Recently I had to visit the doctor as I was experiencing severe pain in my back and hips. My experience in his office brought back memories of my formal scientific training at university and reminded me of how fortunate I was to have trained with excellent instructors and colleagues. As many of us have experienced at a doctor’s visit, I was initially seen by a second-year medical student. This was not a surprise given the complaint that I had about my pain. I have spent many years surrounded by men and women training in medicine and have come to understand the reason doctors refer to their work as ‘the practice of medicine.’ It is similar to why I consider my work ‘the practice of petroleum geology’, although there is obviously a little less at stake! The young doctor who examined me was quite thorough and did his best to understand and test various working hypotheses for the cause of my disease. He had a great rapport, was courteous and a well-spoken gentleman.
After his initial examination and a brief wait he returned with the attending physician, who happened to be the head of the department and, as it became quickly obvious, an excellent teacher. The attending physician sat down and then began to ask the student a series of questions. He was patient yet direct and followed the Socratic Method flawlessly. Each time his student gave an answer, he followed it with another question. Many times he pointed out the wrong direction of the young doctor’s analysis and how the proposed diagnosis (interpretation) did not match his observations. I recall the teacher saying, ‘What is this man’s disease?’ The student would answer and he would then say, ‘Why do you think that?’ The attending physician proceeded to perform a series of tests again with the student pointing out key observations that had been overlooked. I immediately knew that I was receiving excellent care, just as the student was getting excellent training.
The encounter brought a smile to my face as I recalled similar experiences in my training as a geologist. It reminded me about the value of learning to make observations in the field which is fundamental in becoming a geologist. The first geologic ideas were based on studies of outcrops. Field observations are what we can observe and need to accurately describe. These experiences give geoscientists the opportunity to learn and ‘practice’ the science of geology. When I was first learning to make observations I tended to put them into the context of a model that I had learned or had seen in another place. All too often I would interpret what I saw in outcrop rather than describe it. In a similar experience as the medical student, I had teachers asking, ‘Why do you think that?’ It took time, but eventually I learned the power of an accurate description and the value of unbiased observations. If I make accurate, detailed, and most importantly, objective descriptions of what I observe, anyone can return to read and understand what was actually seen in outcrop, make further observations and interpret the observations for themselves. Similar to reading a book a second or third time, the words are the same, but the meaning is significantly different as nuances have the ability to change our understanding if properly interpreted.
Developing this skill takes time. Reading literature, making observations in the field and in the core warehouse is time-consuming. Achieving expertise in a field is a process that is often related to having practiced a discipline for more than 10,000 hours. This number was quantified in research on musicians that were training to make music their profession. The study showed that while excellent musicians were abundant, the most accomplished and successful shared a common theme: they all had more than 10,000 hours of regular and consistent practice. This is roughly equivalent to 14 months of dedication to a goal 24/7. Taking a more realistic view (2-3 hours of practice a day), the training expands to 10-14 years of dedicated daily practice.
Achieving this level of competence doesn’t happen overnight. While it may seem like an insurmountable task, the time will pass regardless of whether or not we practice and develop this skill. The key component is dedication to the goal and making sacrifices to attain excellence in a craft.
So when you are collecting new or evaluating legacy data, remember to ask yourself, ‘What is the question I am trying to answer? Have I accurately described the observations that I’ve made?’ Understanding the question is the first step in developing a hypothesis and ultimately a conclusion that fits the observations. The acquired data may not always answer or address the initial question, but it will provide a method of interrogation that will allow you to interrogate the data with a purpose.