We all know that volcanoes and earthquakes are geological phenomena, and many of us know of plate tectonics as the force behind many such natural hazards. But in a geologically quiet place such as the UK, most of us know little about, say, the faulting or water flows in the rock beneath our feet.
And yet geology is inherent to some of the most pressing questions that communities across the UK face as they seek to meet resource needs, understand technical risks and their social impacts, and ensure that the regulation and governance of technology protect public and environmental health and wellbeing. On issues such as shale gas, geothermal power and the storage of carbon and radioactive waste, real public engagement in informed debate and decision-making is essential from both a practical and an ethical point of view.
In the search for suitable sites for the disposal of radioactive waste, for instance, the government now recognises that communication of the relevant geology is essential. It must be part of the toolkit for effective public engagement, to support site selection and community partnership in the development of a repository.
Professional geoscientists working in such areas, then, must understand the public’s knowledge and concerns, and must develop strategies to communicate what they know and do. A Geological Society conference in June brought together geoscientists from academia, industry and government, as well as science communication practitioners and social scientists, to explore these challenges, focusing on three areas related to the UK’s energy supply: radioactive waste disposal, shale gas and fracking, and carbon capture and storage.
Some of the fundamental ideas that geologists bring to these issues are disconcertingly alien. To most people, 100,000 years seems a very long time to rely on the geosphere to contain radioactive waste. In geological terms it is the blink of an eye, and geologists may see their appreciation of deep time as giving them a privileged understanding of our planet and the processes that have shaped it. But unless geologists work hard to understand public perspectives and concerns, these different world views may undermine public confidence in the judgment of the people providing advice about radioactive
Similarly, geologists are comfortable dealing with uncertainty and incomplete data, and may view their ability to work in this way as a core element of their job. Communicating openly and effectively about how they work with incomplete data, seek to constrain uncertainty and make probabilistic assessments – for example of hydrocarbon resources or risk from natural hazards – is essential if these are to be recognised as attributes with value, rather than expressions of ignorance.
As discourse about the communication of climate science shows, perceptions of ignorance and uncertainty may undermine public confidence in knowledge and expert judgments. They may also create the conditions for those arguing for a particular point of view on a contested matter such as fracking to play fast and loose with the evidence. If it appears that nothing is certain, unsubstantiated claims are more likely to get traction, and evidence to get cherry-picked. Professional scientists are not above such guerrilla tactics.
Researchers and institutions that advocate looking more holistically and dispassionately at a range of relevant evidence, and recognising uncertainties, can appear guarded and conditional by contrast. In this asymmetric warfare of science communication, simple but false certainties can have an appeal that more complex and nuanced explanations and assessments lack.
Speakers at our conference highlighted some practical ways to improve geoscience communication: producing images that show clearly what is going on under the ground (paying attention to vital details such as scale), finding the right words and narratives, using social media and making data open and discoverable. But it is equally important for geologists to work in an interdisciplinary way with other natural scientists, engineers, social scientists and professional practitioners with expertise in communication and public engagement.
Behind these issues is a major problem in how researchers are trained. Secondary school gives pupils the impression that science is made up of three branches – physics, chemistry and biology – that have little to do with each other. Instead, we should highlight the overlaps and interfaces between specialisms, raise awareness of other disciplines, and stimulate genuine interdisciplinary thinking and working.
Careers information and guidance, reflecting the diversity of what different kinds of scientist actually do, should also be at the heart of science teaching. Reforming how we teach science in schools is vital to training the next generation of scientists and ensuring they have the skills they need, and to enabling the wider public to be discerning in their approach to scientific claims about politically contested matters.
This piece was first published in Research Fortnight on 3 September 2014, under the title ‘Rocky relationship with the public’.