Using a Paper Clip to Stop an Aircraft Carrier
It’s summer movie season, and along with the explosions, car chases, and falling buildings, it is the season of terrible movie science. It provides a yearly reminder that, sometimes, there are situations where it feels harmless to let the misunderstandings slide and just enjoy the show. We’re collectively agreeing to let the details go for the sake of a broader goal. But sometimes, between the sound bites throwing around words like “quantum” and “neutrinos,” there will be that friend or colleague who muses about how – you know – it could be possible. And then it gets harder to embrace the fun.
I do understand the entertainment value, and I even ran a Bad Geology Movie Night for a few years in graduate school. From Tremors to Volcano, from Waterworld to Tremors 2, from Tremors 3 to The Core. We would share popcorn, chips, and engage in some collective heckling. We even went, 19 graduate students strong, to see 2012 in the theater. It’s a common pastime for anyone with expertise in a field. My radiology tech cousin can’t watch medical dramas without sputtering, mechanics can’t help but laugh at improbable tool choices being used on car engines, and dancers can’t help but cry out at improperly tied pointe shoes. But take those same misconceptions out of the theater and into the world, and deciding which details to fight for and which to accept gets a lot more complicated.
I visited a mine as part of an undergraduate field trip, and because the whole group was made up of geology students, the guide stopped us in a passage typically overlooked on the regular tours. The guide pointed out some bolts about the size of a tea saucers and started to tell a story. When they had decided to open the mine to the public, it had to undergo a series of safety inspections. One of those inspections drew attention to a clear fault plane that cut across the passage.
“Shouldn’t we be worried about that?” the government official had asked. The geology and safety folks in the room all said no.
“It’s dead,” one explained. “It’s from old tectonic forces that don’t exist anymore.” The person still looked worried.
“This fault is from the time when Pangea was still together,” another member from the mine tried to explain. “The forces that made it move are gone.” More looks of worry.
After a few more uncomfortable exchanges, the worried man asked if they could bolt it. Put something across the fault to stop it from moving. The students on the tour laughed. The man leading the tour did not. He said that the uncomfortable silence that followed made them realize they had two choices. The experts could explain that putting a bolt across a fault of that scale would like trying to stop an aircraft carrier with a paper clip. They risked failing to convince the man that the fault was inactive, and the mine would not be toured. Or – he sighed and gestured to the bolts.
I am not sure exactly what lesson he was trying to share with us, but it is the one I remember most. In the battle of science communication and policy, it can be tempting to stand on the ground of decisions made based on a full and shared understanding of the facts. But what about when the evidence and data that should matter are not the most convincing to your audience? There are arguments for taking the steps you can, even if they are based on an incomplete understanding, because it serves the overall mission of your group. And there is the dubious realm of misleading actions and information to facilitate consensus around what are ultimately irrelevant terms.
Teaching young people how to be scientists, or even how to navigate scientific concepts, is about more than just good experimental design and quality research. My professors provided me with the necessary skills to dive in and look for evidence-based decisions myself. But it was a tour guide in a mine that provided my first glimpse into the quagmire of taking those skills into the broader world. As an undergraduate, the concept made me uncomfortable. It still makes me uncomfortable now. It is messy. Sometimes it feels like if I just find the right way to explain things – to visualize information and tell the right story – we can come to a common and meaningful understanding. And sometimes I feel like the tour guide, who laughs and sighs every time he has to walk past the bolts that both insult his work and make it possible.