Myths, Realities and Sticky Bites

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

My wife Allyson and I are in a book club. The selections are eclectic and almost always fiction, except for the time we sent a non-fiction shock through the system by choosing David McCullough’s 750-page masterpiece, “John Adams.”

To counterbalance the blithe romp through the book club garden of fiction, the other books that I read are non-fiction. Such grippers as ”The Bottomless Well”; “The World is Flat”; “Science, Evolution and Creationism”; “A Short History of Nearly Everything”; “The Bottom Billion”; “The Black Swan”; “Physics for Future President’s“; “Guns, Germs and Steel”; you get the picture.

Before I continue, a confession: I often read about a third of a book before I get the gist and begin to bore. Sometimes I will manage two-thirds before I stop. If it is particularly captivating, to honor the author, I finish it! I also typically have about five books going at once, and thus remain totally confused as to who actually said what.

Recently a friend recommended “Made to Stick,” by the brothers Heath. Having read several business and ethic books du jour, I was skeptical. I finished it!

An Internet synopsis of the book explains, “Urban legends, conspiracy theories and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas ” businessmen, educators, politicians, journalists and others – struggle to make their ideas ‘stick.’”

To the list of people described above I add scientists and engineers – you and me. And to the list of important ideas I add energy – our profession.

Last August in this column I identified 10 “sticky” energy myths and countered with some realities. “Made to Stick” helps us understand why these myths and legends propagate and last in the public conscious.

We learn that sticky ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories. The clever reader will recognize the acronym (SUCCESs). Sticky ideas do not require all six attributes – but the more, the stickier.

Enter the energy sound bite. Simple, concrete, emotional stories with just enough factual underpinning to stick! To wit:

  • We cannot drill our way out of an energy crisis!
  • Oil production is peaking!
  • The United States should be energy independent!
  • Big Oil is evil!
  • Fossil fuels cause global warming!
  • Renewable energy will end dependence on foreign oil!
  • Americans are addicted to oil!

Of course, it is tempting to “bite” back:

  • U.S. energy policy means –not drilling– our way into an energy crisis!
  • Global unconventional oil and natural gas resources are abundant!
  • Energy nationalism undermines energy security!
  • Save Big Oil to ensure energy stability!
  • Fossil fuels are the solid bridge to an alternate energy future!
  • Energy is not renewable!
  • Americans are addicted to air! (My apologies – I couldn’t resist a flippant response to this silly notion. Modern economies are addicted to food, water, air and energy, among other things. However, oil represents less than 40 percent of the energy mix today and has been declining in percentage terms since 1979, driven by energy efficiency, supply and demand, technology and resource limits; not by climate change or energy policy.)

The problem with sticky sound bites – including my own rather feeble attempts – is that they oversimplify at best, and mislead at worst.

Of course we cannot drill our way out of an energy crisis. Oil is a finite resource. My second grader and most of the developed and developing world understand this. But this sound bite conveys a misleading message that offshore drilling will not matter at all and should not be done, based in part on antiquated notions of negative environmental impact. The negative economic and security ramifications of not drilling our own resources as we transition to alternatives are significant.

U.S. energy independence is an interesting concept, but it conveys the misleading message that it is actually possible to become energy independent soon.

In reality, such independence will be unachievable for several decades, and the idea distracts from the more important goal of energy security, which has a very different set of strategic objectives, including efficiency, diversification, improved global energy trade and investment, and dialog between developing and developed nations.

I could continue discussing the other sound bites. Instead, for critical issues such as energy, the economy and the environment, let us set the sound bites aside and address the difficult and very real challenges of making the hard compromises necessary to tackle solutions.

In many ways it starts with public education.

I have presented over 250 public addresses in the last 10 years. Often I am preaching to the choir. But many times I am in public forums where people greatly appreciate seeing the data and hearing fact-based candor, even if it challenges their (sound bite) notions.

Let’s build a bridge to the public: I ask each of you to commit to give one talk this year in a public forum.

If 33,000 members speak to 50 people each we reach 1.65 million people this year alone.

I challenged an audience of about 100 in Singapore last month to reach out in this way. One spoke up and said that when he presented a talk to his public school, someone scratched his car with a key!

I asked him if he planned to try again.

“You bet,” he replied. “My car is already scratched!”

Be the bridge.

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President's Column

President's Column - Scott Tinker
Scott W. Tinker, AAPG President (2008-09), is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, University of Texas at Austin and Texas state geologist. Tinker also holds the Allday Endowed Chair in the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT-Austin. He has been a Distinguished Lecturer for AAPG as well as Distinguished Ethics Lecturer for the AAPG.

President's Column

AAPG Presidents offer thoughts and information about their experiences for the Association.