Fundamentals of Physical Geography

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3) The Science of Physical Geography

(a) Scientific Method



Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a 17th century English philosopher, was the first individual to suggest a universal methodology for science. Bacon believed that scientific method required an inductive process of inquiry. Karl Popper later refuted this idea in the 20th century. Popper suggested that science could only be done using a deductive methodology. The next section (3b) examines Karl Popper's recommended methodology for doing science more closely.

Science is simply a way of acquiring knowledge about nature and the Universe. To do science, one must follow a specific universal methodology. The central theme of this methodology is the testing of hypotheses. The overall goal of science is to better understand the world around us. Various fields of study, like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine and the Earth Sciences, have used science exclusively to expand their knowledge base. Science allows its practitioners to acquire knowledge using techniques that are both neutral and unbiased.

The broadest, most inclusive goal of science is to understand (see Figure 3a-1). Understanding encompasses a number of other goals of science, many of which are quite specialized (see Figure 3a-2). Explanation is perhaps the most important basic goal of understanding. Explanation consists of relating observed reality to a system of concepts, laws, or empirically based generalizations. Explanation may also relate observed phenomena to a system of causes, or link them to mechanisms that are hierarchically structured at lower-levels of function.


Figure 3a-1: Relationship between phenomena, theory, and understanding using scientific method. The interaction between observable phenomena and theory is accomplished through explanation and validation.


Process of Understanding

Figure 3a-2: Processes involved in understanding natural phenomena using scientific method.


The secondary goal of explanation has two important components: generalization and unification (see Figure 3a-2). Generalization may be considered to be the condensation of a body of empirical fact into a simple statement. In the process of such condensation, it is likely that some detail must be omitted and the processes and phenomenon abstracted. Generalization may also involve isolating the phenomenon from other aspects of the system of interest. This is sometimes referred to as idealization. A second aspect of explanation is the unification of apparently unrelated phenomena in the same abstract or ideal system of concepts.

Another minor goal of science is the validation of constructed models (conceptual model building) of understanding. Validation is accomplished through hypothesis testing, prediction, and falsification. The next section (3b) examines these aspects of science in greater detail.



Created by Michael J. Pidwirny, Ph.D., Department of Geography, Okanagan University College
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Copyright © 1996-2001 Michael J. Pidwirny

09/05/2001 15:31