Giving Earth Science Away

Kim Kastens
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published Jul 11, 2009

I just came home from a workshop on spatial cognition, attended by researchers concerned with how people and other "cognitive agents" think spatially. In her opening comments, Nora Newcombe, the director of the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center mentioned that our meeting was continuing in the tradition of "Giving Psychology Away." I could hear the quotes and capital letters in her voice, so asked my neighbor, a psychologist, what Nora meant by this obviously dripping-with-significance phrase. The phrase turns out to be a quote from Dr. George Miller in his 1969 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association. ( This site may be offline. ) He was making the point that psychologists should not keep the insights of psychology to themselves; instead they should "give it away to the people who really need it--and that includes everyone. (p. 1071)" He then went on to say: "I am keenly aware that giving psychology away will be no simple task. (p. 1071)"

I think that Earth & Environmental Sciences are in the same position: we need to find ways to give away the insights and world view of Earth Science "to the people who really need it--and that includes everyone." Many Earth Scientists share this view, and the profession has collectively tried many strategies to "give Earth Science away." The Teach the Earth web portal, a sister site to this blog, is one example, and other approaches have been tried by individual scientists, academia, government agencies, NGO's and others.

But, it seems that for Earth Science, as Professor Miller anticipated for psychology, giving away our science is "no simple task," at least judging by the public's views on issues where Earth Science and every day life intersect. For example, a new survey by the Pew Research Center shows that only 49% of Americans believe the Earth is getting warmer because of the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, in contrast to 84% of scientists. The polled scientists were randomly selected from among members of AAAS; I would imagine that among atmospheric scientists the percentage would have been even higher.

The context in which Professor Miller situated his comments sounds familiar: "The most urgent problems of our world today are the problems we have made for ourselves. They have not been caused by some heedless or malicious inanimate Nature....They are human problems whose solution will require us to change our behavior and our social institutions. (p.1063)" So I read the rest of Professor Miller's address, hunting for the psychologist's-eye view of how to give science away in a manner that would be well received by and useful to the broader populace.

The most applicable and concrete advice I found was "... we must try to diagnose and solve the problems people think they have, not the problems we experts think they ought to have... (p. 1073)" I see the truth in this statement, but it seems quite difficult to apply. If a resident thinks the problem is that gasoline costs are too high and roads are too congested, and the expert thinks that landuse patterns are too sprawled and public transit is insufficient, how are those two views of the problem to be reconciled?

Reference: Miller, G. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24(12), 1063-1075.

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