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“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Communicating Geology to Society” – Prof. Iain Stewart, Herdman Symposium 2015

Geological issues are increasingly relevant to the everyday lives of people globally, whether it is the risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, or the potential ramifications of geological engineering. And yet, as Prof. Iain Stewart highlighted, ‘Geology… lies out of sight and out of mind’.

This blog post represents a detailed account of Iain’s presentation at the Herdman Symposium 2015, very occasionally peppered with examples resulting from the papers/articles he referred to during his presentation. (Slightly more detailed than I expected, but I made copious notes and ended up delving into the wealth of references made in his presentation and getting sidetracked by related papers…  Note to self: become more focussed!)

There is a strange “no man’s land” between geologists and the public:  The ‘simple’ act of talking to the public is very challenging for academics and researchers, who are used to being careful and precise with language and also structurally there has been very little incentive to communicate with the public. This has now changed dramatically. But this is not without risk…

The meeting of the public and geology tends to only occur in times of crisis.

Example: L’Aquila 2009 Earthquake

In April 2009, the town of L’Aquila was in a time of crises. Earthquake tremors had been occurring since November of the previous year. A few weeks prior to this event, a physicist from the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS) identified a radon increase (see Uranium groundwater anomalies and L’Aquila earthquake, 6th April 2009 (Italy)); the data which he had collected indicated an upcoming earthquake, and even an approximate time and location. Obviously, this caused significant alarm and unrest in the local population.

An official major risks committee meeting was called. Scientists and experts in the area of earthquakes were brought in to comment on the situation to the local officials. But what the local officials took from the meeting was that there is no cause for alarm, there are no indications of an imminent earthquake and that things could go back to normal.

Emergenza Terremoto Abruzzo 2009 - 12However, more earthquakes ensued over the days following the meeting. A larger earthquake shook L’Aquila one week later. The Magnitude 6.3 earthquake then struck on the 6th of April 2009. There were just over 300 fatalities. L'Aquila eathquake prefettura

It is compulsory in Italy for court cases to follow such events, and, much to the surprise of the scientific community, a court case was held involving the local civil defense official AND 6 scientists who were present at the member of the major risk committee meeting, and they were each sentenced to 6 years imprisonment.



This is a terrifying outcome. And even though these sentences were later overruled, “if the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only, and the benefits that are associated with findings, from medicine to physics, will be stalled.” (Malcolm Sperrin)

This event highlighted how little the public understood the extent to which earthquakes can be predicted.

Dr Vincent Vittorini, whose apartment collapsed in the quake, and who lost his wife and daughter, said:

“Nobody here wants to put science in the dock. We all know that the earthquake could not have been predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices”

The problem lies in the communication of science: what the scientists said during the meeting was perfectly reasonable, and no information shared was questionable, the problem arose when they left the meeting, leaving the information to be interpreted by the local disaster official, who said things that the scientists never said: e.g. “No cause for concern”.

Prof. Iain Stewart used the L’Aquila earthquake as an example to demonstrate that scientists pass on their findings to other mediators – be it officials, authorities or journalists – to present to the public. Thus the ‘L’Aquila Verdict [was a] Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication’ (View article here).

He went on to explain that there is a cost to this chain of science communication – if it becomes lost in translation, then the science is corrupted. As scientists we need to improve our communication at “the last mile”: explaining the message effectively to the public. He highlighted the need for training to improve our communication to the public – even to the extent that we need to take our message DIRECTLY to the public, rather than relying on the middlemen to interpret and communicate our messages effectively on our behalf.

“Scientists have a responsibility to ensure that their science is delivered to the public” Prof. Iain Stewart

This idea has fuelled his passion for communicating science to the public.

Iain asks “Who are ‘the public’?”

Knowledgeable ?

Surprisingly (or not?), the general public is not as knowledgeable about (what we consider to be) basic geo-scientific concepts as we would expect:

Statement TRUE FALSE D/K
The centre of the Earths very hot 86 4 8
The Oxygen we breathe comes from plants 60 28 12
Hot air rises 97 1 2
The continents are moving slowly about on the surface of the Earth 72 8 20
Diamonds are made of carbon 59 16 25
Common salt is made from calcium carbonate 37 31 32
The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs 32 46 22

Sample: General Public [4050], Source: Stocklmayer & Bryant (2012)

If the public do not understand these basic concepts, how can they be expected to understand more complex science?

The truth of the matter is that the public took (a little bit of) biology, chemistry and physics at school, and many of them did not enjoy / were not interested in even that! Years to decades later, they have pushed themselves further and further away from science. Then, they get confronted with the explosion of the various disciplines of science (illustrated below).


“Map of science derived from clickstream data”, adapted from Figure 5, Bollen J et al. (2005)


How can we educate the public in basic science, when it is now so varied?  (especially if a large proportion of the public are disinterested!?)

However, some initiatives have been put in place to help educate the public in basic Earth Science: e.g. the Earth Science literacy Framenwork

Earth Science Literacy Framework Source:  the Earth Science Literacy Framework is


The problem is, firstly, that this is just one dot in the web of knowledge illustrated above.  Secondly, these are 1st order facts – when further detail is required, on 2nd and 3rd order levels, people may start to question these “facts”- e.g. the current issue of climate change – where even scientists are unable to meet a consensus.

Furthermore, we expect – even demand – the public to make educated decisions regarding e.g. carbon capture storage, based on such limited knowledge!

Percentage of respondents (N = 654) who did not agree, who did not know, or who agreed with each technical mental concept and belief about CCS. Published in: Lasse Wallquist; Vivianne H. M. Visschers; Michael Siegrist; Environ. Sci. Technol.  2010, 44, 6557-6562. DOI: 10.1021/es1005412 Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society Percentage of respondents (N = 654) who did not agree, who did not know, or who agreed with each technical mental concept and belief about CCS. 
Published in: Lasse Wallquist; Vivianne H. M. Visschers; Michael Siegrist; Environ. Sci. Technol.  2010, 44, 6557-6562.
DOI: 10.1021/es1005412 Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society

The Public vs. Multiple Publics

“The Public” is such a generalised term – it can be segmented in numerous forms… So who are we trying to educate?

Iain presented a simple segmentation of the public in terms of science:Multiple Publics

  • The Science Attentive (20%): Science educated, and read scientific papers / media like New Scientist..
  • The Science Interested (20%): Familiar with science, but not “that into it”, may read science stories in the media, but are not that attentive.
  • The Non-Attentive Public (60% – including those who think that they are science interested): Not interested in science, or claim that they are but are unable to pass basic science tests.

It is important that we try and communicate to the right segment of “the Public” – for Prof. Iain Stewart’s TV programs (e.g. Earth : The Power of the Planet, How Earth Made Us) , it is the Science Interested and Non-Attentive Public whom he is trying to educate entertain and get more people into the Science Interested segment.  (Not that we, the Science Attentive, should switch off the telly at this point!)

If we can entertain, we can increase interest in geological science.  By linking geology to, e.g. architecture, art… interest in the subject can be planted, and will grow.

Key Steps to Communicating Science to the Public

For blogs, non-crisis communications (a very different approach would be required for a crisis situation like L’Aquila described above!)

Forget the facts… tell stories

“Try to craft messages that are not only simple but memorable, and repeat them often. Make more effective use of imagery, metaphor, and narrative. In short, be a better storyteller, lead with what you know, and let your passion show.” (Somerville and Hassol 2011)

Iain compared storytelling to screenwriting, using Robert McKee‘s style: A 3-Act structure

Robert McKee Central plotIn science, however, things work differently.  As a result, it does not rate well on TV – people want to watch something that is “easy” to absorb, nothing too detailed.

In his paper “Storytelling in Earth sciences: The eight basic plots.”, Phillips, J. (2012) identified the “plots” in Earth Science “stories” – we DO tell stories!  But in a different way!

“The hope is that Earth scientists recognize – and perhaps even embrace – our role as storytellers, so that we can more effectively use (and evaluate) storytelling to advance our science” Phillips, J. (2012), p154

Phillips uses Goethe as an example of when the creation of art, writing of literature and reporting of science were less separated than they are today.

Dumb down

“. .without resorting to simplification it is nearly impossible to communicate the implications of the scientific results to a broad audience” (Schneider 2008)

As scientists, we get trained in the background information: concepts, ideas and knowledge.  From that we seek out the supporting detail which we are interested in in order to form conclusions.

Figure 1 Scientists can communicate more effectively with the public by inverting the pyramid of their usual presentations to colleagues. That is, start with the ‘bottom line’ and tell people why they should care. From Fig. 3, (Somerville and Hassol 2011) Scientists can communicate more effectively with the public by inverting the pyramid of their usual presentations to colleagues. That is, start with the ‘bottom line’ and tell people why they should care. From Fig. 3, (Somerville and Hassol 2011)


The public, on the other hand, work the other way around: They want to know the bottom line first: What information do you have that is important? Why is it relevant to them? If we cannot reach the public at this point, then we are not going to get anywhere!

It’s about people

“It is a fact often overlooked by scientists that most (other) people are mostly interested in other people, and they are mostly not interested in anything else. The fact that scientists are more interested than average in things and ideas (like other academics) marks them out as mentally very unusual – and it can create a barrier to their media work.”(Stewart and Nield 2013)

We, as geologists, are the highlight of our stories, contrary to scientific papers, where we just appear as authors.

It is about you

“geoscientists need to approach the media and the public less from the point of view of educators. The reality is that science communication is done not primarily for the conveyancing of facts, but (like all public relations activity), for the purpose of inculcating warm feelings.” (Stewart and Nield 2013)

If the readers / viewers like us, then they will continue to watch / listen.

Capture the wonder & Entertain

“By always bearing in mind two crucial facts – that the media are not going to change the way they work to please scientists, and that they should be approached as a branch of the entertainment industry – all subsequent decisions and behaviours on the part of scientists … will be more likely to be blessed with success.” (Nield 2008)


“… improving the geo-literacy of the ‘ordinary person in the street’ is unlikely to be achieved simply by educating them with basic ‘geo-facts’. Instead, genuine and effective public engagement is more likely to come from conveying the deep-seated ‘context’ of our geological knowledge, and by presenting the wider culture within which Earth scientists work.” (Stewart and Nield 2013)

After attending the Herdman Symposium, and hearing Prof. Iain Stewart speak, I have spent a lot of time considering and reflecting upon my communication of the science which I love.  Am I telling a story?  To whom am I telling it? Is it even interesting? What are the potential impacts of me getting it wrong?  Hopefully, armed with Iain’s guidence, I will produce a better blog from now on.

It should be noted that these communication issues encompass all sciences, not just geoscience:  I asked a couple of friends what, in their opinion, are the main obstacles to successfully communicating science to the public:

“I think the biggest problem is that, with science, it’s always going to be a qualified answer i.e. “As far as we know……evidence currently suggests etc.” which lay people perceive as being shifty and not straightforward. Unlike those charlatans who deny science and make unqualified, straightforward answers. Current standards of discourse are not conducive to nuance and emerging understandings” Mr James Clark LLB DipLP

“Main obstacles are translating jargon into understandable language, proving that we can never know things for certain but it is still credible enough to believe what we say, combatting media coverage and knowing our limits”  Mr Ryan Clark, Medical Student

Now let us all go forth, equipped with this knowledge, and communicate! 😀

And just to make this ‘about me’….

Prof. Iain Stewart and I Prof. Iain Stewart signed my book!


Follow Prof. Iain Stewart on Twitter!

Bibliography / references

  • Bollen J, Van de Sompel H, Hagberg A, Bettencourt L, Chute R, et al. (2009) Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4803. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004803

  • Nield, T., 2008. Altered priorities ahead; or how to develop fruitful relationships with the media. In: Liverman, D., Pereira, C.P.G., Marker, B. (Eds.), Communicating Environmental Geoscience, vol. 305. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, pp. 5–10.

  • Phillips, J. (2012). “Storytelling in Earth sciences: The eight basic plots.” Earth-Science Reviews 115(3): 153-162.

  • Schneider, S., 2008. Keeping out of the box. American Scientist 28 August.

  • Somerville, R. C. J. and S. J. Hassol (2011). “Communicating the Science of Climate Change.” Physics Today(October 2011): 48–53.

  • Stewart, I. S. and T. Nield (2012). “Earth stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience.” Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 124(4): 699-712.

  • Stocklmayer & Bryant (2012). Science and the Public – What should the public know?  International Journal of Science Education, 2, 81-101







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