Friday, March 17, 2017

Interview: Geologist / Science Educator / Skeptical Thinker Sharon Hill

A real treat for readers today.  We have the first of a series of interviews I plan with scientists and engineers whose area of interest overlaps the topics of this blog (science education / oceans / zoology / space exploration.) 

Meet Sharon Hill, founder of Doubtful News.   Sharon and I have known each other for a long time and discussed and sparred on many areas of science, especially zoology/cryptozoology.  
“DN is a privately-owned, science- and evidence-based site brought to you by Lithospherica, LLC. We help our audience see beyond the news headlines and fantastic anecdotes.”

FB page:
Podcast: 15 Credibility St
Also launched SPOOKY GEOLOGY: Haunted places, earth mysteries, weird locations, anomalous phenomena      

Example of Current DN page headlines (12 March):
  • Alternative Medicine:  Burzynski ruling is in (Update: Pathetic punitive actions imposed)
  • 15 Credibility St #11: It’s One Louder
  •  Senator Rand Paul ridiculed small grant to study indigenous supernatural beliefs
  •  Charlestown beach carcass in Cornwall is a whale
  •  Philippine globster is mass of collagen, remains from marine animal 


Sharon, first and foremost you’re a scientist. What’s your training/education in geology?
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Geosciences from Penn State University where I had a focus on geochemistry, but loved volcanology and paleontology. I’ve been with the state government of Pennsylvania for 24 years doing mining hydrogeology. My Masters degree is in education emphasizing science and the public, which has helped me relate complicated technical topics to the public and translate these concepts into effective policy and regulation.

What is the most interesting work you’ve done as a geologist?
I’m not much of a field geologist, logging drill holes or mapping features. I like the sociology aspects of science. Serious sinkhole problems 15 years ago in Pennsylvania forced me to dive into karst literature and attempt to understand this complicated and frustrating geological setting. At the time, it meant interacting directly and almost daily with the local citizens who were affected by this problem. It taught me how important it is for the scientists to relate to public concerns. The communities don’t care about the data or details, they want to know what it means to their health and safety and what it will cost them out of pocket. When streams, roads, and property were threatened by complicated geological factors, the scientific data directly related to people’s lives and well-being. It kept me up at night and I learned not only a considerable amount about hydrogeology but about how to serve the public as a scientist. It really is a public duty.

What drew you into working on science and skepticism?
Nature has fascinated me since childhood. My earliest memories include picking up rocks to see what was underneath, finding bugs on flowers, and being fascinating with animals both modern and prehistoric. It was always clear that science of some sort was my career path. I think that certain topics and authors led me towards a skeptical approach. My lifelong interest in the paranormal and cryptozoology crossed with my interest in science. I got frustrated and bored with the typical literature in those topic areas. It was unscientific, uncritical, and repetition of the same stories (and errors). The skeptical literature was far more intellectually satisfying. It provided a much deeper understanding of the issues which were far more complicated than “a person saw a Bigfoot”. It made more sense in terms of how nature works to examine these claims from various scientific perspectives and look for threads of evidence that led to a common conclusion. It was authors like Stephen Jay Gould writing about evolution and the pseudoscientific claims of Creationists that taught me how to approach these ideas with a critical eye. Skepticism is an approach that everyone takes towards some aspect of life. I say we should use it far more often.

Your site Spooky Geology is unique, all about unusual formations, fossils, and other geological oddities. Where did that inspiration come from?

It seems like a natural intersection of my interests. I noticed that many earth mysteries and superstitious concepts were associated with a lack of understanding or misunderstanding of geological processes. Spooky Geology is essentially a unique framework to discuss the science of geology. You can grab people’s attention with headlines about a “gate to hell” or “the earth is swallowing us up” and then explain what is really going on.
Two main issues frequently thrown about in paranormal circles related to geology are dowsing and the Stone/Water Tape idea of residual hauntings. No geologists were actually saying anything about those while amateurs were spouting off pseudoscientific nonsense and declaring these speculations to be facts. I decided to say something about it. No one has taken this angle yet, almost all my geology colleagues have no interest in it but it’s clear the public finds it curious. The blog is my way of collecting the various topics together with a science-based explanation but still using the amazing and colorful folklore and myths to shape the story into something people can relate to. My hope is that curious readers come for the good story and learn some actual science along the way.

What’s a really cool geology fact most readers won’t have heard of?
Oh, my. Most people have so little background in geology that they don’t even have a clue how old the earth is and how we know that. I have a rock on my shelf that is about 1 billion years old. One BILLION! I am constantly amazed I can touch such deep time. It’s a shame that not many realize how integral geology is to our lives. If it’s not grown, it’s mined in some fashion: we mine water, fuels, materials for buildings and roads, raw materials for electronics and household items. We can’t have modern society without geologic information. The earth provides us with these things but it also can kill us. Geology isn’t just about finding oil, it’s about knowledge of the earth itself. It’s critically important to humanity. We’ll always need geologists.

You used to be more involved the “formal” skeptical movement: CSI, The Amazing Meeting, and so forth.   I understand you’ve withdrawn from that.
Yes. I do not agree with the direction that the remaining two large “skeptical” organizations are heading. The James Randi Educational Foundation is basically defunct now. That was the only organization that had a promising goal to focus on education and critical thinking. The other two, CFI (including CSI, formerly CSICOP) and the Skeptics Society are too focused on secularism and science promotion. That’s not what is needed; there are other groups focused on doing that exclusively. We don’t need to preach to the choir with conferences and meetups, we need to find effective strategies to promote critical thinking and rational discourse to the public. It is DESPERATELY needed today. So, I decided to aim towards fulfilling my own goals to show that a critical view of questionable claims is practical and useful to society and to individuals. It will improve their lives. It doesn’t matter what religion you subscribe to, it’s more important that you understand why it’s important to vaccinate your kids and to not waste money and effort on conspiracy ideas, finding ghosts, and products and services that don’t actually work. I’m not about calling people stupid because they believe in this or that thing. It’s about unpacking why they believe and what I might do to help them understand it for themselves. I don’t want to be labeled as a “Skeptic”, that connotation is so negative when finding out the truth is a totally positive thing to do. In my podcast, 15 Credibility Street, we try to present a positive, useful method of thinking about questionable claims. I hope that people hear that we are just normal folks, not science snobs or closed-minded grouches. Being smart about questionable claims is prudent. Avoiding scams is admirable.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to science in America?  Is it the new Administration, or is it broader than that?
The challenge is cultural. Today’s society generally does not value thoughtfulness, intellectualism, and long-term projects that produce enormous results that benefit humanity. We all want short-term results, sound bites, and fun stuff fed to us. Entertainment and pleasure is the driving force in society. Science isn’t easy, that’s why everyone doesn’t do it and why it seems so remote, like a foreign language, to the non-scientist public. Scientists have failed to connect to people. Science institutions have failed to make their work accessible and meaningful to the person just living their everyday life. The US is in huge trouble with the current anti-science, irrational, and denialist attitudes of our leadership. Science informs us about how things are and how they are likely going to be down the road. To ignore it, defund it, and ridicule it is insane. I’m very angry that the education system and most parents fail to emphasize independent thought and critical evaluation. We have a population of blind followers who can’t think through a difficult problem. That does not bode well for the future. The culture must change so that methodical and careful research results in intelligent and factual discourse on world issues. We’ve got a ton of serious problems to fix. Science must inform policy or humanity will be doomed; country by country we will fall.

You and I have clashed on occasion about the value of cryptozoology. Do you think it can be done scientifically, and is anyone doing that?
Yes, it can. Recently, this has been done by Naish, Paxton and Sykes. But I don’t think that should be the goal. As you know, when amateurs pretend to do science, that really makes me mad. There is a reasonable method anyone can pursue. Cryptozoology should be done comprehensively, with an aim towards identifying the problem clearly and using multiple approaches. In that, I mean you don’t have to be a scientist to do useful work in investigating cryptids. You just need to not have this debilitating bias that some mystery animal is responsible. A disciplined approach is needed but it doesn’t have to be science. But that is not where the field is. It appeals to a belief system. Cryptozoology is a belief for most people; it’s based on desire to believe in mysteries and often personal influential experience that individuals interpret in a preferred way.
The proponents of cryptids like “dogmen,” or Bigfoot, or chupacabras do not really want to know what’s is likely going on (which is complicated and has various explanations, not just one) but want to only feed a preconception about a magical creature. That’s not amenable to scientific discourse. It’s akin to religion. Many times, people like me who want to see facts confirmed and multiple lines of evidence that point in the same direction talk entirely past those who just want to hear a good story and join in for fun. So, you see that there are difference spheres. We don’t have communication between these spheres and, thus, we make enemies of each other.
So many self-styled cryptozoologists have no idea about problems of perception, zoological plausibility, ecology and biology of wildlife, and especially the role of folklore and suggestion. All those aspects and more come into play when you are considering an extraordinary claim that a bipedal ape continues to exist, both everywhere and nowhere in the US, seen by people but leaving no reasonable traces. What is it that we really want to do with cryptozoology? Is it cultural, biological, paranormal? There are a buffet of choices in the field, some people randomly mix and match inconsistently. I don’t think they want science to weigh in (unless it gives their belief support) as much as they want to be invested in a belief that has some meaning to them.

Last question: What is one thing you’d like all readers to know about science and scientific thinking?
Science is the best way we have of knowing things about the world. I’ve had several people bristle when I say that but it shows they don’t have any idea how science works. It’s one of humanities greatest inventions that led us to countless other amazing inventions. Science has an ethos that, when followed, eliminates many errors that could deliver a wrong conclusion. Anyone can then check it and get the same answers. That’s reliability. Then we can build upon reliable information. We argue civilly and intelligently about it and we accept the most likely explanations as models of how nature works. If I could do something today about science in the US, I would institute critical thinking philosophy classes in elementary school. Kids are not learning how to figure things out. They are being fed a firehose of information by the media where only drops of it are worthwhile, true, and useful. We need the tools to make sense of what we hear, see, feel and experience. We need to know how to think through issues to make good choices. We need to know why scientific information is crucial for many decisions. We need to learn how not to be fooled. Not everyone will be a scientist, but we all should learn how to think our way competently through life.

Thank you so much. Any final comments?
Thanks so much for your support and conversations over the years. It’s good to know that collegial 
 discussions can still happen in our fast-paced, polarized world. I’m all for more of  it.

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