Can a geologist ever operate without anchoring bias?

Recently I was reading a paper about how anchoring bias has a strong role in how different geologists interpret data, because they base their interpretation on data they associate with a location. For example – Dover is known to have chalk cliffs, therefore if you see a cliff in Dover, it must be chalk. Which lead me to think ‘can geologists ever operate without using anchoring bias?

Just let go of the anchor!!

Just let go of the anchor!!

Before I launch into my reasoning for this, I should probably define what anchoring bias is. Anchoring bias or focalism, is a type of cognitive bias that usually happens in decision making, whereby the first piece of information (the anchor) becomes the basis for all subsequent decisions – even if this is illogical. Most often the phenomena has been tested using numbers, to quote an example given by Grau and Bohner – when participants are asked: Is the Eiffel Tower higher or lower than X meters? Followed by the question: How high is the Eiffel Tower? The answer to the second question will invariably be influenced by the value of X given in the first question. It has often been mentioned that anchoring bias is easier to demonstrate than explain (Strack and Mussweiler, 1997) which certainly seems the case, with explainations varying between selective accessibility (the anchor provides a point from which to test hypothesis and the data for it is more easily accessible – Mussweiler and Strack, 1999) to emotional state (those who are ‘sad’ and who generally demonstrate less bias – aka a more realistic view of the world – than those who are happy, seem to be more susceptible to anchoring bias – Bodenhausen, Gabriel and Lineberger, 2000) to expertise and experience (whereby experts base forecast and other data extrapolations on previous values, which may in some cases lead to very inaccurate results, Campbell and Sharpe, 2009), which bring me back to the geologists.

The reason I thought of geologists in particular being susceptible to anchoring bias is because, having worked as an Identification Officer at the Natural History Museum in London, I know that hands down the first question I ever asked someone who brought me something geological to be identified was ‘where did you find it?’ In fact I would even go so far as to say that if someone didn’t know where an object was from initally, it would be practically impossible to give a detailed ID. Yes I would be able to tell them roughly what their object was, but for detail I needed a location. This is true of all geology, where you are defines the types of rocks, mineral and fossils that you expect to find. Most intersetingly in this case however, it is just as likely to define what you WON’T find. Anchoring bias in geology precludes us from choosing certain rock types, fossils or environments of deposition in an area simply because that’s not what the maps say. And we love our maps.

And we really do love our maps!

And we really do love our maps!

But is there a problem with this? I mean, as researchers show, it’s likely that all experts experience some form of anchoring bias (in fact we all do) – so what’s the big deal? Well I guess as someone looking at communicating geoscience and trying to understand how people perceive geology, the influence of bias is a big deal in building trust, and we don’t even take anchoring bias into account. If we unknowingly encourage anchoring bias in interpreting our data, then are we skewing our results and presenting them with more confidence than we should? I wonder how many geologists would change their interpretation of soemthing just because the loaction changed? And yes, context is important, but do we let it control our interpretation too much? It may be that for geoscientists, anchoring bias is just a fact of life, but I think we should all be aware of it and try to take our own natural biases into account when communicating our data.

EGU Day 1 – Spaceships and science communication

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So the first day of EGU has come to a close and boy was it a cracker! I had a great mix of talks that were pertinent to my research and talks that I indulged myself by attending, particularly two that I had highlighted at the beginning of the week – PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust and PS4.2 Rosetta: first results from the prime mission. All in all I had a great day, and felt really glad to be back at EGU again!

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The first session I attended today was NH9.2 Forensic Disaster Analyses – Learning from Disasters. The session was mostly about flooding, but approached the challenge of learning through and from crisis situations in a a series of novel ways. There was crowdsourcing flood data, post event adaption analysis using relocation and collecting and storing complete event data, with an eye to the needs of the end user. One surprising thing I learnt from this session was that the majority of flood damage occurs to infrastructure when water comes into contact with electrical equipment, and that this is rarely taken into account when planning mitigation. Interestingly the presentations felt to me that they addressed the societal element as one more data point, rather than engaging more fully with the issues and concerns of people affected by flooding, and I would have been interested to see how the subject was approached differently if a more holistic approach was taken.

An interesting question that relates to this issue was the design of the crowdsourcing app to collect first hand data. One of the strengths of the app was presented that it gave residents control and engagement with the scientific process, and there was a lot of discussion about how you would get people to complete the data in the face of a crisis, but no-one addressed the question of whether people would voluntarily submit flooding data that may increase the cost of insurance in their area? Still at least the subject was being discussed, which is a positive move forward.

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After a short coffee break I was on to my second session: PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust. This session was brilliant, often over my head, but filled with several interesting stories. My favourite was the presentation concerning the Student Dust Counter (not a new typ of student housing vacuum cleaner) – a spaceship designed, launched and maintained (including data analysis) by students. The spacecraft has been on it’s mission for 9 and a half years so far and is slowly approaching Pluto (right now it’s at Jupiter), it’s first target, before moving on to the Kuiper Belt. Most of the spaceship is dormant, but a few instruments are recording and transmitting data, riding along like barnacles on a whale!

The best thing about this, and a question someone raised, is that this mission began over 9 years ago, which is well beyond the scope of a (European) student position – so how can it still be a student mission? Well the simple answer is that the mission, the data and the link to spacecraft are handed down, student to student, each old one training the new and so on, which I think is a brilliant science story – a whole generation of planetary scientists training each other to pass this little spaceship out beyond the furthest reaches of our solar system.

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The third session of the day was NH9.4/EOS19 Natural Hazard Education, Communications and Science-Policy-Practice Interface. This was a brilliant session of both new ideas and lessons learned in science communication, from using board games to teach volcanic awareness, to encouraging students to design their own web app that would increase their understanding of geo-hydrological terms and how to use narratives to build the resilience of small businesses to flood events. There was also a presentation by a group os researchers from the CNR-IIA in Monterotonto and the University of Turin who were talking about the information deluge that you experience during a crisis and how people make sense of that deluge. They had designed a wiki to help with the provision of accurate and reliable data, but there were a couple of questions around the data. Clearly the idea was a great one, but the initial data had not been collected during a time of crisis, so all the conclusions were not related to the main crisis event, there was no knowledge of whether a crisis event changed the nature of people’s searches online. Also the wiki was called nhwikisaurus – which was a play on the thesaurus connectionn, but the icon was of a dinosaur, so this may be confusing for people who go there expecting it to be a dinosaur wiki. It was really good to see people trying to positively engage with risk communication in a new way.

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I then ducked quickly into the session on the initial results from the prime Rosetta mission and spent most of my time being absorbed by the gorgeous photos of the comet! I did find out though that Rosetta has a mass spectrometer on board and that they have a twin of the instrument in the lab in case of any issues!

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My last observational session of the day was SSS11.5/EMPR4.1/ERE2.5/NH4.4 Communication of uncertain information in earth sciences: data, models and visualisation. Now the informatics talks have somewhat put me off in the past as they seemed to revolve around finding statistical ways to represent uncertainty but the session today actually focussed on communicating that uncertainty. My favourite talk (that I was able to see -bit of an overlap) examined intuitive responses to IPCC diagrams and found that the colour schemes can often give false representations and that often the caption isn’t actually helpful in interpreting the image.

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The last thing I did today was to take part in a panel discussion: SC22 Open Science, Public Engagement and Outreach: why bother? I was joined on the panel by Ivo Grigorov from the Technical University of Denmark, and Ulrich Poschl from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, and chaired by Sam Illingworth, lecturer in science communication from Manchester Metropolitan University.

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To say I was intimidated would be an understatement, especially when Sam introduced Uli as ‘if not the father, then the kind uncle’ of the open science movement! But the discussion was lively and informal and by the end I had relaxed into it. The talk ranged across topics like what is open science, how to we make open access more avaliable, how do we deal with the issue of cost for open access (turns out that if all universities stopped paying subscriptions they could afford to get all papers published open access), why do we engage with the public, how to avoid or manage the ‘dinosaurs’ in your department who don’t approve of open science or public engagement, how to balance the ethos of open access with the realities of life as a young scientist and ‘Science 2.0’. It was a great evening and I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was left with lots of meaty issues to ponder – can we come up with our own metric of impact and how do you ensure that open science and engagement are not the last things on the list and the first to go in academic life?

So all in all day 1 – I would say you’ve been fabulous. But what were your first impressions? And any tips for good sessions to drop in on the rest of the week?

BGS people – Rachel Bell, a tenacious hydrogelogist

For two weeks at the beginning of July I got the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at the British Geological Survey and speak with them about what they do, why they enjoy it and why it’s interesting. It’s been a great opportunity for me to geek out at all the amazing things the BGS is doing and the brilliant people who work there.

Rachel Bell is a hydrogeologist, which means she is interested in water. Specifically she is interested in the quanity and quality of water held in rocks underground and as such has spent a lot of her career in an out of various rivers, lakes and other water bodies collecting data. She is also a great example of someone who really chased her dream, overcoming setbacks in her career that many others would have seen as the end of the road.  You can read the post here.

Rachel Bell collecting data

Rachel Bell collecting data

Radioactive Waste Disposal in the UK – the start of a new screening process.

Today I attended a meeting that marked the start of a long and complicated process – the initial geological screening for a location to dispose of the UK’s radioactive waste. Some of you may remember that this is a process that has already started once, back in 2006, but which ground to a halt last year, when the only remaining council considering volunteering, West Cumbria, pulled out of the process. Because of this, the government has decided to start the recruiting process all over again – in an attempt to improve how the site is selected. As a result a new White Paper outlining the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency’s (NDA) plans was published in July.

It states:
UK Government has published a renewed process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility. Implementing Geological Disposal outlines an approach based on working with interested communities, beginning with two years of actions overseen by Government and intended to address issues that the public and stakeholders have told us are important to them. The UK Government remains committed to geological disposal as the right policy for the long-term, safe and secure management of higher activity radioactive waste.

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Today’s meeting was held at the Geological Society in London and was proposed as the first step in establishing a dialogue with different stakeholders that would assist in creating guidelines for areas considering volunteering to be assessed about their suitability to house a deep geological storage facility (so basically it was asking people ‘who should be involved in the discussion to set up the plan to invite the public to volunteer to take part’ – it’s a REALLY early stage). It was organised by the Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) section of the NDA and featured speakers from across industry, academia and government.

During the meeting it became increasingly clear that far from being a straightforward process, this was a very complex set of stages which could be (and were) interpreted differently. Part of this is due to the complicated nature of the material we are dealing with – radioactive waste. So before I dive into the meeting, here is a quick look at radioactive waste.

Now when it comes to radioactivity, I have a bit more familiarity than many people, and interestingly it’s not because I am a geologist. Firstly, I grew up in and now live again in Devon, an area known far and wide for it’s granite. Now granite (like many igneous rocks – ok a little bit of geologist escaped there, but you don’t need to be a geo to know this) is a radioactive rock and one of the forms of radioactivity released is a gas called radon. In Devon, most people have at least heard of radon, and some people have radon detecters. The closer you live to the moors the more likely you are to have had your house tested for radon. In fact, there was a toilet in Chagford (central Devon) that became famous as the most radioactive loo in the world due to the amount of radon being so high, that if you were in there for an hour you would get more than the recommended annual national level of radon!!

The second reason that I am familiar with radiation is because I live in Plymouth and Plymouth houses the Trident submarines. The Tridents are the UK’s nuclear deterrent subs, each loaded with a nuclear weapon. Every week the dockyard tests it’s contamination alarms – sirens that echo the days of the blitz ring out across Plymouth (waking up the lazy students) – it’s a very audible reminder that a few miles away from the city centre is a fairly large concentration of high level nuclear material.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn't far from the city.

As you can see the Naval Base (on the river) isn’t far from the city (image from Wikipedia).

But what if you don’t live in a granite rich (radioactive) area or near one of the dockyards that services the nuclear submarines? Have you ever come into contact with radioactive material? Well leaving background radiation from the planet and the sun aside the answer is probably yes. In fact you have probably had a hand in creating some of your own radioactive waste. How you may ask? Well when I was told this I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised it. A large proportion of our radioactive waste comes from……. medical facilities. Yep. Ever had an x-ray? Even a dental x-ray counts. And that is only one of the myriad ways that we use radioactive materials. And that’s not even thinking about some of the more intensive therapies – radio-therapy for example? So radioactivity isn’t unfamiliar, well, kind of, but radioactive waste and what we do with it – certainly the concept of burying it – is. Most of us (myself included) have never seen radioactive waste beyond the glowing green gunk housed in lurid yellow containers (probably leaking) as depicted in popular media from the Simpsons to Spiderman. And with that in mind, having radioactive waste anywhere nearby (with the possible addendum that you might get superpowers from it) is pretty terrifying!!

Radioactive materials in 'The Simpsons' usually glow green.

Radioactive materials in ‘The Simpsons’ usually glow green (image is from TheBrainCage with a great article about the colours of radioactive materials).

But as we may have thought that nuclear materials are restricted to dirty bombs and power stations, nuclear waste has been similarly misrepresented in the media. Although some radioactive rocks are bright yellow, a glowing rock doesn’t mean it’s radioactive. And though radioactive waste can be stored in cannisters, I can’t find any examples of it being a thick sludgy material. In fact the really radioactive waste we produce as a society often looks like this:

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Image from the Guardian website

The really radioactive stuff may be the most dangerous, but it also takes up the smallest proportion of radioactive waste in the UK. But what do the different types of radioactive waste mean? Well, here is a quick summary. There are three main types of radioactive waste, and they are divided by their intensity. These three types are high-level, mid-level and low-level and they are categorised in the following way (description provided by Richard Shaw from the BGS, also available here).

Low-level waste (LLW) comes from hospitals and industry, as well as from nuclear fuel. It includes paper, rags, tools and clothing, which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. It does not require shielding during handling and transport, and is suitable for shallow land burial. To reduce its volume, it is often compacted before disposal. 82.67 % of the volume of waste produced in the UK is low-level but it accounts for 0.0003% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and some requires shielding like protective clothing between stored waste and humans. It typically includes chemical mixes and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and non-solids may be solidified into vitreous waste (like glass). In the UK it makes up 17.26% of the volume and has 5.8% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

High-level waste (HLW) is generated from the ‘burning’ of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor, is the most radioactive waste produced and can be long or short lived. HLW contains products generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and hot, so requires cooling and shielding. HLW accounts for over 94.2% of the total radioactivity produced industrially, but only approximately 0.07% of the volume of radioactive waste produced in the UK.

So we have this waste, that doesn’t look like we thought is would and comes from places we hadn’t expected, so why are we only hearing about it now? Because at the moment we are storing our waste on the surface, in secure buildings. One of the things raised in today’s meeting was the idea of keeping the radwaste ‘safe’ but this plays into my questions about why are we thinking about radwaste now – ‘safe’ from what? Are we worried about keeping ourselves safe from the radiation, or the radwaste safe from us? It seems to be a mix of the two. Firstly, despite our proximity to a myriad of sources of low level background radiation, from the sun, to the rocks to your friendly neighbourhood x-ray technician, radiation in high doses, for prolonged periods of time is dangerous. It impacts not only us and our health, but the environment too. As such we protect ourselves from it. But lets be honest, all those movie stories with runaway trains that just happen to be strapped with a dirty bomb don’t come from pure fantasy. There are utter lunatics in the world who think it’s a good idea to create a weapon from something so devastating that it could wipe out all life in a 100mile radius. We are a violent species. And as much as I hate to think it, the chances of another war happening in the future are not remote. If that happens, is it a good idea to have a supply of radioactive material just lying around?! So the radwaste also needs protecting from us.

Thinking about burying the radwaste keeps it ‘safe’, from both perspectives and in that respect I think most people (in the abstract at least) would agree that burying radioactive waste is a good idea. But as we come back to this concept of burying the waste, we start to encounter one of the problems that I saw in the meeting today. It is at this point that nuclear scientists and geologists start to move into an extremely technical discussion of ‘data’, ‘risk’ and ‘factors’, and non-scientists seem to be regarded as receptacles for this data. As such they are subject to the opinion, that once they read the statistics, they will accept or reject the data logically. The problem with this, as we all know, is that most people factor in other things beyond percentages and technical data when making a decision, and most of the scientists in the meeting today know that – they just seem to forget it when planning a big, technically complicated venture like this. The discussions today frequently descended into debates over small technical questions, with no consideration as to whether these levels of detail would even matter to the people who will read the call for volunteers or submit their area as a possible location to store radwaste. It wasn’t until someone actually asked the question “but how much of this is actually relevant to this stage of the process?” that most people sat back and went, ‘well, it’s not’.

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

How much technical data is necessary at this point in the process?

To me this reflects one of the biggest problems with communicating any science, but geoscience in particular. It is all too easy as a technical expert, to get swept up in the intricacies and interest of the data and the challenges it provides and you loose sight of the perspective of anyone who isn’t an expert. More and more often in technical conferences now, geoscientists are told ‘you need to have a communications person embedded in any endeavour from the start to aid in effective communication’, but I think this person also needs to provide another purpose. They need to be a fuse for the experts in the room and halt the discussions any time they get too carried away. Planning in geology is essential and considering the next step is vital for successful projects, but not if it comes at the expense of the first stage, where gaining the engagement of your resident population is at stake.

This is ESPECIALLY important in an area where the topic at hand is controversial or perceived to be threatening. In cases like this ensuring the public enter the discussion with you at all depends on a delicate balance of trust and transparency, and by thinking five steps ahead and providing irrelevant (at the time) data, you can undermine yourself in terms of how a non-expert feels about your project. Anyone who has ever been buried by a mountain of information related to a decision that they are not an expert in can tell that this can make you feel uncertain and unconfident in your decision, and lead you to either seek an opinion from another (who may not be any more technically knowledgeable than you) or just adopt the more familiar choice. In that case heuristics wins over data, even if that isn’t actually the best thing.

So in respect to the plan to request potential participants to submit their area for further examinations as to whether they are even suitable for radioactive dispoasal, I’ll be watching carefully to see just how complex the communications get, and how relevant they stay.

BGS people – Dr Rob Ward, a groundwater guru

For two weeks at the beginning of July I got the opportunity to meet a whole bunch of interesting people at the British Geological Survey and speak with them about what they do, why they enjoy it and why it’s interesting. It’s been a great opportunity for me to geek out at all the amazing things the BGS is doing and the brilliant people who work there.

Dr Rob Ward has one of the toughest jobs in the BGS. He is the Director of Groundwater Science, which means he oversees a large and diverse team of scientists and engineers, all trying to unravel the mysteries of groundwater (also see Stephanie Zihms). He has also in the past been called to be a part of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) particularly during the terrible flooding in Somerset earlier this year. You can read the post here.

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank model he and his team use in outreach events!