Friday, 14 January 2011

Ignorance is Bliss

‘Ignorance is bliss’

As geoscientist we have the idea that exploring the earth for its resources, secrets and good lunch spots is an important endeavour, many feel that the knowledge we have accrued can be passed on, but does it need to be? And is it required?
A dancer, whom I must agree is unlikely to share a similar wavelength to myself might just consider that knowing how new oceans are made, or how we get platinum out of the ground into a nice shiny ring is not important, but a knowledge of early 80’s progressive dance is... it is a matter of opinion. Everyone has opinions based on circumstance, upbringing, personal beliefs – it’s a good thing, a world of uniform drones is not an inviting prospect.

Equally, as a geoscientist I have (or feel I at least ought to have) a detailed knowledge of specific geological processes, but stick me with two physicist friends from back home and I’m lost, it’s not that I have no working knowledge of physics (despite was my A-Levels say) it’s simply that they have wandered down the path of nuclear physics and momentum a damn sight further than I have. If I was to strike up a conversation of metasomatic metamorphism I would have two confused, probably uninterested faces.

So how can the public be lured into an interest of the geosciences? Do they need to be? Should the general public be involved in decisions which require a substancial interest and knowledge of the geosciences?

In my opinion, which I believe is the reason for a blog, there is no need to lure people into knowledge, more than any other time in human history knowledge is widely accessible; I know, that as I write this I could if I desired find out how an air conditioning unit works, the (public) library has a stash of books, the internet is overflowing with pieces. If someone doesn’t understand how an earthquake works why do they need to? How will it benefit them in their daily life? People choose to watch a program on the geosciences; they choose to read an article on the earth. What else do they choose to expand their knowledge on?

Wikipedia, although much lampooned is arguably a major source of peoples information they receive, it is the fifth most popular website on the planet (BBC News) articles are simple to find, easy to read and cover virtually anything. The site helpfully charts its most popular articles;  Global Warming, is without a doubt, a major, if not the most challenging problem facing mankind, a potentially misunderstood and misguided challenge that many people don’t understand. So logically these people would want to use Wikipedia to expand their knowledge.

Not so, in 2010 ‘Global Warming’ was the 74th most read article, with 18,190 (or 0.01% of readership), above it was ‘List of sex positions’ (22,200), Eminem (26,870) and Michael Oher (an American football player, 20,490). Even the big environmental story of the year, the disastrous Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill came in 34th (with 27,850) with 1/3 of the readership of ‘Lady Gaga’ (65,500). In fact science as a whole is wildly under-read, considering some of the great articles available. No ‘pure’ science subjects make it into the top 1000 articles, this is on the the 5th most popular site on earth, a major source. To put it bluntly people want to know more about organs and orifices than they do about any aspect of orogeny.

It’s not just science that is overlooked, important historical events and even countries are wholly overlooked; World War 1 is below ‘Sexual Intercourse’, the Soviet Union sits below Arney. Most shockingly perhaps AIDS, the worlds 4th biggest killer ( is relegated to 339th (8,920) position; below ‘Ejaculation’ & the brilliant, but somewhat less important band ‘Avenged Sevenfold’. 

Now of course, Wikipedia is subject to people spamming and perhaps is not a perfect profile of the world population, but still this is a concerning thought!

The majority of the public own some form of computer, but very few actually know how the thing works, more still own a mobile phone, but the limit of knowledge on the technical abilities of what happens when you press ‘send’ is fairly low. Why should geoscientists request a public audience, when aspects of people’s lives which demand a greater proportion of their time, money and effort are still mystical whizzing boxes? The answer could be that the geosciences offer solutions and problems which affect everyone; a faulty phone model is only going to affect the people who buy, sell and made it, an earthquake does not discriminate against those with understanding of the processes.

Here in the UK though, we don’t have earthquakes in any magnitude, so knowledge of their processes is more a curiosity, an interest if you like of the few; rather than in the case of a pop-star or film a more mainstream interest. Global Warming, though will affect us all. People need to know –but do they want to know? Looking at Wikipedia, they don’t, looking on the pavement, they don’t: A random sample of 10 people walking past my house at 7pm on a Friday night (party animal that I am) people are concerned about Global Warming (80%) but none wanted to talk to me about it. Either because I am a crazy person or they didn’t care enough to stop (or they thought I was going to give a lecture, which to be fair I was). Think about it, virtually everyone is against animal cruelty, but only 5% of people in the UK do not eat animals, (Food Standard Agency) millions of people have dogs, of equal intelligence to pigs, but would never think of munching on Fido.

People care about the climate or the earth, but maybe do not want to know the intricate details, or only want to know when it suits them, when their town has been flooded. Maybe, like many, they are scared and would rather be ignorant to the problem, happy to assist, turn off the light when they leave the room and try not to think about it.