It takes (at least) two to communicate…

Written by Jen Roberts, a ClimateXChange postdoc at the University of Strathclyde whose attendance at the Communicating Contested Geoscience conference (click to read blog) in June prompted the following thoughts about communicating our science…

Think deep

I have often considered myself lucky to be a geologist. You may laugh, go on – given the subject (rocks), our lifestyle (questionable), and our general personal qualities (I couldn’t possibly comment). More specifically, I often feel lucky that I can think like a geologist. I realise this sounds like I am suffering some delusion of grandeur regarding our mental abilities of a geologist. I am not. I simply mean that we geologists or geoscientists often take for granted that we have exercised the parts of our brain that allow us to think and visualise in deep time and deep depths. We also think in multiple dimensions with relative ease and comfort, while accepting that the data we are considering is almost certainly uncertain. Together, this is a rather obscure and unique mental skill set that geologists, in particular, practice relatively regularly[1].

So, ask a geologist what lies beneath their feet, and they will probably think beyond the soles of their shoes, beyond the tarmac and the soil and beyond, into the bedrock, and on into the depths of the Earth. This is familiar territory for their mind. They already have what is called “a mental model” of the deep subsurface. The same goes for geological time[2]. These skills are acquired through training, learning and experience, and like a muscle, need exercising to stay in shape.

For most non-geologists though, territories such as the deep subsurface or deep time are not a familiar stomping ground, and so are difficult to perceive on the correct sort of scale. They do not have the ‘geo-brain’ in gear (yet). The problem is that those who do have their ‘geo-brain’ in gear are often not aware that they have, or are using, these skills and concepts. They naturally assume that other people think similarly. But differences in mental models can lead to major communication issues. The aforementioned, err, ‘geo-brain’ (why did I coin this phrase?) can of course be an engineer, policy maker, whatever that has had time and will to explore the ideas and concepts of geoscience. This is not an exclusive or non-transferable piece of machinery. I really hope I am making this clear (*ahem* covering-my-back) enough, here.

Swap your shoes

To appreciate an argument or point, it can be useful to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

As an example, skip now to a member of the public. Let’s call this person Alex. Alex is not a geoscientist, but perhaps has a moderate interest in the environment and climate change. In a chance conversation, it crops up that you work at the University and Alex asks you about the subject of your work. After some initial confusion (Alex assumes that carbon storage refers to planting trees) you say that “CCS is about capturing CO₂ and injecting it, in a supercritical phase, into rocks underground, where it will stay for long time periods”. Alex would be completely forgiven for thinking that something-or-other of critical importance was being filtered from air somehow and injected – like a needle into rocks – into cavities maybe 100 meters or so in the subsurface where it was stay until … next year[3]. Some of these misperceptions are clarified in the chit-chat that follows, but you soon part ways to get on with your day. Alex leaves with the perception that carbon capture and storage sounds a bit rickety, on the whole, and has a mild suspicion that it might be the type of twaddle that is muttered by academic sorts. Alex gets on with, well, being Alex and stuff, and largely forgets about CCS.

Some time later, while scanning a a local newsletter over breakfast, Alex notices something about a CCS development proposed near by. Alex remembers talking about CCS with you, but can’t recall much about the specifics and so, in an idle ten minutes at work, looks to the internet oracle to brush up on more information. The diagram that Alex sees online probably doesn’t help too much (see <scale> below). Alex reads about risk of CO₂ leaks and starts to feel more uneasy about CCS, particularly after reading an article about how CCS could quadruple her energy bill and leaks could cause accidents similar to the Lake Nyos disaster. The stuff online about the proposed development probably doesn’t mention any of this. Alex cannot make it along to the public consultation on the proposed CCS development and so, once again, gets on with being Alex and stuff, but feeling a little bit uneasy about the subject of CCS. Hopefully Alex will bump into you again to ask a few more questions about the subject, and about these proposals.

So, put yourself in Alex’s shoes. How can Alex easily find out more about CCS? What can help Alex to visualise the CO₂ storage process? How does Alex decide what information source to trust?

  • We (researchers, operators, etc) are probably quite used to searching and using the internet and other information sources. Alex may not be, and in any case will not have access to these resources.
  • We are probably quite comfortable with the visual concept of fluids in the pores of rocks 2 km underground. Alex is probably not
  • We can probably recognise when ‘bad science’ is reported, for instance, in the media. Alex may not
  • We are probably aware that any plans for development requires consultation with the public. Alex may not be aware, or may not attend due to time priorities, or perhaps Alex does not have enough confidence to attend.
  • We are probably aware of the negative environmental affects of climate change and associated problems. Alex may not have the same level of awareness.

We should be grateful for the skills and insights that we have on these topics, but also aware that the wider publics, like Alex, may not have these. In addition, as researchers, we also have a valuable insight into the research methods, standards and practices, and so have a relatively strong ‘trust’ in the research that is published in high-end journals. The same may go for regulations and operational standards. The wider publics may not have these insights, nor interest. As for the issue of trust, folks like Alex instead use non-scientific basis to judge the quality of an information source or a persons argument (which is a whole realm of fascinating social science in itself, which I will not go into).

It takes (at least) two

I realise that this Alex- based scenario is an oversimplification, that I am using a large number of stereotype examples and the likes, but I hope you get the gist. By definition, communication is a two-way process, an exchange of information; a dialogue. Communicating effectively is tricky. It is about communicating to engage; that is, for the two (or more) communicating parties to become involved in the dialogue. Importantly, in this context, it should not be about information provision with an agenda to persuade.


[1]This is not a personal perspective, but indeed studies of cognitive psychology, particularly over recent decades, have brought to light the unique cognitive and spatial skills required to solve geological problems. Honest. For example, see Geological Society of America Special Papers on this topic: Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences, 486, 51–70 (edited by Kastens & Manduca); or Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth 413, 53-76 (edited by Manduca & Mogk)

[2] ‘Thousands of years’ is such a tiny measure of geological time that it can temporarily bamboozle me if I have spent my morning thinking in terms of hundreds of millions of years. The reverse is true if I have been working on ‘recent’ concepts and have to flit back into deep time. I also like to blame my tardiness for everything on the fact that 10 minute fractions are within the uncertainty or error brackets for…well, my life-clock.

[3] It may be shocking to some, but Alex doesn’t usually bother thinking too much about fluids, their flow through porous media (i.e. rocks), nor mechanisms for fluid retention, let alone thousands of years and the climate system.