Introduction to Geographic Science

1.1 Science as a Way of Knowing

The Nature of Science

Science is a rigorous, systematic endeavor that builds and organizes knowledge through testable explanations and predictions about the universe. It involves pursuing knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws. Science is concerned with the physical and cultural environments and their phenomena and entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. Science is also a rapidly expanding body of knowledge whose goal is to discover the most straightforward general principles that can explain the enormous complexity of nature. These principles can be used to gain insights into the natural world and predict future change.

Science is a relatively new way of learning about natural phenomena, replacing the influences of less objective methods and world views. The primary alternatives to science are belief systems influential in all cultures, including those based on religion, morality, and aesthetics. These belief systems are primarily directed toward different ends than science, such as finding meaning that transcends mere existence, learning how people ought to behave, and understanding the value of artistic expression. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

Modern science evolved from natural philosophy, developed by classical Greeks and concerned with the rational investigation of existence, knowledge, and phenomena. Compared with modern science, however, studies in natural philosophy used unsophisticated technologies and methods and were not quantitative, sometimes involving only the application of logic.

Inductive and Deductive Logic

The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was highly influential in the development of modern science. Bacon was not an actual practitioner of science but was a strong proponent of its emerging methodologies. He promoted the application of inductive logic, a branch of logic that deals with induction, a method of reasoning that combines observations with scientific, experiential information to conclude. An inductive logic describes the relation between propositions on data and propositions that extend beyond the data. It consists of making broad generalizations based on specific observations.

In comparison, deductive logic or reasoning is a type of logical argument that begins with presumably true premises and then makes a deduction from those premises. It is often used in philosophy. Deductive logic uses a logical assumption to reach a logical conclusion.

In general, inductive logic plays a much more vital role in modern science than deductive logic. In both cases, however, the usefulness of any conclusions depends significantly on the accuracy of any observations and other data on which they were based. Poor data may lead to an inaccurate conclusion by applying inductive logic, as will inappropriate assumptions in deductive reasoning. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

Understanding Science

Scientists seek to understand the fundamental principles that explain natural patterns and processes. Science is more than just a body of knowledge; it provides a means to evaluate and create new knowledge with the most rigorous endeavor to remove human bias. Scientists use objective evidence over subjective evidence to reach sound and logical conclusions.

Objective observation is an observation that is not influenced by personal biases or prejudices. It is an observation based on facts and data that can be measured and verified. Objective observations are essential in science because they allow scientists to make accurate measurements and draw conclusions based on the data.

Another way scientists avoid bias is by using quantitative over qualitative measurements whenever possible. Quantitative measurement is a measurement that can be expressed in numerical terms. It is a measurement that can be counted or measured using a standard unit of measurement. Quantitative measurements are essential in science because they allow scientists to make accurate measurements and draw conclusions based on the data. For example, describing a rock as red or heavy is a qualitative observation. Determining a rock’s color by measuring wavelengths of reflected light or its density by measuring the proportions of minerals it contains is quantitative. Numerical values are more precise than general descriptions and can be analyzed using statistical calculations. Quantitative measurements are much more helpful to scientists than qualitative observations.

It is challenging to establish truth in science because all scientific claims are falsifiable, which is the ability of a hypothesis or theory to be tested and potentially proven false. It is an important concept in science because it allows scientists to test their hypotheses and theories and determine whether they are accurate. A hypothesis or theory that cannot be tested or proven false is not considered scientific.

Falsifiability separates science from pseudoscience. Scientists are wary of explanations of natural phenomena that discourage or avoid falsifiability. A reason that cannot be tested or does not meet scientific standards is not considered science but pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a belief or practice presented as scientific but lacks the evidence and methods of science. It is often characterized by vague, non-specific language, the absence of empirical evidence, and the use of anecdotal evidence. Pseudoscience is not considered scientific because it does not follow the scientific method and does not produce reliable results. Astrology is an example of pseudoscience. It is a belief system that attributes the movement of celestial bodies to influencing human behavior. Astrologers rely on celestial observations, but their conclusions are not based on experimental evidence, and their statements are not falsifiable. This is not to be confused with astronomy, the scientific study of celestial bodies and the cosmos.

Science is also a social process. Scientists share their ideas with peers at conferences, seeking guidance and feedback. Qualified peers rigorously review research papers and data submitted for publication and scientists who are experts in the same field. The scientific review process aims to weed out misinformation, invalid research results, and wild speculation. Thus, it is slow, cautious, and conservative. Scientists wait until a hypothesis is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence from many independent researchers before accepting it as a scientific theory. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

Goals of Science

The broad goals of science are to understand natural or cultural phenomena and explain how they may change over time. To achieve those goals, scientists undertake investigations based on information, inferences, and conclusions developed through a systematic application of logic, usually of the inductive sort. As such, scientists carefully observe natural phenomena and conduct experiments. A higher goal of scientific research is to formulate laws that describe the universe’s workings in general terms. Universal laws, theories, and hypotheses are used to understand and explain natural phenomena. However, many natural phenomena regarding physical laws are complicated and may never be fully understood. This is particularly true of how organisms and ecosystems are organized and function.

Scientific investigations may be pure or applied. Pure science is driven by intellectual curiosity – the unfettered search for knowledge and understanding without regard for its usefulness in human welfare. Applied science is more goal-oriented and deals with practical difficulties and problems of one sort or another. Applied science might examine how to improve technology, advance the management of natural resources, or reduce pollution or other environmental damages associated with human activities. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

Facts, Hypotheses, and Experiments

A fact is a statement that is true and can be verified. It is a piece of information based on evidence and can be proven true or false. Facts are essential in science because they allow scientists to make accurate observations and draw conclusions based on the data. A hypothesis is an explanation or prediction that can be tested by further investigation. It is a tentative explanation for an observation or phenomenon that can be tested by further investigation. Hypotheses are important in science because they allow scientists to make predictions and test their ideas. Scientists formulate hypotheses as statements and then test them through experiments and other forms of research. Hypotheses are developed using logic, inference, and mathematical arguments to explain observed phenomena. However, refuting a scientific hypothesis must always be possible. A null hypothesis is a hypothesis that there is no significant difference between two variables. It is often used in scientific research to test the validity of a hypothesis. The null hypothesis assumes no relationship exists between the variables being tested and that any observed differences are due to chance. By far, scientific research’s most beneficial working hypotheses are designed to disprove rather than support. We cannot be confident of the central hypothesis unless null hypotheses are eliminated based on contrary evidence.

Finally, a scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural or cultural world based on empirical evidence. It has been repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation. Scientific theories are critical because they allow scientists to make predictions and test their ideas. They differ from hypotheses in that they have been extensively tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.

Scientific Method

The scientific method is a systematic approach to scientific research that involves making observations, formulating hypotheses, testing those hypotheses through experimentation, and drawing conclusions based on the data. The scientific method is essential because it allows scientists to make accurate observations and draw conclusions based on the data. The scientific method only investigates questions that can be critically examined through observation and experiment. Consequently, science cannot resolve value-laden questions, such as the meaning of life, good versus evil, or the existence and qualities of God or any other supernatural being or force.

Revolutionary advances in understanding may occur when a vital hypothesis or theory is rejected through scientific discoveries. For instance, once it was discovered that the Earth is not flat, it became possible to sail beyond the visible horizon confidently without fear of falling off the world’s edge. Another example involved the discovery by Copernicus that the planets of our solar system revolve around the Sun. The related concept that the Sun is an ordinary star among many – these revolutionary ideas replaced the previously dominant one that the planets, Sun, and stars all revolved around the Earth.

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1995) was a philosopher of science who emphasized the critical role of “scientific revolutions” in achieving significant advances in our understanding of the natural world. Kuhn (1996) said that a scientific revolution occurs when a well-established theory is rigorously tested and then collapses under the accumulating weight of new facts and observations that cannot be explained. This replaces the original theory with a new, more informed paradigm. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)


Much scientific investigation involves the collection of observations by measuring phenomena in the world. Another essential aspect of science consists of making predictions and values of variables. Such projections require understanding the relationships among variables, influencing factors, and recent patterns of change. However, many kinds of scientific information and predictions are subject to inaccuracy. This occurs because measured data are often approximations of the actual values of phenomena, and predictions are rarely fulfilled precisely. The accuracy of observations and predictions is influenced by several factors, primarily those described in the following sections. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)

Predictability in science refers to the ability of scientists to make accurate predictions based on their observations and data. Predictability is important in science because it allows scientists to test their hypotheses and theories and determine whether they are accurate. Predictability is often used in scientific research to predict future events or test a hypothesis’s validity.

Variability in science refers to the degree to which data points in a set of data differ from each other. Variability is essential in science because it allows scientists to determine the range of possible values for a given data set. Variability is often used in scientific research to determine the accuracy and precision of measurements and test a hypothesis’s validity.

Scientific accuracy is the degree to which scientific observations and measurements are error-free. Scientific accuracy is essential because it allows scientists to make accurate observations and draw conclusions based on the data. Scientific accuracy is often used in scientific research to test the validity of a hypothesis and to determine the accuracy and precision of measurements.

Precision in science refers to the degree to which measurements or observations are consistent with each other. Precision is vital in science because it allows scientists to determine the accuracy of their measurements and observations. Precision is often used in scientific research to test a hypothesis’s validity and to determine measurements’ accuracy and precision. Precision is also related to the number of digits with which data are reported. Using a flexible tape to measure the lengths of 10 large, wriggly snakes, you would measure the reptiles only to the nearest centimeter. The strength and squirminess of the animals make more precise measurements impossible. The reported average length of the ten snakes should reflect the original measurements and might be given 204 cm and not a value such as 203.8759 cm. The latter number might be displayed as a digital average by a calculator or computer, but it is unrealistically precise.

Significant figures are the digits in a number that are considered to be accurate. They are essential in science because they allow scientists to determine the precision of their measurements and observations. The number of significant figures in a measurement or observation is determined by the precision of the measuring instrument or method used to make the measurement or observation.

A Need for Skepticism

Scientific information and understanding will always be the subject of uncertainty. Therefore, predictions will always be inaccurate, and this uncertainty must be considered when trying to understand and deal with the causes and consequences of environmental or social changes. As such, all information and predictions in science must be critically interpreted with uncertainty in mind. This should be done when learning about a scientific issue, whether it involves listening to a speaker in a classroom, at a conference, on video, or when reading an article in a newspaper, textbook, website, or scientific journal. Because of the uncertainty of many scientific predictions, particularly in the environmental realm, a certain amount of skepticism and critical analysis is always helpful.

Scientific information is only one consideration for decision-makers concerned with the economic, cultural, and political contexts of scientific problems. When deciding how to deal with the causes and consequences of environmental changes, decision-makers may give greater weight to non-scientific (social and economic) considerations than scientific ones, especially when there is uncertainty about the latter. Politicians and senior government bureaucrats or private managers make the most critical decisions about environmental issues rather than environmental scientists. Decision-makers typically worry about the short-term implications of their findings on their chances for re-election or continued employment and the economic activity of a company or society as much as they do about environmental damage. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.) That is why the United States struggled so much with the COVID-19 pandemic. At one end of the response was a focus on health science. On the other hand, economists worried about the collapse of the economy. It was up to politicians to decide how much the nation should “lockdown” and how much it needed to stay economically “open.” 

Science Denial and Evaluating Sources

Introductory science courses usually deal with accepted scientific theory and do not include opposing ideas, even though these alternate ideas may be credible. This makes it easier for students to understand complex material. Advanced students will encounter more controversies as they continue to study their discipline. Some groups argue that some established scientific theories are wrong, not based on their scientific merit but on the group’s ideology. 

Science Denial

Science denial happens when people argue that established scientific theories are wrong, not based on scientific merit but on subjective ideology – for social, political, or economic reasons. Organizations and people use science denial as a rhetorical argument against issues or ideas they oppose. Three examples of science denial versus science are:

  • Teaching Evolution in public schools
  • Linking tobacco smoke to Cancer
  • Relating human activity to climate change.

Among these, denial of climate change is strongly connected with geography. A climate denier explicitly denies or doubts the objective conclusions of geologists and climate scientists. Science denial uses three false arguments. The first argument tries to undermine the scientific conclusion’s credibility by claiming the research methods are flawed, or the theory is not universally accepted—the science is unsettled. The notion that scientific ideas are not absolute creates doubt for non-scientists; however, a lack of universal truths should not be confused with scientific uncertainty. Because science is based on falsifiability, scientists avoid claiming universal truths and use language that conveys uncertainty. This allows scientific ideas to change and evolve as more evidence is uncovered.

The second argument claims the researchers are not objective and are motivated by ideology or economic agenda. This is an ad hominem argument in which a person’s character is attacked instead of the argument itself. Ad hominem attacks are often used in debates and arguments to discredit the person making the argument rather than addressing the argument itself. They claim results have been manipulated so researchers can justify asking for more funding. They claim that because a federal grant funds the researchers, they use their results to lobby for expanded government regulation.

The third argument demands a balanced view, equal time in media coverage, and educational curricula to engender the illusion of two equally valid arguments. Science deniers frequently require similar coverage of their proposals, even when little scientific evidence supports their ideology. For example, science deniers might demand religious explanations to be taught as an alternative to the well-established theory of Evolution. Alternatively, all probable causes of climate change are discussed as equally probable, regardless of the body of evidence. Conclusions derived using the scientific method should not be confused with those based on ideologies.

Furthermore, conclusions about nature derived from ideologies have no place in scientific research and education. For example, teaching the flat earth model in modern geography or earth science courses would be inappropriate because this idea has been disproved by the scientific method. Unfortunately, widespread scientific illiteracy allows these arguments to suppress scientific knowledge and spread misinformation.

Forming new conclusions based on the scientific method is the only way to change scientific findings. We would not teach Flat Earth geology regarding the theory of plate tectonics because flat earthers do not follow the scientific method. The fact that scientists avoid universal truths and change their ideas as more evidence is uncovered should not mean that science is unsettled. Because of widespread scientific illiteracy, these arguments are used by those who wish to suppress science and misinform the general public.

Evaluating Sources of Information

In the age of the internet, information is plentiful. Geologists, scientists, or anyone exploring scientific inquiry must discern reliable sources of information from pseudoscience and misinformation. This evaluation is especially critical in scientific research because scientific knowledge is respected for reliability. Textbooks such as this one can aid this complex and crucial task. At its roots, quality information comes from the scientific method, beginning with the empirical thinking of Aristotle. The application of the scientific method helps produce unbiased results. A valid inference or interpretation is based on objective evidence or data. Credible data and assumptions are clearly labeled, separated, and differentiated. Anyone looking over the data can understand how the author’s conclusion was derived or come to an alternative conclusion.

Scientific procedures are clearly defined so the investigation can be replicated to confirm the original results or expanded further to produce new results. These measures make a scientific inquiry valid and its use as a source reputable. Of course, substandard work occasionally slips through, and retractions are published from time to time. An infamous article linking the MMR vaccine to autism appeared in the reputable journal Lancet in 1998. Journalists discovered that the author had multiple conflicts of interest and fabricated data, and the article was retracted in 2010.

In addition to methodology, data, and results, the authors of a study should be investigated. The author(s) should be examined when looking into any research. An author’s credibility is based on multiple factors, such as having a degree in a relevant topic or being funded by an unbiased source.

The same rigor should be applied to evaluating the publisher, ensuring the reported results are unbiased. The publisher should be easy to discover. Good publishers will show the latest papers in the journal and make their contact information and identification clear. Reputable journals offer their peer-review style. Some journals are predatory, where they use unexplained and unnecessary fees to submit and access journals. Reputed journals have recognizable editorial boards. A reputable journal is often associated with a trade, association, or recognized open-source initiative.

One of the hallmarks of scientific research is scientific peer review. Scientific peer review is a process in which experts in the same field evaluate scientific research. The purpose of scientific peer review is to ensure that scientific research is accurate, reliable and meets the standards of the scientific community. Scientific peer review is an integral part of the scientific process because it helps to ensure that scientific research is of high quality and can be trusted by other scientists and the public. (Environmental Science – Simple Book Publishing, n.d.)


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Physical Geography and Natural Disasters Copyright © 2020 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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