GSA Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, USA - 2019

Paper No. 133-1
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM


BJORNERUD, Marcia G., Department of Geosciences, Lawrence University, 711 E. Boldt Way, Appleton, WI 54911

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously defined culture as the constellation of stories that groups of humans tell themselves about their place and purpose in the world. In western culture, with its Judeo-Christian underpinnings grafted to principles of social democracy and capitalism, the stories we share about who we are largely exclude the Natural World. Nature is at most a passive backdrop – the scenery against which the ‘real’ stories unfold, not a central protagonist in the narrative. This attitude toward nature has conspired with recent social trends to create dangerous levels of scientific illiteracy. Factors ranging from inadequate funding for science education to populist suspicion of ‘experts’ and deliberate obfuscation of scientific facts by political and corporate entities have led to a society that is in many ways scientifically more naïve than pre-industrial civilizations, in which no citizen who learned physics through back-breaking work and understood soils and weather through subsistence agriculture would have assumed that he or she was exempt from the laws of nature.

We urgently need voters who have some grasp of the dynamics of natural phenomena like climate, groundwater, ecosystems, and earthquakes. Good science writing can help, and geoscientists have a natural advantage in communicating science to the public. We have fascinating narratives in which to frame our work; the natural world is bursting with back-stories. Most people really do seek a rational understanding of the world but may renounce scientific ideas out of fear, mistrust, incomprehension or sheer disinterest. Geoscientists may be able to win over even skeptical or indifferent audiences by being more sensitive to the cultural reasons the public may reject or ignore scientific explanations. In our discourse with non-scientists, we should strive to merge logos, the rational, evidence-based foundation of science, with a touch of mythos – the narratives that feed the deep human need for meaning and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Changing the stories we tell about our relationship with Nature can set in motion the cultural changes that must occur if we are to create a robust, sustainable society.