Communicating Through Controversy

What is geoscientists’ role in public engagement?

Hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change.

Hardly a day goes by without geological issues of some kind or another making the news. The pervasiveness of social media makes members of the public more likely than ever to voice their opinion about these topics and to share information that may or may not be accurate.

So what is a geoscientist’s role in this increasingly connected society? Who is responsible for answering tough questions about the energy sector’s impact on the environment?

Iain Stewart is an expert on these questions.

He is professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, UK and director of the university’s Sustainable Earth Institute.

Stewart spent 15 years with the BBC developing popular documentaries about the Earth and tackling controversial geoscientific issues like climate change.

The Scotland native with a background in hazard geoscience now serves as one of few professionals dedicated to geoscience communication.

He’ll be sharing his expertise as the keynote speaker at a special session held by the AAPG Division of Environmental Geosciences at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio on May 21, entitled, “Communicating Contested Geoscience to the Public: ‘Matters of Fact’ vs. ‘Matters of Concern.’”

Geoscience Communication

Stewart defines geoscience communication as “explaining how the Earth works and what it means for people.”

“It is communicating that trinity, physical processes that happen in the earth, the long-term view of where it comes from, and the critical bit … what it means for ordinary people on the street,” he elaborated.

Stewart noted that the field has vital importance today.

“So many of the fundamental challenges for society in the coming decades are related to the planet and our relationship with the planet, and geoscientists have a critical role in that,” he said. “The only way we are going to be able to face those challenges is if we can communicate what we do.”

Communication Challenges

Stewart noted that many geoscientists are adept at providing information, they are not necessarily good communicators.

“Scientists start off explaining technical things. They start with information because they operate in a world where all the people they meet professionally swap information with logical arguments and data. That works for the people in our group, but if you go to harder-to-reach groups – politicians, stakeholders, people who aren’t from a science background – they connect on a whole other level. They look for trust, responsiveness, equity, a sense of fundamental values and belief systems. That’s what they are looking for from communication,” he said.

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Image Caption

Iain Stewart at Victoria Falls in Zambia, from BBC's 'Rise of the Continents - Africa' documentary.

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Hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change.

Hardly a day goes by without geological issues of some kind or another making the news. The pervasiveness of social media makes members of the public more likely than ever to voice their opinion about these topics and to share information that may or may not be accurate.

So what is a geoscientist’s role in this increasingly connected society? Who is responsible for answering tough questions about the energy sector’s impact on the environment?

Iain Stewart is an expert on these questions.

He is professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, UK and director of the university’s Sustainable Earth Institute.

Stewart spent 15 years with the BBC developing popular documentaries about the Earth and tackling controversial geoscientific issues like climate change.

The Scotland native with a background in hazard geoscience now serves as one of few professionals dedicated to geoscience communication.

He’ll be sharing his expertise as the keynote speaker at a special session held by the AAPG Division of Environmental Geosciences at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio on May 21, entitled, “Communicating Contested Geoscience to the Public: ‘Matters of Fact’ vs. ‘Matters of Concern.’”

Geoscience Communication

Stewart defines geoscience communication as “explaining how the Earth works and what it means for people.”

“It is communicating that trinity, physical processes that happen in the earth, the long-term view of where it comes from, and the critical bit … what it means for ordinary people on the street,” he elaborated.

Stewart noted that the field has vital importance today.

“So many of the fundamental challenges for society in the coming decades are related to the planet and our relationship with the planet, and geoscientists have a critical role in that,” he said. “The only way we are going to be able to face those challenges is if we can communicate what we do.”

Communication Challenges

Stewart noted that many geoscientists are adept at providing information, they are not necessarily good communicators.

“Scientists start off explaining technical things. They start with information because they operate in a world where all the people they meet professionally swap information with logical arguments and data. That works for the people in our group, but if you go to harder-to-reach groups – politicians, stakeholders, people who aren’t from a science background – they connect on a whole other level. They look for trust, responsiveness, equity, a sense of fundamental values and belief systems. That’s what they are looking for from communication,” he said.

For Stewart, effective communication involves shifting the focus from “matters of fact,” or pure information, to “matters of concern,” information people want to know.

He noted that most people are not interested in the exact science used to drill oil and gas wells, but they do want to know that the ground won’t collapse into the holes drilled during operations. They may not care about where subduction zones are located, but they want to know why earthquakes happen.

“They key motivational challenge for me is getting across to people the essence of what we do and why we do it. What’s new to some people is that the public’s response to that is important,” he said.

“We can’t just getaway with telling people things that we study from hundreds of millions of years ago without them saying ‘So what? My taxes are paying for this. Why am I paying for you to do this?’ We have to have an answer for them,” he added.

Public Engagement

Stewart said that most scientists use a “deficit model” of communication, assuming that if members of the public only understood the science better, they would change their way of thinking. The model leaves out personal interaction, a key factor in securing both comprehension and rapport.

“We talk about educating the public, but we don’t engage them. We live in this little technical bubble defined by the scientific method that removes us from the equation. That may be good for science, but it’s lousy for engaging with people,” he said. “Science is critical, but when we are reaching out, we have to package it in a different way.”

Stewart said his strategy for understanding and communicating science changed dramatically while working with BBC, an experience he described as “a real apprenticeship for reaching mass audiences.”

“It was a completely different way of working,” he said. “The audience is the most important. I started to ask, ‘Why should they be interested in what I have to say?’”

Stewart noted that most scientists take the opposite approach: they decide what to study, complete the project and, finally, take the findings to the public.

“Most scientists don’t want to have any public input at all in what they are doing until the work is finished and they are ready to share their results,” he said. “But you really need to be bringing in your audiences and your stakeholders to have a dialog with them about how their lives might be changed by the work that you are doing.”

Learning to engage stakeholders early in the process is important not only for academia but also for industry, particularly for projects that raise questions about the energy sector’s impact on the environment.

Understanding the Subsurface

Stewart noted that many people’s perceptions of the environment and of climate change lead them to identify petroleum geoscientists as “part of the problem.”

“It’s a massively emotional argument. You just need to say Shell, BP or Exxon and people assume a certain position,” he said. “The energy transition – getting out of fossil fuels into zero carbon – is a big narrative.”

Stewart recognized that, as a communicator, there is little he can do about people’s opinions on climate change. He can, however, help people understand how geological factors affect the environment.

“The fascinating bit for me is that most of our geological energy comes from the subsurface, but the subsurface world is very alien to the outside world. There is a notion that frac’ing, carbon capture and storage and other things seen as ‘energy solutions’ are messing with nature or tampering with the subsurface. People find it deeply worrying that we are doing things down there below them,” he said.

“For geologists, the subsurface is our world, it’s very familiar to us and we are comfortable with it, but ordinarily people have no connection with the subsurface. Why would they?” he explained.

For Stewart, geoscientists can and should help members of the public connect with the subsurface, understand how it works and have an appreciation for its beauty. They can do so by employing narrative devices, imagery and personal stories commonly used by journalists. These skills can be learned, just like technical skills can, he added.

“It’s time for geoscientists to take on board basic principles that journalists and public relations people understand and then weave it into what we do so we are more media savvy. This will help us engage better with media professionals and with the public,” he said.

Stewart noted that while there always will be a role for public relations and communications professionals, geoscientists bring added value to the discussions with stakeholders.

“We will always need PR and communications professionals, but geoscientists can bring humanity to the discussion. We are not faceless; we are real people, and we can be better champions,” he said.

Why Communication Matters

Stewart added that, in addition to giving them a human face, having geoscientists participate in the discussion is good business for the energy industry.

“If we don’t manage to get our messages across about how important energy is in the coming decades and how important the energy transition will be, there is a danger that the oil and gas sector will be marginalized,” he said.

Stewart said oil and gas professionals should learn to communicate that the industry brings more than petroleum.

“The oil and gas industry has lots to provide in terms of sustainable development in developing countries. It’s a critical part of the many of the infrastructure and resource bases in many countries. There’s a hugely positive contribution that can be made here if we can communicate what we do, if we can expand out from just simply this oil and gas world into the energy world and also the resource world of our planet which is going to have more and more challenging demands on energy and energy resources,” he said.

A Culture of Sustainability

Stewart shared how his initial interest in geoscience communication led to an appreciation for sustainability – a concept that intersects with politics, political science and social processes, alongside Earth sciences.

“Developing sustainability is a complex, even wicked problem that involves huge amounts of communication. It’s trying to understand different dynamics and communicate something relevant and consistent,” he said.

“Scientists will look at a problem through the scientific lens, but there are other lenses … societal and economic. The geoscientists understand the technical bit. Social and economic considerations seem like someone else problems, but if you care about sustainability, all three of those have to be brought together,” he said.

While in San Antonio, Stewart will meet with like-minded DEG and AAPG members who advocate adding sustainability and environmental concerns to the petroleum geoscience discussion.

DEG President Mary Barrett invited Stewart, at the suggestion of AAPG President Denise Cox, who has championed energy sustainability throughout her term.

Barrett said sessions like Stewart’s help the Division accomplish its mission.

“DEG hopes to broaden awareness of environmental and sustainable energy issues, even though it may not be an AAPG member’s expertise,” she said.

Stewart’s talk is one of several in ACE within conference theme “Energy Sustainability and the Environment,” featuring oral and poster sessions covering environmental impact, induced seismicity, produced water management and carbon capture.

The DEG/Energy Minerals Division (EMD) luncheon will also feature a talk by Equinor Chief Economist Erik Wærness, who will address scenarios for a future energy transition.

Barrett said she is looking forward to the Contested Geoscience session.

“We do a great deal of good for the world, and we have minimized our environmental footprint over the decades, but we are always going to be asked to do more. We need to continue to do the right things and improve communicating that to a skeptical audience,” she said.

Expectations for the Session

Stewart said he looks forward to interacting with and learning from energy professionals attending the session.

“I want to provoke people gently to think about what their messages are for people and how they can sell their world to the public and politicians,” he said.

He plans to cover the importance of storytelling, sharing personal stories of explorationists, highlighting the positive aspects of their profession and reminding people of their love of the Earth.

“Most of the people in the room joined the profession because they were interested in the planet. The planet is this most amazing place. We aren’t in oil and gas because we were desperate to be in oil and gas. It’s because we found something fascinating and inspiring. If we can capture that and convey it to other people, everything else follows,” he said.

For more information visit ace.aapg.org.

Comments (2)

Fostering Public Engagement through Effective Dissemination of Geoscience Knowledge
It is becoming quite evident that traditional geoscience curriculum is apparently lacking a critical component from its offering known as public engagement. A clear, simple and jargon-free statement can often reach numerous individuals and enable them to interact with geologists to share mutually interesting knowledge. Feeling a sense of belonging and acceptance can easily promote scientific curiosity and developing citizens’ science. The practice of bringing geoscience knowledge to the grass-root level needs to be exercised in terms of giving visibility, importance and connecting with societal needs. It is well-known that well-informed, scientifically-sound citizen group can exert strategic pressure on legislative council and become formidable group to achieve desired goal. To keep up with rapidly changing socio-economic, technological, political and demographic conditions, geoscience discipline necessitates an adaptation of curriculum where changes can be addressed or accommodated to achieve maximum efficiency towards knowledge-sharing. This way, future geoscientists can play a pivotal role by having interdisciplinary knowledge and preparedness. Information concerning resource geology, climate education, natural hazards, pollution, human-practices, etc. warrant basic understanding of these topics and sharing case-study-based urban and non-urban examples to draw attention and raise awareness. There should be pros and cons with respect to regulated and unregulated mining practices. Any conclusion pertaining to some of these topics should include apparently noticeable adverse impacts on the ecosystem and landscape with risk mitigation analysis. A generalized trend analysis based on past and present events should educate citizens to make well-informed decisions. To prepare geoscientists to take a leadership role in societal developments, we need look beyond pure academic contents, borders; accept cross cultural assimilation and value citizen science.
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5/23/2019 11:02:09 PM
Geoscientists need to clear about 'Facts"
In the science-doubting world we now find ourselves with, geoscientists need to be especially careful with what we quote as facts and in communicating study results. Much of what we consider 'facts' actually cannot be proven. Take the age of the earth: most of us were taught that it is >4 billion years old, but the proof of that fact lies in the belief that radiometric dating is a sound scientific technique that provides accurate results - a belief that is backed up by years of solid work. For those of us with a scientific background, the logic in this approach can be trusted and is an approach we rely on in our profession. Doubters might say that the weakness in our position is that one needs to believe in radiometric dating, which isn't the fact that we claim it is. Society craves black and white solutions to complex problems. Appropriately cautionary comments such as 'the preponderance of the evidence suggest' leads skeptics to claim that we really don't know what we are talking about. People need to be reminded that such scientific-based approaches, however uncertain, are responsible for major advances in the treatment of cancer, airliner navigation and a whole host of other benefits. Such reminders should frame our conversations.
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5/2/2019 10:42:10 AM

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