Blind Men, Elephants, and Zen – Approaching Basin Evaluation Like a Cup of Tea

This post presents a point of view that I have found tremendously useful when approaching basin evaluation, and evaluating behavior of water resources.  In particular, it applies to approaching relatively complex structural basins.  Within these types of reservoirs – water is often significantly controlled by structural geology.  Geologic structure and its underlying driving tectonics impart a rock “fabric” – or “grain” – that is not a function of sedimentation.  This “fabric” is in the form of faulting, jointing, fracturing, and other phenomena, and can facilitate, re-direct, or impede groundwater.  Small, let alone large, variations in stratigraphy and sedimentary development can have orders of magnitude influences on storage and transmissivity.  As important as these factors are – however it is my experience that they are so often ignored for the sake of modeling and “conservatism” – and/or because of a lack of recognition, appreciation and understanding of these phenomena for whatever reason. 
We as hydro-geoscientists have an inevitable handicap in that our studies and interpretations involve obscured complex structures which have little surface expression – or surface expression unrelated to conditions occurring at depth.  We rely on previous studies and pieces of information from a variety of sources.  We rely on peep-hole views of the subsurface though borings, and the shadow puppetry of geophysics.  We rely on laboratory testing of small pieces supposedly representative of large bodies of rock.

However, it seems more and more consultant work tends to lose sight of what it means to be a scientist – and a consultant, and how to approach and understand the subtle and complex – favoring convention and shying from the use original thought where non-standard solutions apply.   The trend has become increasingly reliant on three things – broad-brushed information, highly specific information, and “modeling” – in particular computer modeling.  Often, the “model” is literally the first place consultant scientists go – and – when the model comes back unable to solve the issues, the response is the combination of work to “tweak” the model and to employ supposedly “improved” methods to laboratory and field testing.  It seems to be less and less obvious to apply more effectively the tools we have as tools, along with leaving oneself open to as much pertinent information is available – and use the scientific method and intuitive process to effectively study and understand complex and unique situations.  It also seems less and less obvious that the “why” and the “how” should be considered prior to proceeding to the “what.”  How can we meaningfully “model” what something is without knowing why its there and how it came to be?

The first foundational element is the need for an open mind that can receive information without coloring it as it is developed or by having a notion based on preconception.  To that end, the mind involved should be well trained by regular and consistent implementation of as broad a base of scientific principles as possible combined with continued direct and intimate practical experience.  The mind should also have the honest desire to understand – and to recognize the limitations of information – along with the patient strength to abandon one working hypothesis or approach after another.

As Bruce Lee said with respect to approaching an unknown:    

Research your own experience
Absorb what is useful
Reject what is useless
Add what is specifically your own

With regard to the approach with an open mind, this old Zen story is quite illustrative:

It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was at impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge.  As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like “Oh, yes, we have that too” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man.  He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “The cup is overflowing, no more will go in!”

“Indeed, I see” answered the Zen teacher. “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

So much can be missed by limited scope and preconceived notions.  That does not mean go blindly stumbling into something, but to go in with no fixed position or preconceptions that would limit your approach.

Similarly, an over-reliance on laboratory testing and drilling / geophysical data can lead to a blindness of its own – akin to losing the forest for the trees.  It must be firmly held in the practical scientist’s mind that these are only glimpses at best – and in the case of laboratory testing, based on tests conducted on small scale samples that cannot be expected to be representative of the mass character – and are often a root of misinterpretation and failure.

Terzaghi – the Father of Soil Engineering wrote (1957):

“I realized, in the course of the years, that the knowledge accumulated in the human brain has no practical value unless its owner has the moral courage to use it as the basis for decisions…This capacity can only be acquired by first absorbing with the head everything that is to be known and then get it to the subconscious by continuously practicing it…”

Terzaghi continues in 1958:

“In order to be successful in this pursuit he must not only be willing, but eager to spend at least half his time on unprofitable occupations such as research or the digest of his observational data.  Therefore, his money making capacity remains limited, but in exchange, he has fewer worries and retains his freedom of action.  This is the type of occupation that has turned out to agree with my disposition.”

Evaluation of groundwater and hydrogeologic opportunities involves interpretation of the subsurface that is largely hidden from view. Instinctively, evaluation of the subsurface would seem to be best served by “direct” excavation and subsurface drilling / sampling and testing methods combined with surface reconnaissance to evaluate geomorphology and exposed conditions that lend insight to the subsurface.  Although this may work to some degree in areas of relatively simple structure, in areas with complex structure and geologic histories – this can be very misleading much like the old fable regarding the group of blind men confronted with examining an elephant and had no prior knowledge regarding them. In the fable, the blind men all grossly misinterpret what an elephant really is, since they cannot see it and each only looked at portions of the animal.  One of the blind men wrapped his arms around the animal’s leg, declaring it to be like a tree; another of the blind men, feeling the tail, declared it to be like a rope; another ran his hands along the pachyderm’s flank, saying an elephant is like a wall.  You get the picture – although correct in their senses, they were way wrong in the interpretation. This is analogous to the work at hand in evaluating the subsurface. Knowing what an elephant is allows one, even if “blind,” to more appropriately characterize its individual parts in proper context – and what to expect when these fractions of these individual portions are encountered. This consideration could not be more true and applicable to the work at hand in regard to basin analysis and groundwater behavior.

Hardin and Icenhour wrote in regards to similar issues with the closely related field of geotechnical engineering:

“As expected, this has resulted in continued errors {by lack of judgment} and what has become an almost comical application of geotechnical principles and test methods by engineers and technicians who simply do not understand what they are doing.  The longer the tendency exists to talk about our problems rather than going to the field to solve them, the more young engineers we will train to think in the same erroneous patterns until eventually we will be in danger of losing the culture that makes quality earthwork possible.”

Hand-in-hand with the above is the poisonous effects of preconception regarding previous mapping and structural interpretation by others – where such works are taken as combinations of gospel and “all you need to know so why bother with that, its already been done.”  So often when called in on a complex matter do we find this to be the case, even where multiple consultants have been involved one after another, that no one bothered to consider a fresh view beginning with the big-picture and actually researching the structural geology and its influences.  More times than I can recall offhand have I heard statements like “…well, DWR already looked at that and didn’t find anything…” “…Dibblee and the USGS already looked at that area…” or similar – and thusly limiting their ability by purposely hamstringing themselves by placing so much on so little.  You need to evaluate the formational history and structural mechanics for yourself – from as broad a basis as possible – and not simply rely on the works of others that were often done for either some other purpose or at a scale inappropriate for the work at hand.  Even still, that is not enough unless all that information is contexted appropriately – which calls for judgment based in experience and weighted by understanding of the intrinsic influences involved.  This calls for what many workers seem to find painful – the need to actually sit down and thoroughly research from the big picture into the small-scale with an open mind and appropriately weigh and assimilate such information – – and then reconcile that information with the site.  In that, a lot of information may be developed that may ultimately, through the digestion and weighting process, be discarded.  This often takes a lot of time and cannot be effectively accomplished by staff underlings; it must be done by the senior experienced researchers themselves.   This must be merged with the direct involvement of the same senior workers in the field operations to observe and interpret the exposed conditions first hand.  Both of these are painful to budgets and time schedules.

The scientific method dictates that working hypotheses and all the hard work associated with the development of those hypotheses may need to be abandoned when the observational data does not support them.  This can prove painful to many workers and profit minded companies.  An analogy comes from the great Smokey Yunick of race car fame – where he noted that attention to subtle detail and constant rechecking is a key to building winning race engines.  He noted that the difference between the basic mechanic and the master mechanic is simply that the mechanic building winning race motors has the fortitude and patience to put things together and take them apart multiple times – until everything went together perfectly.  The master mechanic does not become frustrated in the least knowing his hard work may be ripped apart and redone, and factors that into the program.  Why shouldn’t the same apply here?

In basin analysis and evaluation of storage and similar resource considerations, the first step is developing an understanding the intrinsic nature and history of development – and from that, the structural framework and makeup is THE key to success. Having well in hand an understanding of the structural hydrogeology, and the paleo stratigraphy / sedimentation and tectonics gives one the ability to intuitively conceptualize the “bathtub(s)” that form a basin. It also allows one to anticipate the nature of sediments within and confining the basin on a relatively large / broad scale. Geologically, recent activity and deposition has concealed much of the structure underlying the subject areas. This underlying structure is key to controlling groundwater and storage, and is much more complicated than what would be suggested by surface expression.

So in summary – the successful basin mechanic should:

  • Approach the project well-armed in a broad spectrum of general understanding,
  • Be willing to spend significant time and effort in genuine research that may not be recoverable.
  • Have the self-confidence and experience to weigh information for himself – and the patience to observe such information first hand.
  • Let his ego become the project’s ego – and to have the courage to speak the truth based in scientific defensibility – even and especially where it may break with convention or conservatism.

I close with quotes from Burwell and Roberts (“The Geologist in the Engineering Organization” 1950) and Dr. Charles Berkey (1929), a founding father of engineering geology:

“The work of the geologist, if well done, is likely to be of more vital importance during the preliminary stages of project planning than at any other time.  Good engineering consists in utilizing to the best advantage the natural conditions brought to light by geologic investigation. Unless the geologist realizes the importance of providing an adequate background of general geologic information pertaining to the overall development while it is still in the initial stages of study and is diligent and aggressive in the search for such information, costly mistakes and revisions may result.  It is, therefore, an important function of the geologist to acquire, sift, and critically analyze all the scattered field evidences relating to the physiographic and geologic history, petrography, stratigraphy, structure, and general groundwater conditions of the locality as early in the investigation as possible. By adequate field reconnaissance and utilization of all available geologic information, he will be able to furnish the engineer with much valuable information before any money is spent on subsurface exploration… This information, when properly integrated with the requirements of the proposed development, will provide the necessary background for the preliminary selection of sites for the contemplated works.”

“Obviously the first requirement of the engineering geologist is that he shall be a competent geologist.  Unless he is, there is no justification for his occupying a position of responsibility in the engineering organization… Against this background of knowledge, he will discover the major geologic factors in advance of construction and recognize the more obscure minor details that so often exert a major influence on location, design, and construction problems.

“The second requirement is that he shall be able to translate his discoveries and deductions into terms of practical application.  This qualification is not obtained as a result of better knowledge of geology, but by a better knowledge of engineering.  The responsibilities of the geologist do not end when he has made the necessary discoveries and advised the engineers of them…”

Dr. Berkey summarized what it takes to that end:

“He must have the principles of geology {and general sciences} so well in hand and feel so sure of them in their application to the actual ground as it is that he is not the least bit disturbed at finding everything of a geologic nature belonging to a particular project materially different from anything he has ever seen.”

So in light of all I have said here, I ask that you approach your science as you would approach tea – with an open mind, broad perspective, and an empty cup – and taste it for what it really is.  Using these rays of wisdom may keep you from being trampled by the elephant you mistook for a tree – or worse, pulling on what you mistook for a rope.