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"Boring Volcanic Rocks"

Posted: Sep 16 2009 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Collaboration, History of Geosciences

We've been writing a lot on the blog and in Synthesis Project manuscripts, about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaboration. In so doing, we are reflecting an important trend within Geosciences, as the field tries to grapple with problems that are too big for one brain to solve.

Yet even as this trend picks up momentum, there is a discernible countercurrent of colleagues who decidedly do not want to be drawn into interdisciplinarity. I might paraphrase their point of view as: "I study A, and the reason that I'm good at studying A is because I focus on A, and I really don't think that B, C, D, E, and F are as interesting or important as A, and if I did I would have studied them instead of A. So leave me alone, and let me get back to work studying A." Their point is well taken: Deep expertise requires concentrated focus over a long duration, and collaboration takes time. Moreover, without the findings of disciplinary specialists, the interdisciplinary folks would have nothing upon which to build.

Stratigraphic diagram with "Boring Volcanic Rocks"
from Evarts, et al (2009).
Usually this tension between the let's collaborate camp and the let me alone camp simmers quietly, perhaps flaring up behind the closed doors of a staff meeting. I was therefore surprised, while thumbing through the current issue of GSA Today, to find an illustration that seemed to express the latter point of view right out there in public for all the world to see.

In the midst of an intricate stratigraphic diagram of cross-cutting sedimentary relationships there was a minor unit, conspicuously colored in bright red, and conspicuously labelled as "Boring Volcanic Rocks."

Does that really say "boring?" My goodness, More

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"How did Economists Get it So Wrong?"

Posted: Sep 7 2009 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Energy, History of Geosciences, Systems Thinking, Solving Societal Problems

In yesterday's New York Times magazine, Nobel prizewinner economist and columnist Paul Krugman asked "How Did Economists Get it So Wrong?" Earlier this year, in Mother Jones, journalist Dean Starkman asked "How could 9,000 business reporters blow the biggest story on their beat?" Starkman cited a multitude of intertwined factors, including failing financial health of the media industry with consequent newsroom layoffs, desire on the part of business journalists to keep on good terms with key sources inside corporations, and less investigative work by federal regulators. What with one distraction and another, almost all business journalists failed to anticipate that economic collapse was imminent or inevitable. Krugman cites a different multitude of intertwined factors, including mistaking an internally coherent line of reasoning for a correct line of reasoning, and academic infighting.

Both writers' arguments are clear and compelling as far as they go. But I think there is another reason: Most people who grew up to be today's economists and business journalists never studied Earth System Science. More

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Extrapolating Beyond the Last Data Point

Posted: Aug 19 2009 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Temporal Thinking, History of Geosciences, Solving Societal Problems

In followup to our recent EOS paper "How Geoscientists Think and Learn" (Kastens, Manduca, et al, 2009), Michael D. Max, of Marine Desalination Systems, wrote:

"In most scientific disciplines data is produced, analyzed and interpreted. Extrapolation beyond a data set is more or less forbidden. Geologists, on the other hand, are trained from the outset to understand that they almost never will have enough actual data to arrive at a useful solution except in the most closely controlled three dimensional situations such as mine and reservoir mapping. But this usually involves a level of cost that is only rarely obtainable."

I think this is an interesting point, that extrapolation beyond the last data point is more or less forbidden in science, but geologists do it anyway. More

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"...oil is first found ... in the minds of men"

Posted: Aug 4 2009 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Gender and Geosciences, History of Geosciences

Wallace Pratt
Wallace Pratt[link '']
The first sentence of the first paper coming out from the Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences says: "Decades ago, pioneering petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt pointed out that oil is first found in the human mind" (Kastens, et al, p. 265.) We use Pratt as a jumping off point to introduce the idea that the human mind is an important geoscience tool, the tool with which geoscientists construct causal and predictive models.

In fact, Pratt's exact words were: "Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men" (Pratt, 1952). I can't tell you how many edits and revisions and discussions it took, among co-authors, reviewers and editors, to arrive at wording that captures Pratt's prescient insight while avoiding the 1950's vintage phrasing, which sounds sexist to the 21st century ear. More

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