A joke originally aimed at sedimentologists, but which could realistically refer to many geological disciplines, suggests that all you need for a good argument is two experts together looking at the same rock. Geology has a lot to do with experience — indeed, many claim the best geologists are those who have seen the most rocks. Experience of outcrop, core, and data is obviously vital, and without the ground-truthing this allows, our models would be just elaborate daydreams. Despite emphasis on analogs and real-world examples, either ancient or modern, opinions and belief systems develop. Models appear to give a solid explanation or accurately predict the hypothesis being drilled or tested. Heroes or hero teams, super-theories or paradigm-shifting systems are born. The resulting confidence is liberating, but the egos perhaps are not so inspiring.
Scientific debate occurs between two or more parties discussing points of view based upon evidence. An intelligently presented view can be respected and valued by all parties. But the ego effect erodes respect and others become seen as contemptible fools for daring to question the accepted wisdom. This scenario undermines the whole approach that science depends upon. It is valid — and vital — to question anything at any time. Only by preserving this right will science progress. As soon as there becomes an aggressive or defensive ‘them and us’ situation, the potential and quality of the science is at stake. Once the aim becomes beating the other team and proving them wrong, the focus has shifted into a dangerous grey area where questionable scientific principles lurk. One tell-tail sign that poor science may be at work is when the source of an idea, theory, or model defines the quality, rather than the value or content, of the work itself.
Time to move on
Addictions, beyond caffeine and chocolate, are another issue slowing scientific progress. We are quick to build models to simplify the complexity of the geological subsurface. But we fall in love with these models too easily and become addicted to their beauty and ingenuity. We’re all guilty of thinking our current project is the most important thing, as we dig down into our academic hole, losing sight of the bigger picture — the only thing that might provide a valid comparison of value. As I assert in Get a helicopter not a hammer, models are best viewed with your helicopter: jump in and fly around, look both up close and from a good height.
Models are just tools for comparison and to be of any use they should not be so precious that when challenged by solid evidence you are unable to accept and adapt your beloved baby or even discard it to build a new one. The mental experiment of using a helicopter can let you dive down into the data to build a scientific case, but then fly up high to get the bigger picture and compare the outcome at scale and within the demands set by the real world. We are typically so blinded by love for our projects and models that we need to get help. Show your ideas, models, and pet theories to others as early as possible. Show and tell even before you are comfortable and ready to do so. Only by failing fast will you be free from the love and addiction to a point where you can move swiftly forward onto the next iteration which might truly be great and worthy of the time you’ll invest. Quality assurance isn’t something you wait to do until you’ve burnt lots of time and money. It is an ever-present best friend who you can trust to tell you when you’re barking up the wrong tree and it’s time to move on.
How many times will we make the same mistake?
As humans we’re often good at spotting the issues as they occur or in hindsight, but not so good at making the changes, putting safeguards in place, or communicating the root causes to those around us and avoiding re-occurrence. Multiple-loop learning is even harder to achieve than it sounds. It requires genuinely learning from a project and being able to feed that learning back into the process to improve it next time. Instead, it often takes too many iterations to get things right, or we fail to transfer the experience to those who follow — because we typically are not the ones who will undertake the iterations. For some reason it’s more fun to moan to those who are not involved and can’t influence the situation than it is to focus our efforts on documenting an issue and talking to those who have the power to improve things for the future.
Science may appear to move forward slowly, but perhaps it’s us who are slowing it down, by the way we’re trying to push it ahead.