"Geologists are comfortable with uncertainty"

Kim Kastens
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published Aug 20, 2009
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:
"Geologists draw conclusions from observational data, analogs, processes, and often from resources that to other scientists might appear to be totally unrelated. ...Geologists are comfortable with uncertainty as that is normal."

I think Dr. Max's point about "geologists are comfortable with uncertainty" is well taken. In fact, this seems to be one of the make or break points in geoscience education for some students. Students who were drawn to science (rather than, let's say, humanities) because there are clearcut answers and you know whether you got the question right or wrong, tend to be very uncomfortable with the level of uncertainty in geosciences. The idea that what we don't know is vastly larger than what we do know about the Earth can be unsettling.

I think it is possible, though, that the level of uncertainty is equally vast in all sciences. But in Earth Science you get to the boundary between the known and the unknown earlier in your education than in other sciences, so it looks like we have more uncertainty. Years ago, I wrote:
"In a typical high school or lower-level college math course, everything the student studies has been known for at least a century. In a typical high school or introductory college chemistry course, almost everything the student studies has been known for at least half a century. A Chemistry or Physics major in college typically has to persevere through three or four years of coursework before he or she can even begin to understand the questions on the cutting edge of the field, let alone understand the answers. The boundary between the Known and the Unknown in chemistry and physics is very far from the field of common knowledge. "Earth Science is not like that. In Earth Science, the boundary between the known and the unknown is close-by; it's very accessible, very understandable to the newest students on the very first day of their very first Earth Science class. Why are there mountains over here, but not over there? Will there be another ice age, and if so, when? Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? Why are the oceans salty? Why is there so much oil in Saudi Arabia, and none in Rockland county [New York]? Where do diamonds come from? Where did the moon come from? Why does it snow a lot in some years and not very much in other years? These questions are at or near the frontiers of research in Earth Science." (Kastens, 1995).

In this diagram, the ameboid shape is supposed to represent all of human knowledge, the territory of "the known." Outside of the ameboid is "the unknown," which is pictured as infinite. Pseudopods of known protrude into the unknown, representing disciplines or topics which have enjoyed recent rapid progress. The fuzzy line represents the boundary between the known and the unknown, the surface on which scientists dance. I made the case that the domain of "common knowledge," which could be viewed as science students' starting point, is closer to the frontier between the known and the unknown in Earth Sciences than in many other sciences.

Fifteen years later, geosciences has learned a lot, especially about how various parts of the Earth System interact. But it is still fairly easy for a freshman, or indeed an elementary school student, to ask a question about the Earth that no geoscientist can answer.

  • Kastens, K. A., Manduca, C. A., Cervato, C., Frodeman, R., Goodwin, C., Liben, L. S., et al. (2009). How geoscientists think and learn. EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 90(31), 265-266. (download requires AGU membership)
  • Kastens, K. A. (1995). Earth Science as a vehicle for illuminating the boundary between the known and the unknown. Journal of Geological Education, 43, 138-140.

"Geologists are comfortable with uncertainty" --Discussion  

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