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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Climate change is some serious shit. ‘Nuf said.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Plate tectonics. Some places are more hazardous than others, and we can do a pretty good (but not perfect) job of identifying them.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?