Cliff Stanley

With global warming, the ozone layer, pollution, groundwater supply and quality, and high metals and petroleum prices in the news so much these days, geologists are now being asked for their opinion quite a lot, as the public is finally showing some interest in the earth and in earth processes. This is causing geology as a profession to rest front and centre on the public's radar screen on a reasonably regular basis. A consequence of this development is larger class sizes in university geology courses, as students realize that there are jobs to be had in geology, and start considering geology as a career choice. That this is happening despite the fact that most high schools don't offer a course in geology speaks volumes about the interest level that society now has regarding geology. While this enhanced public interest certainly represents a refreshing change, and is obviously good for university geology departments, the public's interest level and their actual knowledge of earth processes are two different things. It is the public's overall geological knowledge level, and the consequences that result from it, that I wish to expand on in this essay.

If one listens carefully to much of what is said about the earth and how it works at your average cocktail party (and I would postulate that this venue does represent a reasonably accurate gauge of the public's knowledge of almost any subject, even though it doesn't represent a rigorous scientific sample), one has to come away with the distinct impression that the public is woefully ignorant of geology and geological processes. Although one can always find a certain percentage of people who confuse geology and geography, it is also pretty clear these days that the general public really can't comprehend geological processes, largely because, with a few rather dramatic exceptions (e.g., volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.) they can't see these processes happen. Even geologists have trouble understanding the processes that they deal with, and it is clear that observing the process leads to significant improvements in understanding (e.g., seeing black smokers on the seafloor in the early 1980's caused a substantial improvement in our understanding of massive sulphide deposits).

But it's not just the processes that the public has trouble with. It is often the scale at which these processes take place and the amount of time they take to complete that is so baffling to non-geologists. The public has a very difficult time adapting their thinking to the time and space scales inherent in geology. Astronomy suffers from the same problem, 'so we are not alone'! Essentially, the public today lacks a full appreciation of what might be called 'deep time', the time scales that many geological processes take to reach completion. Most of the public really can't even fathom the concept of one thousand years (i.e., about 40 generations), much less one million years. These time scales are just too large to understand. As a result, the public often views geological processes happening in their own alternative time scale, causing gross under- or over-estimations of the perceived amount of time a geological process takes to reach completion.

For example, I have heard on many occasions people talk about 'climate change' in one breath, and in the next breath use yesterday's slightly anomalous weather as evidence of that very same 'climate change'. Clearly, we are talking about two things that bear some similarity, but that occur on very different time scales. Unfortunately, the general public commonly has trouble perceiving this. In fact even when they do appreciate these differences, they fail to accurately understand the real time scale that operates because their perceptions remain un-calibrated. Are we talking 100, 1000, or 10,000 years here when we are talking about climate change? I would argue that we know so little about climate change that even geologists have trouble answering that question. And the public, which doesn't even understand 'deep time', is even more baffled. Typically, the public tends to assume that geological processes happen on shorter time scales, largely because then they can at least comprehend them.

So where am going with this discussion? Well, it's pretty clear that public policy in today's world is largely controlled by public opinion. Our governments, corporate world and even institutions of higher learning often shape their behaviour keeping a close eye on public opinion. In many cases, this gets rather out of hand, as the institutions rely too much on public opinion and too little on fact. Managing a university to maximize one's 'MacLeans ranking' is probably just one rather distasteful example, particularly given that this is likely to be more of a detriment than a benefit to the university. I am sure you can identify many other examples.

The key point to make about today's penchant for institutions to follow and respond to public opinion is that if this approach is to be successful, public opinion must derive from a well-informed public. Can we say that the public is well informed about matters geological? Certainly as a whole, probably not! Our fifth estate, the press, isn't doing such a good job of informing the public these days about the geological world, as their efforts are largely directed toward 'viewer ratings' than accurate and unbiased reporting. We commonly see dramatic images of natural disasters on the TV, and come away concluding that the frequencies of these events are increasing. In most cases, they are not; it's just the fact that 24 hour weather channels have to air something, and they can now get video feeds of disasters from anywhere in the world to keep you viewing. These events have always been happening; you just didn't hear about them.

As a result, the public, in many cases, may be exposed to a much distorted perception of what is transpiring in our world. And with these rather inaccurate perceptions, we formulate the public opinions that guide the management and directions of our institutions. I was once told by an Australian bureaucrat that "science is now completely irrelevant. If the public perceives that a problem exists, whether it does or not, then the government has to be seen to be doing something about it!" Here is an institution that is willing to potentially ignore truth in favour of public opinion. The facts don't appear to matter! This may be a rather extreme example, but I believe that it falls closer to the mark than I would have hoped. If our society is to thrive, then good decisions have to be made on the basis of sound data and forthright principles. If public perceptions used to formulate policy in whatever form are skewed by external forces and self-serving interests, then the whole system may fall apart.

Unfortunately, I see few institutions with the courage to respond in an appropriate manner, basing their activities mostly on facts and data instead of potentially misguided opinion. This is largely because this represents the harder, high road. Doing the right thing in the face of contrary public opinion risks much, as one commonly has to fight a public relations war using a press that is more sympathetic to a small number of vociferous protestors than an institution trying to do the right thing.

Nevertheless, exceptions do occur. One third of universities in Canada have taken the unprecedented step of no longer supplying MacLeans with the data they require to make their university rankings. These universities boldly undertook this 'in-action' because of the superficial treatment they perceived that MacLeans applied to the numerical measures of their university's performance. I serve on an Acadia committee that reviews the information that we provide to MacLeans and, although we have fared well historically in the performance reviews, there is much wrong with the way MacLeans collects and treats the data. The universities that didn't cooperate with MacLeans didn't feel they were being treated fairly, and that the public wasn't being provided with accurate information, and so chose not to actively participate in the game. Bravo for them!

So where do our alumni come into all of this if public policy is based on a largely uninformed public? Obviously, you can help to ensure the public is well informed. You, having obtained a geological education from Acadia University, have a far better understanding of geology than the public at large. You understand the processes that are taking place and the time scales they take place in. As a result, you can contribute much.

When you hear people discussing popular topics involving geological processes (e.g., global warming, diminishing resources, etc.), you can speak out. You can inform. You can clarify and help to calibrate the public. I'm not saying you have to do this in newspaper print, or on TV. You don't have to become a public persona for some cause or belief. Rather, just point out privately to people you are talking with who don't understand 'deep time' or geological processes what the geology world believes to be true.

The public is interested! They want and need this information, so don't be squeamish about providing it. In this way, you will be doing your part in informing the public, shaping public opinion, and influencing the way in which our institutions manage our world. You will be playing your part, to the extent that you can, and making a positive contribution. You will be doing this based on the best information (data) available, and not on plethora of mis-representations that the public is exposed to on a regular basis by special interests. Your university education provided you with the ability to think and some facts to think with. The public invested in (i.e., subsidized) this education. Using your knowledge and background for the public's benefit is a wonderful way of saying thank you!