Ryan Zinke the ‘Geologist’

CNN reports that the Interior Secretary, who claims to be a "geologist," merely has a geology degree.

A rather weird story on CNN (“Ryan Zinke refers to himself as a geologist. That’s a job he’s never held.“):

Defending his decision to shrink the Bears Ears national monument to lawmakers last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke fell back one of his favorite credentials.

“I’m a geologist,” he said. “I can assure you that oil and gas in Bears Ears was not part of my decision matrix. A geologist will tell you there is little, if any, oil and gas.”

Since becoming leader of the 70,000-employee agency, Zinke has suggested that he was a geologist or former geologist at least 40 times in public settings, including many under oath before Congress.

He uses it as a credential booster, saying things such as, “I can tell you, from a geologist, offshore mining of sand is enormously destructive environmentally, as in comparison to seismic,” as he told the House Natural Resources Committee last month.
And, “Florida is different in the currents — I’m a geologist — it’s different in geology,” in an interview with Breitbart News, defending his decision to exempt Florida from offshore drilling.

He also uses it while discussing coal revenue, seismic activity, climate change, national monuments, precious metals, endangered species, fracking and drilling.

In May, he criticized the work of the US Geological Survey, saying at a press conference in Alaska that “I think the assessments of the USGS has done previous, I think they fall short, from a geologist’s point of view.”

Zinke, however, has never held a job as a geologist.

So . . . on what basis does he claim to be a “geologist”?

In his autobiography, Zinke wrote that he majored in geology at the University of Oregon, which he attended on a football scholarship, and chose his major at random.

But that’s untrue?

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift provided this statement to CNN: “Ryan Zinke graduated with honors with a B.S. in Geology. His intended career path was underwater geology – and he had college jobs to support that career. Upon graduation he was recruited to be an officer in the US Navy SEALs where he proudly served for 23 years and retired with the rank of Commander.”

So, it’s not untrue?

Interior did not answer if Zinke is or has been a member of the American Institute of Professional Geologists or the Association of State Boards of Geologists.

Did he ever claim to be a member of those institutions?

Several geologists who CNN has spoken with have flagged his comments as disingenuous, saying that someone with a 34-year-old degree who never worked in the field is not considered a geologist.

“He seems not to be familiar with modern geologic knowledge,” said Seth Stein, a professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “In particular, geologists now know that the climate is warming rapidly because of human activities. This is is causing many serious problems including rising sea level, which is a major threat to coastal communities.”

In addition, Zinke’s numerous rollbacks of environmental protections, wavering stance on climate change, and allegations by career staff that he surpassed certain reports have at least one Democratic member of Congress asking whether he should be using his college degree as a credibility booster.

Okay, but there are PhD geologists, presumably some members of the discipline’s professional societies, who are climate change denialists. There’s in a distinct minority and almost certainly wrong, but they’re geologists.

This strikes me as a non-story.

A career Navy SEAL who’s a climate change denialist may well be a really poor choice to be Interior Secretary. Indeed, I’m inclined in that direction.

But the “story” here is that a man with a geology degree repeatedly refers to himself as a “geologist.” That seems perfectly legitimate.

As an academic, I tend to look askance at people with undergraduate degrees in political science, history, biology, physics, or whatnot calling themselves “political scientist,” “historian,” “biologist,” “physicists” and the like. I don’t consider them professionals in those fields. But it’s not unreasonable that someone with only an undergraduate degree thinks of themselves in those terms and would describe their expertise in that way.

There are enough scandals in this administration without making them up. Doing so feeds the notion that the press is simply out to get Trump with their “fake news.”

FILED UNDER: Education, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eric Florack says:

    It’s interesting that we haven’t seen a similar article on OTB about Bill Nye

    1
  2. James Joyner says:

    @Eric Florack:

    It’s interesting that we haven’t seen a similar article on OTB about Bill Nye

    You mean, like this one from January?

    19
  3. Kit says:

    I think you nailed it: it’s pretty much a question of taste, and the sort of petty nitpicking that is generally reserved for more sedate times.

    In fact, I’m going to play my first both-sides-do-it card: If Zinke were black, reactions on both sides of the aisle would flip, and the story would pretty much write itself.

    6
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    But the “story” here is that a man with a geology degree repeatedly refers to himself as a “geologist.” That seems perfectly legitimate.

    I interact with a # of geologists (not near as frequently as I used to) Most of them have PHD’s or Masters, a couple have just BS. The thing is they are all actually working in the field of geology.

    I know a few other folks who have BS’s and who were not able to land jobs working in the field of geology. You know what people call them? Waitress, freelance writer, mechanic.

    On the 1-10 Outrage scale, this rates a 2, maybe a 3. But it is still resume inflation.

    11
  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    As an academic, I tend to look askance at people with undergraduate degrees in political science, history, biology, physics, or whatnot calling themselves “political scientist,” “historian,” “biologist,” “physicists” and the like.

    Would you look askance at, say, Steve Wozniak calling himself an engineer because he only has an undergraduate degree in engineering?

    I’d personally say that work history is more important than the degree.

    7
  6. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Steve Wozniak calling himself an engineer because he only has an undergraduate degree in engineering?

    I’d personally say that work history is more important than the degree.

    No, because engineering is a different sort of field. Like architects, engineers are primarily practitioners and an undergraduate degree followed by work in the industry is the normal career path.

    6
  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m betting that an undergraduate degree followed by work in the industry is the normal career path for most geologists too.

    It’s not Zinke’s lack of an advanced degree that makes him not a geologist, it’s his lack of work history.

    16
  8. CSK says:

    Well, he has an undergraduate degree in geology, so I suppose he knows something about it. I find this less irritating than the experience I had of reading the cvs of job applicants, and discovering quite quickly that what they had listed as publications weren’t in fact published anywhere.

    2
  9. michilines says:

    I don’t think discrediting people with their own words is the same as “out to get someone.” If someone has a degree in education and spent their whole career selling insurance, that doesn’t make him a teacher. My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, but I have never worked in that field and I would never call myself an anthropologist.

    The other point is about ongoing professional development. There’s a reason for it. Clearly Zinke hasn’t kept up with the field because it wasn’t part of his job/career.

    Lastly, would anyone in their right mind hire him as a geologist? I think not. But he’s in a position to make decisions that are not in the best interest of the country and is justifying those decisions based on some college courses he took decades ago.

    It’s not a scandal. It is just another example of the unqualified people in positions of power in this administration. That’s important to know.

    15
  10. Joe says:

    I have yet to find any way to weave my undergraduate English degree into any authoritative statements, other than editing my children’s school papers.

    4
  11. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Stormy Dragon: @michilines: I agree that “geologist” is at best puffery. But I think someone with an undegrad degree might well have used that to describe his expertise. Talking to professional geologists, it would certainly net an eyeroll. But enlisted sailors and the like wouldn’t think anything wrong of it.

    3
  12. Mawst95 says:

    For what it’s worth (probably not much), in the US Federal statistical system scientists and engineers include anyone with at least a four year S&E degree (regardless of occupation) or anyone who works in an S&E occupation (regardless of field of degree). So by that narrow definition he’s a scientist.

    3
  13. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:
    I think Eric is referring to the talking point that Nye only has an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Cornell — so he should be called a scientist (or science guy). It come up in the comment thread.

    Of course this ignores all the work in science related fields and advocacy that Nye has done for most of his career. And I can also share that Nye would be a semi-regular lecturer at Cornell in science related classes. Having talked to undergrads that attended those lectures, one of their biggest surprises is that when Nye lectured, he tended to drop the entertainment aspect and give a pretty straight, deep lecture (much to the chagrin of students who had only been exposed to him from TV).

    7
  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I think someone with an undergrad degree might well have used that to describe his expertise.

    He should more accurately say, “I have a Bachelors in geology.”

    But enlisted sailors and the like wouldn’t think anything wrong of it.

    I would, but then as a caver I have experience with people who engaged in such puffery. I probably have less tolerance for it because of that history. (also my extensive but narrow knowledge of karst geology).

    I repeat, a 2 or at most a 3 on the Outrage scale. Can’t bring myself to care too much but would definitely head for the other side of the bonfire if I ran into him at an MVOR because on the Irratation scale, he’d probably peg a 7 or 8.

    3
  15. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the “story” here is that a man with a geology degree repeatedly refers to himself as a “geologist.” That seems perfectly legitimate.

    As an academic, I tend to look askance at people with undergraduate degrees in political science, history, biology, physics, or whatnot calling themselves “political scientist,” “historian,” “biologist,” “physicists” and the like. I don’t consider them professionals in those fields. But it’s not unreasonable that someone with only an undergraduate degree thinks of themselves in those terms and would describe their expertise in that way.

    I think this is a lot about not much: he didn’t lie about his education.

    I do understand your general point here: after all, I have an undergraduate degree, a B.S. in Economics, however based on my career path I would not, and have not, represented myself as an “Economist.” I’ve been in financial management and analysis most of my career, but I have never held a position as an Economist or an Economic Analyst. I certainly would not ‘stretch’ my resume in a job application by stating that I was an Economist.

    There’s enough actual slime out there to be concerned with. I care a loty more about the policies and actions that Zinke is taking at Interior, that I do about this ‘stretch.’

    4
  16. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius: Yeah, that was brought up in the comments to that post but didn’t go anywhere. Maybe the debate spilled on to Twitter a bit, as I recall having defended Nye as a de facto “scientist”—even though he just claims to be a “science guy.”

    4
  17. Kit says:

    The other point I’d like to raise is that this guy obviously has to play the hand that he has been dealt. Calling him out as unqualified seems obvious. Stooping to petty carping strikes me as the sort of tactical blunder that the Left specialises in. What next? Criticising his shoes? And speaking of shoes, were I in his, I would certainly rather debate my title than my actual qualifications.

    1
  18. de stijl says:

    @Joe:

    Have your kid pay you a buck, and you can claim to be a professional editor.

    And if they don’t pay up just garnish their allowance.

    4
  19. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Those who can, do.
    Those who can’t, claim a degree.
    I once had an Architecture Professor who had a law degree, but never practiced. He didn’t call himself a lawyer. He said “I have a JD.”
    Zinke isn’t a geologist, he has a geology degree…and he is being a phony…but in an administration run by a B-List reality TV performer…what more do you expect?

    1
  20. teve tory says:

    Eric Florack says:
    Tuesday, April 17, 2018 at 09:23
    It’s interesting that we haven’t seen a similar article on OTB about Bill Nye

    ReplyReply
    0 3

    James Joyner says:
    Tuesday, April 17, 2018 at 09:30
    @Eric Florack:

    It’s interesting that we haven’t seen a similar article on OTB about Bill Nye

    You mean, like this one from January?

    HAHAHAHAHA

    10
  21. grumpy realist says:

    @Mawst95: Plus it’s enough “real” science education that Zinke could, if he wanted, take the Patent Bar and become a patent agent. (The USPTO is very shirty about what it considers “correct” STEM backgrounds and “incorrect” STEM backgrounds. )

    1
  22. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I am in the camp that thinks this makes him look like a cheesy skeever. It’s not just because I think Zinke is a travesty in his profession. I would feel the same way about someone who says “As a mechanic, I can tell you that the BMW is engineered better than the Mercedes”, only to find out that he’s an accountant who took shop classes 25 years ago in high school. I know for a fact I feel the same way about someone who claimed to be a lawyer because he went to law school but never practiced law. And I have a special place in contempt-hell for one guy I met who insisted he be called “Dr.” by everyone despite his only qualification being that he completed medical school 40 years before and literally never did anything in the medical field since.

    What’s odd, is that I would have more, rather than less, respect for all of these guys if they said, “Well, I’m not a practicing geologist/mechanic/lawyer/doctor but I did study it in college and have tried to keep up with the field”.

    4
  23. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’m betting that an undergraduate degree followed by work in the industry is the normal career path for most geologists too.

    Looking at the BLS data:

    https://www.onetonline.org/link/details/19-2042.00#Education

    50% of currently employed “Geoscientists, Except Hydrologists and Geographers” have only a BS, 25% have an MS, and only 13% have a PhD.

    1
  24. gVOR08 says:

    My original BS was in Aero Engineering, and I worked as an Aero E for two years (until the post Vietnam build down in the industry). I do not call myself an Aero E and certainly not an aerodynamicist. To do so would be ridiculous.

    While I got that degree from Illinois it was general knowledge that the jocks took Geology as an easy pass, especially with a little “collusion” from faculty.

    2
  25. EddieInCA says:

    Those of you defending Zinke (looking at you Stormy, Kit and Al)….

    If you go to Law School, that doesn’t make you a lawyer. You have to do certain things to become a lawyer.

    If you get a undergraduate degree in accounting, it doesn’t make me an Certified Public Accountant.

    Given that a “geologist” is described as: A scientist who studies the solid and liquid matter that constitutes the Earth as well as the processes that shape it. Geologists usually study geology, although backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology, and other sciences are also useful. Field work is an important component of geology…. It’s pretty obvious Zinke is NOT, in fact, or any other description, a geologist.

    5
  26. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: Technically, one CANNOT claim to be a lawyer just with a JD. You gotta take and pass that thing known as The Bar Exam.

    I should damn well know, because I’m in that situation. Very aggravating. Like being a ABD (All But Dissertation) for grad students.

  27. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    The real insult to injury here is that Zinke is not up-to-date on the latest in the field, and he is opposition to the vast majority of geologists who accept Climate Change and AGW…so based on that I’m not sure how you call him a scientist…he’s a fake installed to end the Department…like Scott Pruitt…but not quite as corrupt.

    4
  28. Joe says:

    @EddieInCA:

    While I got that degree from Illinois it was general knowledge that the jocks took Geology as an easy pass, especially with a little “collusion” from faculty.

    At most schools, the class is widely referred to as “Rocks for Jocks.”

    1
  29. Kit says:

    @EddieInCA:

    No, Eddie, I’m not defending him, except, perhaps, in the with-us-or-against us sense.

    For what it’s worth, I hold an advanced degree that I’ve never used in anger. Fully sharing this site’s notions of what justifies using a title, I’d blush to say any more than that I hold the degree. Then again, I’d blush to call out someone doing the same.

    To the extent that this becomes political, I feel that most people on this thread are making the same narrow point, as correct as it is self-defeating. The guy is incompetent. Leave it at that.

    Now I get it: the guy must be destroyed by any means possible. Not criticising his use of the title geologist feels like leaving money on the table. I’m just advising to resist that urge.

    4
  30. James Joyner says:

    @Joe: In fairness, “Rocks for Jocks” is the 101 intro/survey course which is much easier for most students than most other general studies science courses. I don’t have a strong feel for geology as an undergraduate discipline but it’s not one that most professors joke about like criminal justice, communications, or, sadly, education.

    2
  31. Eric Florack says:

    @James Joyner:
    Thanks for that, but my point stands.

    Gentleman the reason I draw the comparison is because both of them, Bill Nye and Trump’s appointee have both arguably been elevated to levels far beyond what their experience merits.

    And yet look at these conclusions that we are supposed to draw about each, apparently by virtue of nothing more than the message matching somebody’s Mantra.

    1
  32. Eric Florack says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: thank you for making my point for me

    1
  33. James Joyner says:

    @Eric Florack: I’m honestly not sure what point you’re making. First, every post doesn’t have to be about everything. Indeed, it can’t. Second, Bill Nye doesn’t claim to be a scientist but a science promoter. Third, this post defends Zinke’s claim to using “geologist” in a lay sense.

    8
  34. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I’m in a similar place as grumpy. It is literally illegal for you to sell your services as an accountant in Texas if you do not have an active CPA license. Probably half of the Board of Public Accountancy actions in each quarter’s Notice are related to precisely that.

    In this case, that is essentially what he’s doing. He’s not putting himself forward as a geologist at a cocktail party. He’s putting himself forth as a geologist in order to lend scientific credence to the policy positions he is instructing the Department of the Interior to take. and using it to make himself effectively sound like an expert witness under oath in front of Congress.

    While it may not be criminal, it is much more than puffery.

    3
  35. george says:

    If he earned a degree in geology, then he can call himself a geologist. In physics and engineering the follow-up question would be what he did since the degree; if it turns out nothing then he’s marked down as someone with no real experience, but typically the graduation is enough.

    For instance, in Canada engineers go through an iron-ring ceremony upon graduating with an engineering degree. No one takes it away if they don’t continue on to work as an engineer.

    But no one takes what they say seriously either. With all the disastrous things Trump is doing, why is this even on the radar?

    In the case of Bill Nye, engineering is applied science; its pretty common (and accepted) for engineers to call themselves scientists.

    1
  36. Franklin says:

    Look, almost all of us here know that Zinke is completely unqualified for his current job. Same for DeVos. It was the same for Tillerson. Same for many/most of Trump’s appointees.

    When I try to think of attacks on Zinke that will resonate with the voters we need in November, I don’t think this “not quite a real geologist” thing should be the first point that comes up, his rancid corporate-bought policies should be. But it’s a valid thing to point out that he has no working knowledge of anything he speaks.

    4
  37. Mister Bluster says:

    Bill Nye and Trump’s appointee have both arguably been elevated to levels far beyond what their experience merits.

    You’re a laff a minit Hambone!

    REPUBLICAN President Pork Chop Pud has demonstrated that he has been elevated to levels far beyond what his experience merits.

  38. Stormy Dragon says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Those of you defending Zinke (looking at you Stormy, Kit and Al)….

    I’m not defending Zinke, I agree he’s fabricating:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    It’s not Zinke’s lack of an advanced degree that makes him not a geologist, it’s his lack of work history.

    I’m disagreeing with Dr. Joyner’s elitist claim that someone can spend their entire career working in a particular field and not qualify as a real practitioner if they don’t have an advanced degree.

    Try reading what people actually write for once.

    2
  39. george says:

    In Canada there’s a distinction between an engineer (someone with an engineering degree) and a professional engineer (someone who passed the professional engineering standard – a government standard which basically involves working as an engineer under the supervision of a professional engineer for a given time period).

    Its a useful standard, and by it, if Zinke had an engineering degree he would be allowed to call himself an engineer, but not a professional engineer (it’s illegal to call yourself a professional engineer if you’re not for a variety of reasons, mainly involving safety standards – buildings falling down on people is not in the public good so the signature of a professional engineer is required).

  40. grumpy realist says:

    This reminds me of when housewives used to call themselves “domestic engineers” rather than “Stay-at-Home-Moms”.
    There are still suggestions on some websites that SAHMs who are trying to get back into the workforce pull the “I was a domestic engineer” schtick. They usually get quite shot down by anyone with any HR experience. One HR person said that trying to be cutesy with that (or the other: “Household CEO”) would result in said resume being immediately moved to the Circular File.

  41. Dutchgirl says:

    The reason this bothers me and shouldn’t be easily excused is that we are living in a time when “experts” are being attacked and dismissed as if they are out of touch at best and knee deep in conspiracy to do X at worst. Calling yourself any kind of scientist means you have some expertise in that area and gives you greater authority. Zinke is cheapening that qualification, and cheapening what it means for the government to get “expert” advice when crafting policy.

    3
  42. teve tory says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I have an undergrad in physics. I have published research in respected journals. When I was publishing new research I could have called myself a physicist, but I didn’t. Nowadays of course I don’t.

    Benjamin Franklin did some pioneering research with electricity, experimenting with Leyden jars, lightning rods, currents and the like. In fact we write the direction of current the opposite way to the electron flow largely because Franklin guessed wrong. But it’s fair to say that despite having no degree, and his only real credential being FRS status, he was probably America’s finest physicist at the time.

    I’d say scientific titles depend more on what you do or have done than what paper you got.

  43. steve says:

    Former enlisted sailor here. We were quite used to people with meaningless titles telling us how to do stuff we already knew how to do, and because of some title or something they learned in a book 10 years ago they thought they knew better. We called them officers. Calling this guy a geologist would seem quite similar. He read a bunch of stuff in books about geology, but never learned to be a geologist. Meh. Not the end of the world. (Later, when I was an officer, I tried to always remember this lesson.)

    Steve

    1
  44. Franklin says:

    @Dutchgirl: Excellent point, actually.

  45. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I think someone with an undegrad degree might well have used that to describe his expertise.

    Why on earth would you think that? I have an undergrad degree (and a graduate minor) in Philosophy, but for me to call myself a philosopher or claim expertise in philosophy would be absurd calumny.

    1
  46. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I have an undergrad degree (and a graduate minor) in Philosophy, but for me to call myself a philosopher or claim expertise in philosophy would be absurd calumny.

    You have a doctorate in another field, so presumably affiliate with that professionally. Further, you’re used to the customs of academia. I can see where a Navy SEAL with an undergrad in geology would think he could call himself a “geologist.”

    1