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Geoscientists need to gain greater understanding of public perception

The disconnect between the way geoscience specialist use language and what is understood by the public is holding back acceptance of major projects, according to a University of Plymouth researcher.

Speaking at yesterday’s British Geotechnical Association’s annual conference in London, research fellow Hazel Gibson said that the mismatch in language leads to a mismatch in concepts.

“When we are trying to communicate with the public about controversial projects, such as fracking and nuclear schemes, this mismatch means that it is difficult to change people’s minds and opinions,” she said.

“It is not about providing more information as many people have already formed ideas and concepts based on their existing knowledge and what we’re telling them conflicts with these. The conceptual models that people hold are not necessarily wrong as they represent a person’s experience.”

Gibson used the different meanings of the word shearing by geologists, sheep farmers and meteorologists as an example of the kind of mismatch she describes.

“We have to fundamentally think about geological concepts differently and consider our audience before the communication process starts,” she added.

“Most public concerns are based more within the cultural and social narratives than related to geoscience issues.”

Gibson believes that this approach to language should be applied to any geoscience project, whether it is considered controversial or not. “Treat a scheme as if it could be controversial and you can improve communication and create opportunities for conversation,” she said.

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