Climbing up Scree Slopes – Diversity and the Spectrum of People

There was a recent article in the Eos Science News by the AGU. As a whole the AGU is doing a great job at being relevant and topical in today’s geoscience world. Its dynamic and attracts a lot of young professionals, which is fantastic.

The article that caught my eye was titled “Teaching Geoscience History in Context” and can be found here . The article discusses how the history of geoscience is full of racism and even in today’s world can disadvantage some in our field. For the most part the article and concerns of the students are well founded and given in good faith.

Indeed, one student states “People agree that better science is done when more perspectives are included and a more diverse range of people are engaged in the science process.…If we want to make a field that’s more welcoming and will be a field that people who have a diverse range of backgrounds want to join, it’s important that the education process is honest about what the legacy of the field is and to indicate that we want to make a change moving forward.”

M. King Hubbert, circa 1950.

Absolutely agree – diversity and an abundance of informed perspectives are crucial to advancing our field.  When I lecture about Earth resources I always talk about M. King Hubbert. By all accounts he was brilliant but a real difficult person – in ways that are only hinted at. I always point this out; not to disparage the man but to teach the students that good ideas come from everywhere, even difficult or often biased and unpleasant people. There is a line in Aimee Mann’s song “High On Sunday 51”: ‘Hate the sinner but love the sin‘; she is pointing out that we as a society tend to do that – when it is the opposite we need to alight on.

There were a few points about this article that made me think:

  1. In one part of the article it discussed how a field geologist should not be made to scurry up a scree slope if they were disinclined to do so – and if they chose not to they should not be made to feel bad about it. This perplexed me as it is the point of a field geologist to do exactly that: scurry about places and some of those places may very well be hard to get to.  I thought of my BSc senior project in 1980 where I worked on a structural problem just outside of Bard, Pennsylvania. I went there several times and mapped a lot of stuff but there was one bit that was hard to get too as it was up the hill and no trail to get there, so I resisted going. On the 2nd to last trip I bit the bullet and slogged up. Presto. The key to the structural problem was there – I would have missed it if I had not checked it out.
  2. I also thought the article missed the point about working to your strengths. Of course not everyone will be good at field work, or good at interpreting seismic sections or working on the SEM. That is fine. But just because you are not good at something does not mean you HAVE to be good at that specific thing and, yes, it means when there are others who are better, they should do it over you in critical situations. I think most people would not argue that if you are not good at math, maybe you should not be the one doing the calculations for sending an expensive piece of equipment to Mars. We should not say ‘well, you are not the best at math, but ok, we have to put you there because you feel entitled to be there’. Merit must play a role in our selection in these circumstances. There is a apposite scene in the movie ‘The Incredibles’: Dash, the son, says to his mum “Our powers make us special” and Mrs Incredible replies “Everyone is special, Dash”.  He shoots back his response: “Which is another way of saying that no one is special”. Not everyone is going to be ‘special’ in field work (or whatever … ) and we should celebrate people who are; but that doesn’t mean we denigrate those who are not good nor ignore others that have other skills.

    Field work is not always easy. Stream in Tasmania.

  3. Also,I noted that the article only interviewed young professionals; students both in graduate and undergraduate programmes. Fine, but of course like a lot of things they haven’t had the life experience yet to see the whole canvas that is life. I also noted that they were all from Ivy League (Harvard, Princeton) or near Ivy League schools. Not very inclusive, or representing diversity for the majority of geoscientists. In these aspects the article was quite unbalanced and more thought should have been put into the structure of the essay.
  4. When I think back to high school, to University to being a young geology professional, there are specific things I remember where I now think ‘how could I have said or thought that’. We are a product of the society we are born into but I think the important thing is how we recognise our prejudices and biases as we grow older and hopefully become wiser. To be sure there are a lot of people who do not become wiser and these are the people we need to worry about. I believe it is wholly arrogant to think that any of us are totally non-biased. It would be excessive arrogance to think that 50 yrs from now someone who saw the entirety of our lives wouldn’t say ‘YIKES  how could he/she have thought that way’ [or worse] about some aspects it.
  5. The spectrum of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ is not restricted to one type of people, whether that be defined by geography, culture or profession. It is naive to think that geoscientists would be any different.
  6. The word ‘conflate’ seems to be in vogue right now and it is used in this article. But I’d say that the young professionals conflate science and the person. Do we not listen to Wagner because he supported the Nazis? Do we not listen to John Lennon because he said the Beatles were bigger than Christ? Is the art of Picasso terrible because he was said to be a womaniser? All of the things these people did and said were wrong, but not the whole person was wrong nor all their deeds unwholesome. Certainly not when viewed in the light of the times they were born within. That is not an excuse, but it is understanding. As Colin Fletcher, the resolute British hiker, author, outdoorsman and some say ‘father of backpacking’ said (and I paraphrase): I still like champagne and a lazy morning sleeping in with my lover….I am, after all, a product of the society I was born into.

    Prof. John C. Ferm, West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand (1995). John was a champion of diverse geological ideas and students (Photo by Tim A. Moore)

  1. Finally, people’s behaviours are never black or white; the world is made up of an infinite array of grey tones – as scientists we need to rise above the political pigeon-holing of people, actions, beliefs and, while not tolerating bad behaviour, learn to not cast stones too quickly, least we forget that we all live in that proverbial house of glass.

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