Paper No. 2
Presentation Time: 8:15 AM


DIECCHIO, Richard J., Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA 22030-4444,

How we communicate our science is as important as what we communicate. Science is a process of asking questions and seeking answers, many of which we do not find. Rather, we usually develop more questions. If we did have all the answers, we would not be doing science anymore. By simply telling the public what we know, we may send the wrong message. It is important to communicate the limits of scientific knowledge. Not doing so may have severe consequences, particularly when it comes to our understanding of natural hazards and our inability to predict when they will occur and how severe they will be.

We have engineered our infrastructures to withstand something less than the worst possible hazards, and for several reasons. We cannot predict the worst case. Therefore design criteria are developed based on a set of variables that are uncertain. The calculations and models are only best guesses. And the final design must be cost-effective. Because it has been “engineered”, the majority of the public considers it to be safe. The result is an infrastructure that is not sustainable, and a public expectation that it is.

Our society has the mindset that we can live anywhere we want, and we think we can engineer anything to suit our needs. But then, when a severe natural event occurs, the losses are great, and the grief can be unbearable. Examples abound: The Jersey Shore and New York City during Hurricane Sandy, Japan’s nuclear plants during the 2011 earthquake, New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and San Francisco during the Loma Prieta Earthquake are just a few. Every levee has its limit, and we geologists know that someday there will be a flood that will overtop the levee that was engineered to contain it. But the majority of the public does not understand this. If the public understood the uncertainty of the models and calculations, maybe they would have different expectations. Maybe they would make different decisions about the type of home in which they live, or the type of structures they build, or whether to buy earthquake or flood insurance, or whether to live in hazard-prone areas in the first place.