CHAPTER 3: The Science of Physical Geography


Summary of the Chapter

This chapter begins by suggesting that Physical Geography is a science. Physical geographers use the scientific method as a tool to gather knowledge about the workings of our natural world. The two main tools used in this methodology are falsification and prediction.

The philosopher Karl Popper suggested that it is impossible to prove a scientific theory true by means of induction. Induction was the method scientists used to gather their knowledge before the turn of the century (proposed by Sir Francis Bacon). Induction works this way. You gather data from nature and then construct a theory. Someone using this method may be fooled into thinking they had collected all of the data that was available on that particular scientific phenomenon. However, because the Universe is infinite no amount of evidence can assure us that contrary evidence will not be found. Because of this fact, Karl Popper suggested that proper science must be accomplished by deduction. Deduction involves the process of falsification of hypotheses. In this process you develop a theory first and then try to find evidence that contradicts it. Of course in the real world one must start by collecting data first (induction).

The scientific concepts of time and space are then explored and their relevance to Physical Geography is defined. Time and space are important to the study of Physical Geography because natural phenomena are influenced by these two universal factors.

Physical Geography has experienced a radical change in its investigative methodology. In the early years of Physical Geography, its practitioners were primarily interested in gathering descriptive facts about the world. However, there came a point where scientists want to know why the phenomena of Physical Geography exist. This involved studies of process and the use of scientific method to test theories. Thus, Physical Geography has been changing from a science that was highly descriptive to one that is increasingly experimental and theoretical.


List of Key Terms

Abstract Space,

Concrete Space,





Mean, Median, Mode,

Population Estimator, Population Parameter, Prediction,

Random, Range,

Sample, Scale, Science, Space, Standard Deviation,




Study Questions, Problems, and Exercises

Essay Questions

(1). Discuss Karl Popper's contribution to scientific investigation.

(2). What is the scientific method? What are its goals? What tools are used to achieve these goals?

(3). How is science done? What are its goals? How does it differ from fields of knowledge like history or english?

(4). Why are the concepts of time and space important in the study of Physical Geography?

(5). How has the scientific methodology of Physical Geography changed?







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

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05/25/2009 9:52