Based in Mahone Bay, nova scotia, agile libre is an independent publisher of technical books about the subsurface.  

The trouble with seeing

You’ve probably heard the adage, ‘the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks.’ I have grown to dislike this statement. It’s not that there is something false or incorrect about it per se, but it’s often served as a trump card severing any deeper conversation about skills and performance. It’s too trivial, and it’s doing us all a disservice.

What’s left unsaid, and therefore goes unappreciated, is that seeing is not just another measurement or experiment we do in earth science. Rather, it is a learned process of perception that draws from two distinct skills: recognition and cognition (Dell’Aversana 2013). Recognition is the low level sensory activity of detecting patterns and signals. Cognition, on the other hand, is the higher order faculty of processing and negotiating with information, guided and biased by experience, theoretical knowledge, and heuristics. If you aren’t practised at both, you won’t see any rocks at all.

Furthermore, in this light, the concept of a geological dataset becomes puzzling. There is no data as such. Within a piece of core, or a seismic line, are objects that are perceived in different ways depending on the observer’s background. Our perception depends on the theoretical knowledge that we have about that object. A person without knowledge does not perceive an anomalous signal in the same way as an expert. Two experts will see different signals according to their individual recognition and cognitive abilities. The implication is that observations, which often pass for data in geology, are inherently tied to the creator, subjective and tacit. It means we can’t perform any sharp distinction between data and models, or observation and interpretation. It’s no wonder two geologists may arrive at divergent interpretations, they don’t even start with the same inputs.

This is troubling because geologists work in teams and solve problems of economic, social, and scientific importance. The problem of perception has a detrimental effect on our experiments in two key respects: we try to measure what we are looking for, and we see what we want to see or have been trained to see (Bond 2012). The reality of working with others means reconciling differences in perception. Here are a few suggestions to cope:

Show people how you perceive. Show them both pieces, the cognitive and the sensory components. Draw attention to your own ingrained practice so you can modulate it from within. In a way, you are disclosing your scientific method, allowing others to make their own connection.

Documents hold up better than hearsay or anecdotes. Think of all the stuff you produce at intermediate steps of geological work; drawings, sections, geological maps, descriptions, and so on. They are embodiments of knowledge, and they often form a readable arc of your mental path within a geological investigation.

You aren’t a politician. You are allowed to change your mind. Going over your process again and again enables self-criticism and exposes holes in your data.

Search for coherency and consistency between different clusters of information. Instead of thinking in a linear fashion from data to model, or observation to interpretation, consider each as a lens pointing to a complex earth system expressed at varying levels of abstraction.

Beware of vocabulary and jargon. With the exception of digits that come from a logging tool, our vocabulary for describing geological objects may be inadequate for your needs. Is that contour map a model or is it data? In the end, it may not matter what you call it, but it is at the risk of misuse if it is taken out of context.

A geologist that is strong on theory but poor on detection won’t be able to solve practical problems. One that is weak on theory but great at detection is behaving more like a camera. The weaving of both is where you add value, playing both the detective and the detector.  


Bond, C (2012). Recognize conceptual uncertainty and bias. In: 52 Things You Should Know About Geophysics. Agile Libre. 132 p.

Dell’Aversana, P (2013). Cognition in Geosciences: The feeding loop between geo-disciplines, cognitive sciences and epistemology. EAGE Publications.

Well tie basics

We need integrative innovation