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Why Are We Still Buying Snake Oil?

When my father bought the little piece of New Hampshire woods where I grew up, he wandered down an old, overgrown dirt track that ran through it to a little spot under a big tree where he found an ancient, all but decomposed pair of shoes and a long-empty bottle of Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Remedy. Somebody apparently got "remedied," alright, and left without his or her shoes! Maybe that had something to do with the fact that the stuff was 10% alcohol...

Dr. Kilmer was called a Snake Oil Salesman, selling promised cures for any manner of ailments without a shred of evidence that his concoctions (you can read the Swamp Root recipe here) had any actual medical efficacy.

In 2013 a high level research scientist at a big oilfield service company that was selling (and still sells) logs of calculated stresses, regardless of whether or not the calculation methodology is appropriate in a given area (lithology, tectonic environment, etc.), said to a room full of his colleagues, "We know it's wrong, but people buy it." He was sort of holding up his arms in a "What can I do?" kind of way.

I knew my time with a former employer was nearing an end when I repeatedly brought up technical concerns about selling clients maps of something that was not physically meaningful at best, downright misleading at worst. I was told very emphatically, "If the client wants a map of it, we'll sell them the map!" So much for scientific integrity.

A huge part of my job is educating clients. No, that's not entirely true. Lately it seems to be RE-educating clients regarding what geomechanical workflows are appropriate for what end goal, which data are important and meaningful and which data are not, what calculations are valid in what geologic setting, and the list goes on. Sometimes people believe me. Other times they ignore me. And sometimes I get pretty fierce pushback, often by folks that have been duped by snake oil salesmen.

Some of the problem is certainly that as we've gone from conventional to unconventional reservoirs, and from passive basins to tectonically complex environments, many haven't changed their approaches or workflows, which in some cases means those approaches or workflows are totally wrong! In trying to think of analogy outside of geology, I remembered when my brother, then about 14 years old, and his best friend decided to make an angel food cake by themselves. The decided it wasn't necessary to beat the egg whites. Hey, they'd made other cakes before, and they never had to beat the egg whites, right? Silly waste of time. So what they ended up with was an angel food brick, which they disposed of out by where Dad found the swamp root remedy, and the need to explain the dozen eggs missing from the fridge.

If there's a point to my post, it's that as we come out of this downturn, geologists, especially inexperienced ones, need to keep their critical thinking skills fresh, be open minded, and ask for advice from domain experts, not just salespeople. The result is likely to be that money is spent much more wisely and a lot more value obtained for the spending of it.

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