I love and admire geologists. Am I crazy to wish they were in charge of things?
Let me explain.
Scientists of all kinds have useful traits for civic leaders. They rely on intuition backed by hard evidence and logical inference, they challenge accepted ideas, and they appreciate uncertainty and the limits of knowledge. If they have a general flaw, it's that they love doing science more than assuming leadership. But scientists more and more work in teams, and the lone man in the lab coat is more and more a cliché.
What's Special About Geologists
Geology is distinct from other branches of science, and it is best practiced by men and women with an unusual combination of gifts. These include physical stamina, of course, which is useful for long meetings and rubber-chicken dinners. A geologist will have the energy to shake hands, smile and have a lucid conversation at the end of the longest day—or the beginning of it.
But more important is the geological mind, which is agile in multiple dimensions. Consider the geologist's ability to assemble a tentative picture of the environment in the distant past based on a few fossils, rock features and a seismic-reflection profile. Sarah Andrews, a geologist who now writes thrillers, puts it thus: "Not only can we think in four or more dimensions, we can arrive at rational solutions using incomplete, even ambiguous data."
The geologist is a mixture of visionary and analyst, a practitioner of the method of multiple working hypotheses. Working with respect for our geological setting, we can become a more sustainable society. Building that better civilization takes leaders who are unintimidated by scientific data. I'd like to think the voters of Colorado recognized this when they made a geologist, John Hickenlooper, their governor just as Denver voters previously made him their mayor.
Sarah Andrews asks her fellow geologists, "Who can do a better job of integrating complex, interacting systems toward pragmatic results? Who is better suited to project into the future the impact of decisions that will impact these systems? And turning these questions around, does it make sense for us to leave our future in the hands of folks who can't fully perceive these systems? I don't think so."
Geologists in High Office
Some geologists rise far from their earthly scientific background. Herbert Hoover's first job out of college, after getting his geology degree, was in an underground gold mine, but he became president of the United States. Another is the current premier of China, Wen Jiabao. And Colin Powell started out with a degree in geology.
None of these three have talked a lot about how geology has shaped them, but others have. Hickenlooper, for instance, told Geotimes in 2003, "Using the scientific method—the consideration of multiple working hypotheses—is just fundamental to running a business or government. We are continually evaluating different scenarios and weighing them against each other."
Jim Gibbons of Nevada was for many years the only geologist in Congress, and he was a staunch friend of the mining industry that provides the basis of our national wealth. But he didn't forget his scientific roots, telling audiences, "You know you're a geologist when you receive a letter from the county informing you that a landfill permit is required to put any more rocks on your property. Either that, or you keep a copy of Dana's Manual [of Mineralogy] next to your toilet at home." Gibbons rose to become Nevada's governor.
There are surely more geologists running for and serving in lesser offices, whether in the state house or the mayor's office. Look for them and consider what they may bring to your government.