Saturday, February 26, 2005

 

Hold on to your wallet

This post may seem a bit on the inside to some but my real point here is about language, not geology.

What prompts today's correspondence is the seminar given in my department yesterday. Sometimes we get bad talks that are poorly organized or convey little information but it the rare talk that actually does harm. I fear the three dozen or so students left the seminar with a poorer understanding of the world around them than when they entered.

The talk was given by a gentleman whose affliation was given as "International Oil and Gas Consultant" (a polite way of saying "unemployed"). Some noteable aspects of his talk:

1. The industry (or it might just be him) has a term called "proven reserves". This is the volume of hydrocarbons in a particular field. But this is not the amount that has been taken out of the ground; its the amount still down there. How do they know it is down there? Well, they make their best guess. The difference between proven reserves and unproven reserves is that in the former, some oil has been extracted and in the later, none has. OK, so we have a field that had yielded a drop of oil, now all of the other stuff we think might possibly be there is vaulted from unproven to proven. What a crock.

2. Geographic Information System (GIS) is all the rage these days. GIS is essentially a database linked to a map. With GIS folks can display all sorts of data on maps. It is used in lots of things like geology and real estate and urban planning. It can be a terrific tool that helps map makers make pretty maps faster than they ever could before. But some aren't satified with this. Our speaker yesterday asserted that GIS is revolutionizing the Earth Sciences. He argued that it allows us to do things we never could before. What a crock. When one doesn't understand the difference between impossible and impracticable, one is perhaps misunderstanding a lot more. Maps have been being made since the invention of the pencil and fancy computers don't do something new. They may do it faster and offer much more convinience but GIS is not a revolution. It is a tool. The microscope might be a better example of revolutionary technology; it really did allow new observations and measurments to be made. GIS is not a tool of observation but a way to display other peoples observations in interesting ways.

When you see someone declaring a guess as a proven fact and a new way of display as a revolution in science, hold on to your wallet.
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