Science

Is Secretary Zinke a geologist? Scientists weigh in

Volcano scientist Jess Phoenix has challenged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to a battle of geologic knowledge after CNN reported yesterday that Zinke has repeatedly claimed to be a geologist, despite apparently never having worked as one. “Winner gets the DOI job, loser never claims to be a geologist again,” she tweeted.

It’s a claim Zinke has made “at least 40 times in public settings,” Sara Ganim reports for CNN. That includes his efforts to justify excluding Florida from plans to expand offshore drilling. (Florida’s “geology is different,” he said in an interview with CNN.) The thing is, while Zinke did major in geology as an undergraduate, he never actually worked as a geologist after college, according to Ganim. Interior Department press secretary Heather Swift confirmed Zinke’s undergraduate degree in an email to The Verge, and said that “he had college jobs to support that career” before he was recruited into the US Navy SEALs. But she did not reply to two emailed inquiries about whether Zinke worked in geology after college.

The claim irks some geologists, who worry that Zinke’s claim of expertise adds weight to statements that at best reflect his out-of-date understanding of geology — and at worst, are just wrong. “That’s what’s dangerous,” says Phoenix, who is running for Congress in California and heads up scientific nonprofit Blueprint Earth. “He’s basically selling out our country to the highest bidder and trying to dress it with claims of being a geologist.”

For Phoenix, calling yourself a geologist takes more than a degree. (Phoenix herself has a Master’s degree in geology, conducted research toward a PhD although she did not complete a dissertation, and has worked as a consulting geologist since 2008, according to her LinkedIn profile.) “It’s that real-world work experience that makes the difference,” she says. “Geology is a really hands-on field. There’s so much to it that involves getting elbows-deep in whatever you’re studying.”

It probably wasn’t until halfway through Sean Gulick’s PhD that he started calling himself a geologist, the professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics and Department of Geological Sciences tells The Verge in an email. “Before I would have said I am studying geology.” In fact, he says that most geologists talk about their expertise with more detail, e.g., “‘I am a marine geologist and geophysicist.’”

And despite Zinke’s undergraduate degree, some of the secretary’s statements suggest he’s not staying up-to-date on the scientific literature, Gulick says. He has some recommendations for reading material: “For instance, the importance of the findings in the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a extremely well-reviewed document.”

Legally speaking, anyone can call themself a geologist, according to Deana Sneyd, the executive director for the National Association of State Boards of Geology. (The group writes the national exams that 31 states and Puerto Rico require licensed professional geologists to pass.) “Given that he has never practiced geology, it’s disingenuous at best to call himself a geologist,” Sneyd says. “He appears to be using the term to provide credibility to himself when it hasn’t been earned.”

The term “professional geologist” is legally protected in states that require licensing, Sneyd says. (As far as Sneyd knows, Zinke has not called himself a “professional geologist” in states that require licensing.) The protection on “professional geologist” exists because geologists’ work can be crucial to keeping people safe: highway design, dam construction, and work for mining companies all require geology for good work. “If you do it poorly, it could significantly impact the environment or human health,” Sneyd says.

Aaron Johnson, the executive director of another industry group that provides voluntary certification for professional geologists, the American Institute of Professional Geologists, isn’t bothered by Zinke’s claims to be a geologist. But he says that a background in geology doesn’t make someone an expert in all things geoscience — although it could be helpful. “I don’t know many geologists that have experience in oil and gas, and oceanography, and sedimentation, and environmental,” he says. “But I know a lot of geologists who have broad enough knowledge to understand when an expert in that field gives them advice.”

Phoenix has some advice for Zinke: “He really should not be calling himself a geologist, with no work experience, no advanced degree, no practical experience in that field.”

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