bertolaso also highlight that Italian officials need a better way of evaluating seismic hazards, better building regulations, and improved construction practice as an essential part of making earthquakes less dangerous in the future.

Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey, agrees. But he says that withdrawing data would not be the best move for scientific institutions that monitor quakes. "Our data are widely available to the public and the media following any significant seismic event. I believe that prompt and objective information about earthquakes is essential to allay concern, to coordinate an appropriate emergency response, and to plan for future events," he told ScienceInsider.

While Boschi declined to talk to ScienceInsider, INGV's spokesperson answered that he was essentially joking and that halting the publication of data was not a serious proposal.