What’s the Good News of Geology?

There’s a great post up at Apparent Dip outlining some thoughts and prescriptions on public outreach, including:

5. We need to find a Carl Sagan of geology, someone who can take the message to the public.

That’s all well and good, but it ducks an important question: What is the message? Fund my research or San Francisco gets it? Appealing to a scientist’s desire for grant money might be a good way to motivate them to spend time on public education, but it’s a silly rubric to use when determining what we think is important for the lay public to understand. Much better to consider what people are actually doing with their various understandings, half-understandings, and misunderstandings of the geosciences: serving on juries, deciding where to live and where to put factories, figuring out how to supply us all with energy and water, closing schools because some quack predicted an earthquake, and hopefully, finding joy in the crazy way our planet is put together.

Even with that in mind, though, most of what scientists think is tremendously exciting and interesting and utterly essential isn’t, really.

Before I start listing the earth science messages I think are utterly essential, I’d like to note that I’m uneasy with the way this discussion is always framed as a one-way endeavor, scientists reaching out to correct an ignorant public. Sometimes when I see people using the word “dialogue” to describe their one-way outreach efforts my eyes roll around like a teenager’s while wee puffs of steam escape from my ears. As soon as I come up with something more interesting than simple admonishments, I’ll write a good long screed, but for now, I’ll just say that I’m also trying to keep my ears open.

First, of course, are facts and fact-like tidbits that have obvious policy implications:

  1. The Big One is coming (for values of “Big One” applicable to geohazards around the world). Geology provides a unique perspective on hazard and risk that goes beyond the wee dribbles of information provided by the historical record; planning for rare-but-ginormous natural disasters is really impossible without it. People living in at-risk areas should take some basic precautions.
  2. Earth science saves lives. Yes, “fund my research or San Francisco gets it” is a vital part of the message. We can provide useful warnings of oncoming volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and even earthquakes. We can also feed yummy yummy data to hungry hungry engineers so that buildings and infrastructure will be more likely to survive natural disasters.
  3. Climate change is some serious shit. ‘Nuf said.
  4. Oil is a limited resource. Some oil deposits are cheaper to exploit than others; the amount of oil in the ground is not the only number we need in order to make good policy decisions. Ditto mineral resources.
  5. There’s water in that thar ground. The geologic setting of an aquifer controls how easy it is to pollute it, use it up, use it for water recycling and storage, and induce a foundation-cracking degree of land subsidence.

Then, there are facts that don’t have straightforward policy implications, but provide an important conceptual framework. People who don’t grasp the fundamentals will be unable to engage in effective, reality-based political debate.

It’s really, really hard not to put down whole survey courses worth of content for each subspecialty here, but as Thermochronic points out, most people have very little time for basic science. Even if we’re the most effective and edutaining spoon-feeders imaginable, we still need to prioritize.

  1. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old; anyone who says otherwise is itching for a fight. And for crying out loud, carbon 14 is not the only radioactive isotope on the planet.
  2. Plate tectonics. Some places are more hazardous than others, and we can do a pretty good (but not perfect) job of identifying them.
  3. Basic atmospheric and climate science: how the greenhouse effect works, what smog is and where it comes from… I’m sure all you global warming wonks can come up with a better list than I can.
  4. Basic (really basic) hydrogeology: what an aquifer is, how water enters and leaves, and how ground water withdrawl can cause land surface subsidence.

Finally, the tricky bits:

  1. Science isn’t just a collection of facts. I don’t think we should go down the road of snotty Popperian “my epistemology is better than yours” priesthood, but we should talk about the process of science, what scientific debate looks like, what scientific consensus looks like, and why the scientific community should be trusted. Geology and other historical sciences bear an extra burden here, because our hypothesis testing doesn’t always look like the kind of experiment you’d expect from physics or chemistry – you can’t just re-subduct the Farallon slab with a different dip angle to see what happens.

    Lumped in here should also be an understanding of the scientific habit of constantly hedging, qualifying, cavilling, and limiting our conclusions. Most media training will tell you to leave out all the qualifiers, because they make shitty soundbites. This is true, but they’re also an important part of the scientific method, which is why they tend to slip in during interviews anyway.

  2. The difference between science and pseudoscience. This is one of the biggest reasons I think a snotty Popperian priesthood is a bad idea: the aura of an “expert” is too easy to fake. People need better scientific bullshit detectors.
  3. Nerdy glee. This is why I used religious terminology for the post title. It’s also why I blog. I have absolutely no pragmatic justification for this, but ZOMG rocks tell stories, and how cool is that? Can we all dance around singing about how cool that is? Can I get an Amen?

    I don’t think the word “spiritual” carries even a wee tittle of meaning, and I don’t believe in souls, but I’ll be damned if telling these stories about the world around us isn’t a spiritual practice that’s good for the soul.

That’s all I’ve got on the top of my head, and I’d best get back to being a couple of steps removed from feeding yummy yummy data to hungry hungry engineers. So what would you add? What would you subtract?

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Scores of Sagans » Ron Schott’s Geology Home Companion Blog on 20 Jul 2007 at 2:16 pm

    […] in January, Thermochronic and Yami both expressed a yearning for a “Carl Sagan of geology”. I certainly agree with the […]


  1. Thermochronic wrote:

    Ha! I dodge nothing! Good post. I alluded to this in the comment you made at my blog, but I thought I’d add a little here to. I guess I don’t necessarily think that it has to be message based. Using Carl Sagan as an example, cosmology and the universe have little to do with everyday life. We can make those arguments, just like I can even for thermochronology (yes, I can state my case and keep a straight face), but that is dangerous. So as soon as something isn’t crucial to our existence we shouldn’t pay attention to it? If our research isn’t directly applicable then it isn’t interesting? I think many people have a natural curiousity about the world they live in, and if we can present it well, then we can spark their interest. Let loose when you are at some scenic overlook that you are a geologist, and almost invariably people within earshot will want to know about what they are looking at. OK, I am going on too long, this should be a proper post.

  2. yami wrote:

    On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. Capturing imaginations is a valid goal in and of itself.

    On the other… there’s only so much space on high school and jr. high syllabi, so much space on bookstore shelves, so many hours in a day. No matter how mad your outreach skillz, some people will leave with no fire in their eyes whatsoever – and “practical” topics can capture imaginations, too!

  3. Thermochronic wrote:

    I agree. I guess it also has to do with what our individual strengths are, whatever works for you, whatever mad skillz you have.. Getting geoscience into official high school curriculum is another issue I suppose. I grew up and went to public school K-12 in California, one of the most geologically active states, hell, geologically active places in the world, and geology was only taught as half of one semester! I had excellent science teachers but so little earth science.

  4. yami wrote:

    Heh. In Iowa, I had a year of dull, straight-from-the-oldschool-textbook earth science in 7th grade. I had no idea that it was interesting until I took it as part of my breadth requirement in college.

  5. Lab Lemming wrote:

    You’ve been living in liberal land way too long. Forget policy, the real message in point 4 is:
    “As oil and mineral resources get scarcer, there will be some big bucks spent on finding new deposits and characterizing old ones”.

  6. yami wrote:

    Yes, and those big bucks will come right from consumers’ pockets, too. Or maybe taxpayers’ pockets. Whatever, it’s not without its serious economic consequences.

  7. gengar wrote:

    More geology earlier would definitely be a good thing – it’s the ultimate practical science. Maybe we should write the course for them :-)

  8. Brian wrote:

    Good discussion.

    One of the interesting things that always happens is that public awareness/interest for Earth science typically peaks in the days to weeks following a natural disaster (e.g., the Indian Ocean tsunami). Everybody wants to know how it works, and can even feel some fascination in addition to awe. But, then several weeks and months go by and that collective buzz fades away. We have a short memory. I live in San Francisco…and often ponder just how I might perish. But there are people here who just don’t want to talk about it…because talking about it makes them remember and that’s no good. Some ‘guy on the street’ type of interview showed this guy on the street saying that since it hasn’t happened since 1906…well, that’s a long time, it probably won’t happen again. Ugh.

    As for the petroleum resources…that’s a topic for another discussion.

  9. yami wrote:

    Hmm, so we’ve forgotten Loma Prieta, but the 100th anniversary hoopla was enough to remind us of 1906?

    I kind of want to do a followup survey of students who took the doom’n’gloom earthquakes survey course I TA’d for this fall. I think we had the shit scared out of ’em by the end of the semester, but I have no idea how long that’ll stick.

    “That’s a long time, it probably won’t happen again” means we need to hammer on what time means to a geologist… Deep Time should probably be the first essential foundational concept on the list.

  10. Thermochronic wrote:

    I think it means that we must start figuring out how to cause, or at least trigger, natural disasters. Maybe schedule them a few weeks before major budgetary meetings. I know there is a James Bond along this line.

  11. Lab Lemming wrote:

    I try to teach Mrs. Lemming about deep time by cleaning the toilet on the timescale of continental collisions, mass extinctions, and orogenic cycles. She doesn’t seem to be very accepting of the consequences, though. Any suggestions?

  12. yami wrote:

    If you clean on the timescale of continental collisions, that means you’ll be having very small amounts of cleaning happening all the time, right? Aren’t there things you can hang in the tank for that, or a toilet roomba?

  13. Lab Lemming wrote:

    collisions /= drift.

  14. yami wrote:

    Yebbut, how long have India and Eurasia been colliding? Compared to the life of a toilet…

  15. nayagam wrote:

    ..most of what scientists think is tremendously exciting and interesting and utterly essential isn’t, really..

    May be. But, it is also true that quite often what most scientists think as a trivial, uninteresting and an obvious consequence of a well-established theory isn’t so trivial and uninteresting either.

    Scientists are humans and are not exceptions to the maxim “familiarity breeds contempt”. The greatest challenge in outreach, as I see it, is to have familiarity and still not have contempt.

    Is it possible to admire the beauty of something you learnt in your school even after you’ve got a doctorate in that subject ? It is definitely possible, but, it is not easy….

    And BTW, you’ve a great blog !

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