CHAPTER 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 topic (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 practice science, one must follow a specific universal methodology. The central theme of this methodology is the testing of hypotheses. A hypothesis can be defined as a proposal intended to explain certain facts or observations that has not been formally tested. The overall goal of science is to better comprehend 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 involves two interconnected processes: explanation and confirmation. Explanation is perhaps the most important basic goal of understanding. Explanation consists of explaining reality with a system of hypotheses, theories, and laws. Explanation may also relate observed phenomena to a system of empirical formulas, or link them to mechanisms that are hierarchically structured at both higher and lower levels of function. A theory can be defined as a collection of logical ideas that are used to explain something. The process of testing, refining, and re-testing hypotheses constructs theories. The nature of this confirmation process suggests that theories are rarely static..


Figure 3a-1: Relationship between reality, theory, and understanding in science. This model suggests that we develop scientific theories to explain phenomena found in reality. Once a theory is established, it must be confirmed by re-examining reality to find contrary data. If contrary data is found, the theory is modified to include this new information and the confirmation process begins again. The process of validating theories is endless process because we can never assume that we have considered all possibilities.


Process of Understanding

Figure 3a-2: Facilitating tools involved explanation and confirmation.


Explanation has two important secondary components: idealization and unification (see Figure 3a-2). Idealization may be considered to be the condensation of a body of empirical fact into a simple statement. In the process of condensation, some detail must be omitted and the processes and phenomenon abstracted. Idealization may also involve isolating the phenomenon from other aspects of the system of interest. 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 confirmation of constructed models or theories associated with understanding. Confirmation is accomplished through hypothesis testing, prediction, and by running experiments. The next topic (3b) examines these aspects of science in greater detail.


Study Guide


Additional Readings

Internet Weblinks
Citation: Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Scientific Method". Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition. Date Viewed.


Created by Dr. Michael Pidwirny & Scott Jones University of British Columbia Okanagan

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05/07/2009 9:57