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Book Reviews:
The Marriage of Geology and Philosophy

New geologic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey

Geo-journals online

Book Reviews

Geo-Logic: Breaking Ground Between Philosophy and the Earth Sciences
by Robert Frodeman. State University of New York Press, 2003. ISBN 0 7914 5602 1. Paperback, $17.95


The Marriage of Geology and Philosophy
E-an Zen

This slim volume deals with the public role of earth science in contemporary society. What it has to say should concern not only public-minded earth scientists and those engaged in policy-making, but those who care about the relations between science and the humanities. The refreshing perspective of Geo-Logic comes from the author’s background. Frodeman, already a philosopher when he became a geologist, wanted to learn not only about Earth but also about the earth science discipline, to see whether, together, geology and philosophy could better meet the needs of the modern world.

Frodeman begins with the political controversies surrounding acid-mine drainage in the Silverton area of Colorado. This account reprises his article “A sense of the whole: towards an understanding of acid mine drainage in the west” in Earth Matters (Prentice Hall, 2000), which he edited. Going beyond that account, he sees the conundrum in part as a reflection of the way geologists do their field research, how that tradition affects their dealings with public issues, and how these dealings in turn affect the public’s valuation of geology in society.

Frodeman expands on Kai N. Lee’s metaphors of Compass and Gyroscope (Island Press, 1993) as ways to guide social debates that involve technical information. He points out that whereas we need a compass (which Lee identifies as science-based adaptive management) to direct us and a gyroscope (identified as “bounded conflict” or democratic debate) to provide stability, we also need “philosophy, or more generally, the disciplines of the humanities” to scope out the terrains (i.e., a map). This is where the science of geology meets the communal sense of value.

Frodeman delves into this confluence in some detail, developing several large public issues. Our knowledge about Earth, he points out, partly results from visions and metaphor-building; Alfred Wegener and James Hutton come to mind. It is also largely based on nonrepeatable natural events; to get at their causes, we must work backwards. Even though we do use laboratory-derived, model-based information to calibrate and constrain our inferences, we need to be wary of model-based deductions because nature is not a simple, reduced system. Rather, all the natural variables interact to shape the final result. If our science is messy, time dependent and contingent, so is nature.

If the philosophical underpinning of earth science is inferential rather than deductive, based on historical events, how then can we extrapolate from what we know to make scientifically authentic predictions? This point, Frodeman says, is at the crux of geology as public science because policy deliberations are future-oriented.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis made the same point in The Landscape of History (Oxford, 2002), where he draws parallels between human and earth history and discusses why historical conclusions do not readily transform into predictions. Earth scientists may have a bit more leeway because we live in a materially closed system. Knowledge of the broadly defined “earth resources” is part of our job; these cold data are amenable to model making and thence to prediction.

Here, in a practical way, science, politics and philosophy come together. Political leaders must realize that geological prognostications are necessarily probabilistic; at the same time, they also must remember that nothing can be certain until it has already come to pass, too late for policy purposes. What are the probable outcomes of taking specific courses of precautionary action, or of taking no action? Which aspects of public good are at stake? We need a compass, a gyroscope and, yes, a map.

In a chapter entitled “Being and Geologic Time,” Frodeman builds on the idea that geological expositions are metaphor-rich narratives, yet the metaphors transform our concept of nature. He moves from these philosophical musings to the hard constraints imposed by the fact that Earth is a small, closed space with fixed material endowments.

This theme eases into the next chapter, “Science and the Public Self,” where he points out that “knowledge … must be held as part of public trust” and that “the fundamental political nature of this responsibility bears emphasizing: the concept of common good must not be reduced to economic well-being.” Leaders of public agencies in earth sciences, hear this: “these agencies can help communities and the nation as a whole write the narratives that will help them chart a path through what is likely to be a challenging future.” The “public,” being a collective of individuals, are participants in the discourse, so let’s not reduce them to clients and customers.

I have occasionally tried to recapture the time before I knew any geology. What did I see then when I looked at rocks, soils and water; what messages did the visual images convey? Alas, I do not recall. Nevertheless, if we want to communicate with our fellows who are not trained in geology (and not just patronizingly “educate” them), then we need to learn to see the world as they do, both physically and metaphorically, just as we hope they will see things our way. Frodeman has the same concern, and in a chapter called “Philosophy of (Field) Science,” describes his growing perceptions of the world of rocks, as he, an adult conscious of this learning process, gained sensitivity to rocks and their patterns with his geological training.

This book should provide valuable stimulation to further discussions on the intersection of philosophy, public policy and the nature of geology in all its glory. It could be a good focus for interdisciplinary undergraduate seminars.

Zen retired in 1989 from the U.S. Geological Survey after 31 years of service. He is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a former president of the Geological Society of America and remains an active member of its Critical Issues Caucus.

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U.S. Geological Survey Maps

U.S. Geological Survey

MF-2423. WASHINGTON. Field and laboratory data from an earthquake history study of the Waterman Point fault, Kitsap County, Washington, by A.R. Nelson, S.Y. Johnson, H.M. Kelsey, B.L. Sherrod, R.E. Wells, Koji Okumura, Lee-Ann Bradley, Robert Bogar and S.F. Personius. 2003. One color sheet 83 X 37 inches. Available for $20.00 from USGS Information Services or free online.
This publication shows detailed cross sections along trenches across the Waterman Point fault and has a 1:3,000-scale Airborne Laser Swath Mapping image, showing location of the fault and the trenches studied.

I-2774. MONTANA. Geologic map of the Nelson quadrangle, Lewis and Clark County, Montana, by M.W. Reynolds and W.H. Hays. 2003. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 45 X 40 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2781. NORTH AMERICA. The North America tapestry of time and terrain, by K.E. Barton, D.G. Howell and J.F. Vigil. 2003. Scale 1:8,000,000. One color sheet 56 X 44 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services or free online.
This map is a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, Geological Survey of Canada, and Mexican Consejo de Recursos Minerales. The Tapestry map combines one-kilometer resolution digital elevation data with a new geologic map from the Decade of North American Geology geologic map. On the main part of the map, the ages of rocks depict the geologic history of the continent. Inset maps show the distribution of four major rock types: sedimentary, volcanic, plutonic and metamorphic. The scale of the main part of the map is 1 to 8 million, using a Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area Projection. Home page:

I-2809. HAWAII. Hawaii’s volcanoes revealed, by B.W. Eakins, J.E. Robinson, Toshiya Kanamatsu, Jiro Naka, J.R. Smith, Eiichi Takahashi and D.A. Clague. 2003. One color sheet 28 X 25 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services or free online.
The centerpiece of this publication is a 1:85,342-scale image of the Hawaiian Islands, volcanoes and sea-floor bathymetry.

To order USGS maps: Contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, Colo. 80225. Phone: 888-ASK-USGS (888-275-8747).

Randall Orndorff compiles the Maps section and is the Associate Program Coordinator for the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program. Email:

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Geo-journals online

Seven geoscience organizations have reached an agreement to create an online geology journal portal, called GeoScienceWorld. Similar to several other aggregated journal sites, GeoScienceWorld will allow electronic access to about 30 journals, a number that should increase each year. If their participating institution has a subscription, the portal will allow searchers to click through to cited references and access full-text articles electronically.

“This site is primarily designed for the academic library market, but will be of interest to any group that uses geoscience information,” says Sharon Tahirkheli, who is director of information systems at the American Geological Institute (AGI), one of the participating organizations, and who oversees the institution’s GeoRef citation service, which will be integrated into the GeoScienceWorld site. Some of the first journals will be those of the organizing institutions, and a subscription will be necessary.

A trial version should start up this year, and although discussions are still pending with a Web publisher, the site should be functioning by the beginning of 2005, Tahirkheli says. GeoScienceWorld will be a nonprofit organization, independent of the founding seven societies — the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, AGI, Geological Society of America, Geological Society of London, Mineralogical Society of America, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), and Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

“GeoScienceWorld is long overdue; the geosciences have lagged behind the rest of the sciences” in electronic publishing, says Marcus Milling, AGI’s executive director.

“The fact that these journals will be aggregated is going to make them more accessible and will give them a greater impact,” says Ray English, Oberlin College’s library director and head of the Scholarly Communication Committee of the Association of College and Research Libraries. He also notes that having a nonprofit organization run the site “is very encouraging, especially to libraries.”

Naomi Lubick

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