Rural communities and flooding

Over the last few weeks we have once again been faced with the impact of flooding on a huge scale. While we have heard a lot about flooding in the North of England (quite rightly) there has been rain all over the country and on a recent train trip I saw flooding in fields across the Westcountry, but looking back at the reports of flooding, this flooding of rural areas across the UK appears a background story to the flooding of towns – if it is mentioned at all in the general media. Farmers are much more frequently the victims of flooding, but because it is fields and livestock that are affected rather than houses and people this flooding is often overlooked. Added to this is the recent suggestion that farmers should be paid to let their fields flood, thus lessening the burden on downstream urban residents, without any real thought as to how our building practices often exacerbate the problem in the first place.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

A photo (taken from the train!) of flooded fields in the Westcountry.

Recently, I ran a stakeholder case-study workshop for Environmental Science students in Plymouth University and one interesting issue was that the majority of students placed greater value on communicating with residents of a town affected by the hypothetical situation than the rural residents. In one example, a student playing the role of ‘National Government’ said that it was a ‘numbers thing’, but as another student pointed out in rebuttal for this statement; people in the country, although they may appear more resilient, can actually be more vulnerable due to their isolation and dependence upon the land for their livelihoods. So why do we have this focus on urban (or semi-urban) residents over rural? Is it because increasingly more and more of us live in urban centres as opposed to the country? Or because large media distributors (the gatekeepers of most of our information) are based in cities?

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the locat residents (t - for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

A picture of the board used during the stakeholder workshop to assign communication priorities. Note how many more are listed under the local residents (t – for town) column, than there are under the local residents (c- for countryside) column.

Often communicators (including the media) target the easiest or most visible community, not always out of choice. Hard-to-reach audiences, whether geographically or ideologically can be a challenge to communicate with or about, without seeming patronising. The issues that are important to these communities can seem odd or irrelevant to those communicating, but by ignoring or marginalising the hard-to-reach community you are weakening any further attempt to connect. This is an important issue because these future contacts might be life or death situations and by that time, it’s too late to be feeling your way into a community. In this instance, by lessening our knowledge of the impacts and extent of flooding on rural communities, we may lessen our acceptance to finance flood defence measures that may be better long term solutions, but that focus their protection on our rural communities – the frontline of the majority of flooding in the UK – instead of urban ones.

In order to fix this issue, mainstream communication channels, such as the visual and print media, should be encouraged to take into account new research being published on how different populations approach different sciences, particularly the environmental sciences. An upcoming special issue of Natural Hazards and Earth System Science and Hydrology and Earth System Science called Effective Science Co​mmunication and Educ​ation in Hydrology a​nd Natural Hazards ​(NHESS/HESS Inter-Jo​urnal SI)​  seeks to address this issue, and I would hope that it will be used to try and improve our national communication strategy.

The closing date for this special issue if you want to submit a paper is the 15th January, so there is still time to get your research in there if you want to join in with this critical conversation.

Cassiterite – Day 5 of the Mineral Advent Calendar

This holiday season, why not get a mineral every day instead of chocolate? Today’s mineral is Cassiterite find out more about it below..
One of the most obvious signs of the season is the number of church based carol  services that you get invited to – and if you are in a church you are probably enjoying the dulcet tones of a full pipe organ.


Even the fox at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) is excited about the holidays!!

Organ pipes provide the backing to some of our favourite seasonal music! (Image from Wikipedia)

Organ pipes provide the backing to some of our favourite seasonal music! (Image from Wikipedia)


Organ pipes are made with tin, a metal that you get from the mineral ore cassiterite. In one of the best museums in Devon, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) you can come and handle museum specimens found locally and talk to volunteers like me! We have a lovely sample of cassiterite at  Local Finds table that you can come and have a close look at!


Lovely Casserite specimen sample from the Royal Albert Memorial Musuem's Local Finds handling table.

Lovely Casserite specimen sample from the Royal Albert Memorial Musuem’s Local Finds handling table.


Chemical formula: SnO2
Colour: Black, yellow, brown, red or white.
System: Tetragonal
Hardness (Mohs): 6 – 7
Can you find it in the UK? Yes

Location of Cassiterite in the UK from the MinDat Website

Location of Cassiterite in the UK from the MinDat Website

Cassiterite is such an important mineral for the UK that large portions of the nations wealth were based up on it in the last thousand years. Tin streaming, a mineral collection activity practiced throughout the human occupation of Britain, developed into tin mining mainly based in Cornwall and was a one of the central sources of the county’s income. There is even a saying based around the importance of tin and copper mining:

Cornishmen are fishermen, Cornishmen are miners too.
When all the fish and tin are gone, what are Cornishmen to do?

For more information about Cassiterite please visit the MinDat website.

Women can understand fracking!

Women 'don't understand fracking' article in the Times from @EbenMarks

Women ‘don’t understand fracking’ article in the Times from @EbenMarks

This morning I was sent an article from the Times titled ‘Women ‘don’t understand fracking’. This article was forwarded to me because my research into what people think about geology has occasionally brushed onto fracking and as such I have a very keen interest in how people think about fracking and what impacts on the decisions that they make about it. Professor Macdonald’s comments were perceived as controversial, and the article opened with:

“Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they ‘don’t understand’ and follow their gut instinct rather than facts, according to a leading female scientist.”

The article went on to quote a study done by the University of Nottingham, which stated that 31.5% of women believe that that shale gas exploration should be allowed in the UK as opposed to 58% of men, and that 65% of women identified shale gas as the product of fracking as opposed to 85% of men (the article said ‘correctly’, but as you can extract different types of fossil fuels using fracking including oil and methane – I would want more info before drawing that conclusion).

The specific Nottingham University study itself was not made clear in the article, but it is here and it forms part of an ongoing series of studies about how we in the UK perceive shale gas extraction and fracking. The studies have provided many interesting results, but the focus on gender highlighted in this article has raised concerns. I was asked in the context of my work – had I found any gender bias in this issue of how people perceive geology? The short answer to that is not yet. The long answer is that I am less interested in the influence of gender and so am not specifically looking at that factor, and also that most of my data is still qualitative and so I would not want to draw general conclusions at this point.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if I did.

It seems to be true that there is a gender difference in the way that men and women perceive science in general and fracking in particular – the work done by Nottingham is good and should be trusted. This issue here for me is more about the context of that difference. The article mentions that women may have less access to science education because they may not have continued science (or any STEM subject) post 16, and that would lead them to feel less confident in their understanding of science. The article then continued with the statement from Professor Macdonald:

“women are more likely to form opinions based on ‘feel’ and ‘gut reaction.”

The quote is continued in another article (as the Times is behind a paywall and I only got a small part of it):

“Merely showing them more facts demonstrating that fracking was safe would not change their minds, she said.“Why are men persuaded? That’s because an awful lot of facts have been put forward,” she said. “[Men] will say, ‘fair enough, understand’. But women, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded by the facts. More facts are not going to make any difference. What we have got to do is understand the gut reaction, the feel. The dialogue is more important than the dissemination of facts.”

(continued from the Telegraph)

What this article fails to do, is separate two very important issues:  the difference between access to science for different genders, and how having a science education can make you feel more confident in discussing and debating science issues. The problem, as I see it is this:

  • Girls are less likely to access science (or STEM) post-16 than boys


  • If you have not had a science education, then fact-based science communication is harder to engage with.

What it doesn’t mean is that women are less able to engage with science than men, that’s a fallacy of logic. There are men who didn’t engage with science post-16 that struggle with fact-based science communication, just as much as there are women who have had access to post-16 science education who are completely comfortable with fact-based communication.

Working with girls from my old school on a STEM day (photo from the Herald Express)

Working with girls from my old school on a STEM day (photo from the Herald Express)

The context that is missing from this article is culture. Women have culturally, for hundreds of years, been told that science is not for them, so they don’t engage with education. When someone of any gender doesn’t engage with education, it becomes harder to understand the intricacies of that subject later in life. What I have found in my research, and what I increasingly believe to be true, is that most people regardless of their gender want to know more about fracking, but the answer to that thirst for knowledge is not just facts. As communicators we need to take into account the different influences on people’s lives and not just expect them to understand and agree with us when we present them with data.

So really I think this comes back to the title of this piece – ‘Women ‘don’t understand fracking’. Well maybe, for deeper cultural reasons, this is true – but actually I think the headline should read, ‘Women (like men) CAN understand fracking’ and it’s our job as science communicators to help make this happen.

Can you blog and write papers at the same time?

Writing for blogs and academia

Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!

However, since I sat myself down and said:

‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’

I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.

When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).

This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!

This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.

The language of scince should not be used to exclude.

The language of science should not be used to exclude. (The mural is one I saw on the doors of a geology firm in Cornwall: Geoscience Ltd – the photo is my own).

But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you. 

How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.


To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?


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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.