Sunday 18th November 2018

Resource Clips


When science doesn’t suffice

Geologists need public engagement and new approaches to achieve it: Iain Stewart

by Greg Klein

 

There’s nothing like jumping into a river at the head of a waterfall—especially the Zambezi above the hundred-plus-metre drop of Victoria Falls while an airborne crew films the stunt for television—to grab people’s attention. That’s the sort of thing Iain Stewart has done, but as a means to an end. A geologist with a gift for communication, he evidently has a mission to express a sense of wonder in the science and its importance to people’s lives. But what about all those other geos lacking the resources of network TV or the advantages of charisma? Stewart discussed that in a June 18 public event at the first-ever Resources for Future Generations conference in Vancouver.

A professor of geoscience communication and director of the Sustainable Earth Institute at Plymouth University, Stewart’s best known for several BBC documentary series that bring geology to a broad mainstream audience. He told the overflow Vancouver gathering that his shows often portray geoscientists as guardians: “If you’re worried about the planet’s future, trust me,” is how he described the message. “I’m a geoscientist. I understand the planet, I understand its rhythms, its sensitivities, its thresholds…. The stewardship of the planet is in good hands.”

Geologists need public engagement and new approaches to achieve it, says Iain Stewart

“Where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often
filled with things geo-poetical”: The John McPhee quote appears under
a still shot of Stewart exploring Mexico’s Cueva de los Cristales.

That contrasts with another professional duty: “If you want stuff for modern society, and people out there show no sign of not wanting it, then you need a geologist to go out and find this stuff.” Rock scientists function somewhere along the spectrum “between earth steward and earth exploiter,” in positions that “probably shift through our careers and through our life… The future of society depends on us being able to straddle those two worlds effectively, and it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Some of the job’s more obvious applications include providing energy, finding mineral resources and understanding natural disasters. But geology also has indirect roles in addressing problems like poverty and hunger, Stewart pointed out. “I think geoscience is critical to many of these issues but we don’t really show that, partly because we haven’t been trained to, but partly because we don’t really communicate what we do to a wider public.”

Maybe the root cause lies in a trait that sets scientists apart from others. While most people are generally interested in other people, he said, scientists’ interest in things and ideas marks them as “immensely unusual…. We know this, we know we’re not normal, we’re mentally unusual—in a good way.”

But that presents difficulties in expressing the relevance of their work to other people’s lives. Nor are many people overly rational and willing to make decisions based on objective info. One approach, therefore, would be to connect with others on a personal level by expressing passion for the subject, Stewart said. Another approach would emphasize the relevance of a particular topic to an individual, community or society at large.

If geoscience is going to contribute to many of these huge issues that the planet faces, we have to get more effective at communicating and I think that science itself isn’t going to be enough. We need better stories and, more than that, we need better storytellers.

It’s a matter of “geo-poetry,” he said, an approach that doesn’t just relate facts but places the facts within stories that draw people in. “If geoscience is going to contribute to many of these huge issues that the planet faces, we have to get more effective at communicating and I think that science itself isn’t going to be enough. We need better stories and, more than that, we need better storytellers.”

A formidable challenge indeed. But with enough practice, geoscientists just might get the public intrigued by their stories, maybe even imagining they can hear the dramatic music that BBC dubbed over Stewart’s Victoria Falls plunge.

Asked by ResourceClips.com whether public communication should be introduced into the geology curriculum, Stewart said, “I think it has to be—at the Master’s level, absolutely…. If we keep producing people who are really good technically but not able to communicate, then they kind of have one arm pinned behind their back.”

As for public engagement, the more controversial the topic, the better, he added. Widely held concerns about fracking, for example, can lead to more informative discourse on energy issues. He described controversy as “a gateway to what we want to talk about.”

But he acknowledged that academics operate on a different level than geoscientists employed by mining and exploration companies. “I’ve not had to do that,” he said. “I’ve done workshops to help companies tell their stories. But I’ve not actually had to do it myself and face the wrath of a company director asking me why I wiped 5% off the share price for what I said.”

Geologists need public engagement and new approaches to achieve it, says Iain Stewart

In an entirely different approach to public engagement, this fueled-by-mining car made an appearance
at the Resources for Future Generations trade show. The Mining Association of British Columbia
uses the Chevy Volt to raise awareness of the industry’s contributions to clean energy.

Read more about Resources for Future Generations.


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