In this essay, we analyze the public communication debacle before the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake that led to the infamous trial of the "L'Aquila Seven." Examining the trial transcripts to extract norms regarding the proper role of scientists in society, we conclude that the first verdict interpellated the figure of the responsible scientist citizen who is expected to perform rhetorical citizenship when communicating with a lay public, while the second assumed a distinction between public and technical spheres that absolves scientists from responsibility to their fellow citizens and reduces their role to performance of an expertise divorced from rhetoric. Tracing the civic outcomes of these conflicting norms, we identify three missed opportunities during the prequake discourse in which the scientists failed to correct statements that they, and only they, knew to be flawed. To prevent future communicative debacles that arise from a dangerous separation of scientists and laypeople, we argue that scientists need to come to see themselves as scientist citizens, experts who take on the civic responsibility of clearly communicating their knowledge to their fellow citizens when such sharing is necessary to the public good.


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pp. 95-128
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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