Your gut answer to that question is yes, especially if you are old enough to have experience searching journals and science publications at the university library. In case you missed that opportunity it went something like this: searching information on monochromatic computer screens, printing search results on dot matrix printers, then trudging up and down the library stacks to find the journals. Many times, the journals weren’t there… you were stuck. You might be able to get the library to order them from somewhere else, delivered by fax or post – 4 to 6 week wait depending on where the journal was available at another library. If the journals were there, you then had to head back down and photocopy the journals then take them home for your evening reading material. This activity was long and drawn out and made finding information more difficult and the process of information acquisition harder.
Nowadays, all you do is type a few key words into Google and you have a list of the most accessed documents on the topic (peer reviewed, government publications and internet documents). Seems like a much improved system, doesn’t it? It certainly is a lot easier. One of the best skills as an environmental consultant is to be able to find information quickly on the net.
What is the reason for the documents being ordered in the google ranking order they are in? Does it have a scientific ranking? No… it is the most searched documents, popularity contest, so to speak. You generally click on those first few links that then make them even more popular and will come up quicker for the next person searching that topic. Scientifically, we could be leading others down the wrong path.
For environmental consulting, we are trying to find information (generally as fast as possible) on how to do some new type of monitoring, searching it on the web, taking the top hit, and all of a sudden, we have the sampling technique we are going to use. What happens if that is wrong or not the best technique to use? When is the question being asked – is this the right technique to use for my particular situation? I think we are too quick to take information and use it, without questioning the source and if it is truly the right way to do something.
I will link this to a previous blog on measurement of sulfur compounds in air. It is very well known that sulfur compounds break down, even if collected in specially developed canisters. Yet, environmental investigations continue to have air samples analyzed days to weeks after collection. The results are then reported as non-detect, even though this could be completely inaccurate.
My theory is that many environmental investigations are propagating bad science because no one is questioning the information that is so easily made available by everyone’s friend: Google. Good science requires good literature and review of the literature and techniques to be used to make sure it is the best way that it should be done, and that means scientifically defensible. Critical review is imperative. Science documents (reports, government publications, scientific literature, information from companies selling the products) all need to be critically reviewed to determine if the science is actually valid and then assessed to determine if applicable to the specific case you are working on.
How do you critically review the literature or the information you have found with a Google search? That comes down to experience and fundamental scientific knowledge.
This turned into a bit of a rant. I have been reading environmental reports lately that have been very superficial. The consultants did not understand the fundamentals that they were reporting on, they were merely reporting results. Real science and real environmental consulting is putting results into context. If you cannot do that, you shouldn’t be doing the job in first place. Make sure your environmental consultants have the right experts to interpret the results. Then, make sure those experts actually work on the report. You may pay a little extra but at least the results will be meaningful and not just tables of numbers.
Anybody can do a google search, few can interpret the fundamental science that goes with the search results. Those are the ones you need on your team.
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Dr. Court Sandau is the principal of Chemistry Matters and an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary in the Schulich School of Engineering. Dr Sandau provides expert support to projects involving litigious or contentious subjects including developing of a sampling plan, determining the appropriate data quality objectives, sampling and documentation to meet legal standards, analyzing and interpreting data and explaining the results in judiciary proceedings or public forums. He specializes in Analytical data quality, Data validation, Human bio-monitoring, Environmental forensics and Risk Assessment with the goal of improving data quality and the understanding of analytical measurements in the environmental industry.