Saturday, March 9, 2013

Of moon backsides and ocean bottoms

Lazy Hook (n) - An overused rhetorical device used by writers who can't think of anything novel to engage their readers' attention.  That guy used a dictionary-style definition to start his post - what a lazy hook.

Today's Lazy Hook comes from the world of oceanography, where this aphorism has proved irresistible:

It’s an oft-repeated anecdote [note the misuse of "anecdote"] of ocean researchers that we know more about the moon than about the bottom of our own oceans.

On the one hand, there's the moon.  It's a thing, and a place.  Go outside and you can see it from your front porch.  "Wow," you might say to yourself, "that is a place that is hard to get to."  Now look out at the ocean, which you can also see from your front porch if, for example, you're me (deal with it, plebs).  "Wow," you say again, "that is also a place.  However I can get there by walking for five minutes."  Enter trite science writer: "Did you know that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean?"  And cue your mind exploding.

Then, as your mind starts putting its pieces back together, it might wonder, "Really?  Why are we comparing the moon to the ocean?"

First, some history.  Roger Revelle.  He's the famous geologist of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is a beach-side resort research-center in San Diego.  The place became very successful while he was there, and eventually decided it needed a university attached to it, so Revelle went and made UCSD happen (true story). 

Some time during the prime of  his career (the '50s-'70s) Roger Revelle originated the saying that would later be attributed to him in his obituary: "We know less about the ocean's bottom than the moon's back side."

Back then, this was apropos.  Lunar exploration was beginning scientifically and was already culturally profound.  Plus, we REALLY didn't know anything about what was going on at the bottom of the ocean.  Therefore it makes sense that Revelle, a geologist by training, would be interested in comparing the moon and ocean floor: here were two landscapes with interesting geographies and geologies, yet one - the far away one - was more explored.  Back then, it was novel and fitting - an effective hook.

But now...

Observe how the comparison is dredged up in contexts it doesn't belong in.  From UC Santa Cruz:

There’s a cliché in science:  We know more about our moon than the ocean’s depths.  And yet the sea remains Earth’s greatest frontier.  A reservoir of heat and life, the ocean controls and reacts to Earth's climate in myriad ways. Winds, currents, and nutrients dictate which species survive and where. Unknown stresses force so me [sic] microbes to release dangerous toxins. These cycles, from local to global, drive the research of ocean scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

How can you read that and not simply think, "Well, okay.  So I guess there's just more to know about the ocean?"  Because that's the uninteresting truth.  By that standard, there's more to know about a baboon's back-side than about the back side of the moon, but do primatologists claim to be studying  the final frontier?

For another example of the moon Frontierifying the ocean, let's return to the Discover magazine piece to see the Lazy Hook in its entirety:

It’s an oft-repeated anecdote of ocean researchers that we know more about the moon than about the bottom of our own oceans. Humans meet our match when it comes to probing cold deep bodies of water.
We are drawn to the deep by its ancient mysteries, chilling down below. But we also come up against our limitations there, battling against equipment failure, aching cold, and the frontiers of technology.
Research in the deep reveals the sometimes-shy face of science that turns away from a soundbite-infatuated media: halting, meticulous, even serendipitous. Like space exploration, exploring the deep can be delicate and dangerous—a stage for human victories and heart-rending mistakes. 

What a load of saccharine rah-rah.  Challenge!  Triumph!  Heartache!  The human conquest of the depths!

Is this really necessary to justify ocean research?  Read the rest of the piece here.  Notice how after that opening, the article hilariously forgets those stirring themes.  It's just a pretty straightforward look at four cool stories of ocean/lake science.  And none of those stories, by the way, deal with anything that can be remotely compared to the moon!  So why the need to motivate the reader with BS?

The right way to use the moon-ocean comparison is to restrict it within its original Revellian context.  As Gene Feldman puts it in an interview with NASA:

But even with all the technology that we have today -- satellites, buoys, underwater vehicles and ship tracks -- we have better maps of the surface of Mars and the moon than we do the bottom of the ocean. We know very, very little about most of the ocean. This is especially true for the middle and deeper parts far away from the coasts. 

See, science writers?  If you're talking geography (and maybe geology) it's fair to hook your audience by comparing the moon and ocean floor.  If you're talking biology, physical chemistry, or climate then go find yourself another angle.

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