The reason science isn’t better equipped than junk science for the battle of public perception -- despite being armed with the actual facts -- is that most science, for most of the public, still requires a certain degree of faith. We know Mount Rainier will erupt again one day, but for each of however many days until it does it will look exactly the same, and that’s how it is with just about everything. But in Yellowstone, “you can wake up and the ground has switched from going up to going down,” Poland says, “or going down to going up,” and this is what makes science here wondrous even to people who normally find science boring: you can see it.
“Geology, in general, we tend to think of as very static,” Poland says. “Things don’t change, except very slowly over time. The Grand Canyon gets cut over millions and millions of years; it takes time for rivers to erode things; even volcanoes, you might say, ‘oh, this particular volcano is never going to erupt in my lifetime.’ But Yellowstone is one of those places on Earth where things can and do change. It doesn’t necessarily have to be catastrophic change like one of these huge eruptions. Geysers go off and new geysers form and old geysers go dormant, springs change their activity... that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so compelling, not only to scientists but also to the public.”
We’re never going to see Yellowstone supererupt. But we will see it change before our eyes, and we’ll see its capacity to surprise us, to put on a better show than whatever fan-fiction anyone could ever come up with online. When you visit Yellowstone, you’re reminded the Caldera isn’t merely an abstract used to weaponize fear, but an actual geological feature about 30 by 45 miles across. You can walk around it (or drive) from just past Canyon Village (where there’s an exhibition on it in the visitor’s center) down through the upper half of Yellowstone Lake, to nearly the western edge of the park up past Old Faithful and almost up to Norris, the park’s hottest and most dynamic geyser basin, the one that contains Steamboat.
Yellowstone is extraordinary in that it doesn’t just function to preserve old things; it creates new ones. It’s our nation’s best ambassador to people who see no reason to trust science, so long as they aren’t so far gone they’ve lost the human instinct toward curiosity. And it’s a lighthouse for those of us who woke one day to find that the ground had switched from up to down, that all the things we thought of as qualitatively good – science, education, climate health, truth – were things people had decided were bad. It lets us watch the planet’s most fascinating extremes playing out in real time. It shows us something good to believe.