I am a field botanist currently working in a field of uncertainty -- vegetation characterization, mapping and conservation. What vegetation type am I standing in? Is it within the natural range of variation? How resilient is it to human use?
|Al agonizes over what name to put on the form.|
|Hollis hopes no one will ask her any more questions.|
After an ethereal account of field work in the wilds of the Sultanate of Oman, laced with something of a Rubáiyát flavor (surely the field crew shared bread and wine under the date palms those evenings in the Wilderness), e-l returns to the real world and the Great Snowball Fight. Was the earth completely frozen for millions of years prior to the Cambrian? Is that what the evidence tells us? That is what some people hear it say. Others are sure that conditions cycled through cold and warm during that period, as they have more recently.
How many scientists working in fields of uncertainty add “but we don’t really know ... ", “but we’re assuming that ....” to their descriptions and discussions? I found myself saying this repeatedly to my field crew last summer, to the agency staff overseeing the project, to myself. It seems critical to acknowledge limits of what we can perceive and say, even as we suggest what might be the case. Interestingly, maybe not surprisingly, these admonitions did not seem to sink in. We prefer explanations, answers.
Uncertainty is not such a bad thing. In fact, it may be appealing if we use words such as “puzzling”, “enigmatic”, “mysterious”. Even my cynical whining about our addiction to explanations and patterns is softened with the right words:
Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand. (Neil Armstrong)And I’m not immune. I look at rocks at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Snowy Range "knowing” that they are from beaches and reefs that were here over a billion years ago ... that this was a nice warm place on the ocean a really long time ago. It’s irresistible. The time scale of this story pushes it into a world of mystical and fantastic things, a wonderful state of mind that I can’t resist.
|Sparky sun-bathing on the remains of a Precambrian beach.|