18 January 2010

Geologists rock

If someone chooses you as an object of study, should you worry? Not always! Who would have thought that earth scientists are the object of cognitive studies. We apparently are so damn important that there is a whole field of science dedicated to finding out how we manage to be so downright amazing. Geocognition!

There was a talk announced about it. I looked up the subject and speaker: Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University,which is, and I'm not joking, located in Kalamazoo. I decided that it could go either in the direction of woolly twaddle, or something really interesting. I took the chance. And it was fun! I'm still fairly confused about the existence of this discipline, but it's great to hear of the results. Especially as it's quite flattering! The lady described her research project, that aimed to figure out things like how geoscientists of various stages in their career rate regarding knowledge of earth sciences (important!), general spatial insight, memory capacity, and such. And later they let them do fieldwork, and figured out who performs how well and how they achieve that. Interesting!

The reassuring thing was: earth sciences know a lot abot earth science. Pfieuw! Good start. And then. It seems we don't have special memory skills. Ah well. But the spatial skills! They had measured them using a standard test, used worldwide, and when the results came in the researchers fell of their chairs. We rock! You may worship us now. And the good thing is: it doesn't get worse with age, even though with non-geoscientists it does.

A funny thing was that they had a test where people were shown block diagrams. Some made sense as schematic representations of geological structures, and others didn't. After a few of these they had to draw them from memory. Disappointingly enough, the geoscientists did not beat the non-geoscientists there. In the geologically nonsensical ones, nor in the geological ones. But they were fast. And, admittedly, sloppy. And if they were not sure they gave up quickly. But they tended to redraw the nonsense diagrams in a more geologically sensible way. We see what we want to see! We're only human.
The fieldwork test consisted of a small geological mapping exercise, where all subjects were tracked by GPS. Their tracks were characterised by things like: how fast did they go, how often did they stop, how long did they stop, how often did they cross their own path, how much running up and down slopes did they do, how long did they stay in the field... The maps they produced were overlain by their tracks, and the researchers looked for correlations between these parameters, their level of expertise, and the quality of their maps. Brilliant! Field work studied. And there was not one best way of gong about, but there were some strategies that exclusively led to crap results. Too bad there were not many fieldwork supervising staff members in the audience!
Maybe for non-science geeks it's normal that there are other people studying who you are and how you do your job, and how, perhaps, that can be improved, but for me it's new. I like it!


De TV-psycholoog said...

This sounds like psychology of expertise, which at least according to textbooks seems to almost equate to the psychology of chessmasters. The geo-application might have some more widespread professional relevance. Btw, you're not alone: expertise has also be studied in medical doctors (a lot!), chemical scientists, therapists, musicians, taxi drivers, astrologists and what have you. In the latter there obviously is no such thing as expertise, as the research confirmed, too (lay people, which is hard to define in this context, did just as crappy as 'educated' beginners and fools with years of experience in the area). There is an unfortunate overlap with therapists: they do better than lays, but do not seem to improve with experience. Either you are and remain effective or you suck and always will. Hoe hoopgevend.

Margot said...

Ha! I was hoping you'd show up with a comment. I also had figured they would have studied physicians, as lots of people care about how they do their job. And now we're at their level of public appreciation! Yay! And that of astrologists. Ahem. Well. Good to see the relativity of things.
And strange! That therapists don't get better with time. But I'm sure you're on the effective side of that dichotomy. And, apparently, will remain there!

De TV-psycholoog said...

Yeah, it seems rather counterintuitive. I believe it has something to do with the fact that it is much easier to learn therapeutic techniques than to acquire qualities like empathy and being someone anyone would volunteer to talk to in the first place. And the latter make up much more of therapeutic effectiveness (something like half or so) than the former, which adds up to some 15%.

Btw (this still looks like tax to me): I forgot to add pilots and dietitians to my list, which is probably still far from complete.

Anonymous said...

Margot: I'm interested - why did you have an expectation that this talk might be 'woolly twaddle'?

Margot said...

I had a look on internet, and found an authorative-looking document, that said things like:

"Geocognition encompasses research into geoscience education, which traditionally focuses on classroom settings, particularly conceptual and affective changes that occur in students as a function of instruction." and "This understanding of how geoscientists think and practice can then be applied to better support learning of the discipline in formal and informal settings, by students, the public and policy makers."

And much more to the point things, but still, it is evidently possible to talk in management lingo for quite a while about this topic, without ever touching the actual work. It is amazing how people can sometimes omit all the interesting bits and go on and on about the merits of an integrated approach and so on and so forth. Whoever you are, Anonymous, you must have heard such things as well. Are you by any chance Heather herself? In that case: my renewed praise at the great talk. If you're not: I hope you were there to see it!

Alison Stokes said...

Yes, I was at the talk. I'm really pleased that you were intrigued enough to come along, and that you found it interesting. As well as reporting on some very cool work, Heather also did a great job of demonstrating that ‘education research’ can be approached in a way that’s rigorous and scientific. For me, this was the most important part…..I do similar research, and it’s a constant battle to try to overcome the perceptual barriers that are put up by academics. In fact, it’s downright tedious. So I’m hoping that Heather’s talk has prompted at least some of the people that were there to re-assess their opinions. If you’re interested there is a paper relating to this research, along with some other geocognition-related papers, in the September edition of the Journal of Geoscience Education: http://www.journalofgeoscienceeducation.org/

By the way, the ‘authoritative-looking document’ that you quote (but do not cite) is an abstract from a talk presented at an international conference. Since I’m a co-author on that paper I’m intrigued, and also a little irritated, by your comments. 1) Abstracts are by their nature generalised accounts, and the statements that you quote (I could say ‘cherry-picked’) were entirely appropriate for the context in which they were presented; 2) This is not ‘management lingo’, the information is written in the language and terminology appropriate to, and recognised by, the geoscience education community (who were, after all, the intended audience for this paper). Your own expert community presumably has its own specific terminology and jargon – which perhaps I might consider to be ‘woolly twaddle’??!

Margot said...

Hi Alison,

It looks like I have offended you and I apologise. I do wonder, however, why you would choose to throw things at me you evidently don’t want to be thrown at yourself. I won’t defend my choice of quote or its presentation, for I think there is no need for that, and I think it would easily lead to bickering, and that’s of no use to anyone.

I hope you can, beside the frustration, also just enjoy the fact that the field of geocognition is here advertised in front of a modest, yet varied (and, at least by me, highly appreciated!) audience, by an actual geoscientist.