GEOLOGY –THE HIDDEN SCIENCE

David Stephenson


 What I will focus on in the next few minutes is one of the goals of AGI’s Associates Program -- the development of an effective public outreach within the geosciences community.  This issue affects all of us.  Why?  The geoscience community has a visibility and a credibility problem.  For example, when you identify yourself as a geologist, often the public concept is as Sir Walter Scott defined geologists: . . . those that “…run up hill and down dale like so many roaddrunners gone daft.  They say it is to see how the world was made.”  Very rarely, if you proclaim yourself as a geologist, you might be asked “what kind? or the simple response “Oh.”  But too frequently you can just see the lights go off and the public by and large has no clue as to your function let alone your contribution as a scientist.  The geoscience community has been cloaked with a variety of public images, not all of them flattering.  We’re water-witchers, earthquake predictors, and prostituted expert witnesses in the courtroom.  And of particular concern is that too many of our elected representatives also hold these images – and significantly, do not know what contributions the geoscientists make.  In short, we represent a hidden science.

 Historically, we tend to produce scientific information and then leave it to others to use that information in the interest of society.  I suggest that is past time for us, collectively, to be more effective and more involved in communicating information and guiding its use and application with policy makers, engineers, the medical profession, the chemical, ecological, the biological professions, and other fields.  We should balance our research and activities so that we focus more on issues that are critical for society.  For example, who better to be at the core of discussions and actions on evaluating the ultimate carrying capacity of the earth?  Too infrequently in the classroom do we delve into issues that cross discipline lines, or on ethics, values, or responsibilities.  These issues all tie into a more effective public outreach.

 Consider that students that enter college this year were mostly born in or about l981.  This means that they have had different experiences than older generations.  They have never experienced the age of nuclear bomb shelters (and therefore have probably never heard of Pete Seger as he sang “I’m standing on the outside of your shelter looking in.”)The entering-college generation have always lived in a world of AIDS.  They never owned a record player and therefore don’t know the meaning of “you sound like a broken record.”  They have always had cable TV, remote controls, VCRs, and Walkmans.  On the other hand, most of them have probably never seen a black-and-white TV.  They don’t know who J.R. is.  They’ve never seen Larry Bird play basketball.  And, worst of all, they believe water comes from a tap and popcorn from a microwave oven.

 So, this is the broad background of our 18-year old and younger student resource base.  For those now entering college or universities, they are just a few years away from being our next labor force, our next fledging policy makers, and the next round of voters.  These are the very students that we are trying to attract into a profession in the geosciences.  In my opinion, these students live in a different world of values, and I’m not sure that we appreciate, nor consider, that fact in when developing our programs.  The challenge is what will we do to meld these different societies?

 Christine Turner, of the USGS in Denver, had some appropriate words relative to the status of geoscientists.  She wrote in the January 1999, issue of Geotimes on “Geo-Philosophy, A Role for Geoscience in Society.”  Paraphrasing from her text:
 

“Our culture has retained only those aspects of our pioneer heritage that suit us.  For example, we embrace individualism, a creed of prevailing against or dominating nature, freedom to do as we please.  We also embrace continuous growth, but we have disconnected ourselves from other aspects of our heritage, such as responsibility, risk, uncertainty, respect, even awe.
 
Contemporary culture encourages us to expect financial security, expect certainty, expect zero risk, expect precise answers to complex questions, and expect assurances that bad things will not happen.  When this imaginary contract is abrogated, our response is to affix blame and seek legal redress.  We have actually forsaken the rugged part of our individualism and have become instead entitled individuals.  We worry about our rights, but not our responsibilities.

We geoscientists may serve society best if we return to our philosophical roots and learn the vocabulary and concepts that embrace a nobler vision for discourse in the public arena.  With this enlarged perspective, we will be able to articulate how geology, the study of the earth, is the central science in the interconnected world in which we are destined to live.”


 Therefore, I urge that we reconsider and define what our responsibilities as geoscientists are, not only to each other but also to the public.  Our collective goal should be to explore (1) what industrial and academic professionals might do differently in education/training programs, and (2) how to communicate more effectively what geoscientists do.  We can not quietly stand by while decisions involving resources are made without our input and our employment and economic futures are made by the uninformed.  We can’t afford to be a hidden science