Introduction to Geographic Science

1.2 Geography as a Science

Geography is the spatial study of the earth’s physical and cultural environments. Geographers study the earth’s physical characteristics, its inhabitants and cultures, phenomena such as climate, and the earth’s place within the universe. Geography also examines the spatial relationships between all physical and cultural phenomena in the world. Furthermore, geographers also look at how the earth, its climate, and its landscapes are changing due to cultural intervention. Geography is a much broader field than many people realize. Most people think of area studies as the whole of geography. In reality, geography is the study of the earth, including how human activity has changed it. Geography involves studies that are much broader than merely understanding the shape of the earth’s landforms. Physical geography involves all the planet’s physical systems. Human geography incorporates studies of human culture, spatial relationships, interactions between humans and the environment, and many other research areas that involve the different subspecialties of geography. Students interested in a career in geography would be well served to learn geospatial techniques and gain skills and experience in GIS and remote sensing, as they are the areas within geography where employment opportunities have grown the most over the past few decades.

Themes of Geography

“Pathemetric Data” from NOAA is licensed under Public Domain. Click on the image to go to the source.

Geography helps us make sense of the world through four historical traditions. Spatial analysis includes many of the concepts tied to geospatial technology: the study and analysis between the interactions and distribution patterns of the physical and human environments using spatial technology such as geographic information systems, satellite imagery, aerial photography and drones, global positioning systems, and more. Earth science includes the study of landforms, climates, and the distribution of plants and animals. Regional studies focus on a particular region to understand the dynamics of a specific interaction between human activity and the environment. Researchers studying human-landscape interaction examine the impact of humans on their landscape and find out how different cultures have used and changed their environments. Geography provides the tools to integrate knowledge from many disciplines into a usable form by providing a sense of place to natural or human events. Geography often explains why or how something occurs in a specific location. World geography utilizes the spatial approach to help understand the components of our global community.

The discipline of geography can be broken down into three fundamental areas of focus: physical geography, human geography, and world regional geography. These fundamental areas are similar in that they use a spatial perspective, and include the study of place and the comparison of one place with another.

Physical Geography

Physical geography is the spatial study of natural phenomena that make up the environment, such as rivers, mountains, landforms, weather, climate, soils, plants, and any other physical aspects of the earth’s surface. Physical geography focuses on geography as a form of earth science. It tends to emphasize the main physical parts of the earth – the lithosphere (surface layer), the atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), and the biosphere (living organisms)—and the relationships between these parts.

Some researchers are environmental geographers, part of an emerging field that studies the spatial aspects and cultural perceptions of the natural environment. Environmental geography requires an understanding of both physical and human geography, as well as an understanding of how humans conceptualize their environment and the physical landscape.

The physical landscape is the term used to describe the natural terrain at any one place on the planet. The natural forces of erosion, weather, tectonic plate action, and water have formed the earth’s physical features. Many states and national parks in the United States attempt to preserve unique physical landscapes for the public to enjoy, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.

Human Geography

Human geography is the study of human activity and its relationship to the earth’s surface. Human geographers examine the spatial distribution of human populations, religions, languages, ethnicities, political systems, economics, urban dynamics, and other components of human activity. They study patterns of interaction between human cultures and various environments and focus on the causes and consequences of human settlement and distribution over the landscape. While the economic and cultural aspects of humanity are the primary focus of human geography, these aspects cannot be understood without describing the landscape on which economic and cultural activities occur.

The cultural landscape is the term used to describe those parts of the earth’s surface that have been altered or created by humans. For example, the urban cultural landscape of a city may include buildings, streets, signs, parking lots, or vehicles, while the rural cultural landscape may consist of fields, orchards, fences, barns, or farmsteads. Cultural forces unique to a given place – such as religion, language, ethnicity, customs, or heritage – influence the cultural landscape of that place at a given time. The colors, sizes, and shapes of the cultural landscape usually symbolize some level of significance regarding societal norms. Spatial dynamics assist in identifying and evaluating cultural differences between places.

World Regional Geography

World regional geography studies various world regions as they compare with the rest of the world. Factors for comparison include both the physical and the cultural landscape. The main questions are, Who lives there? What are their lives like? What do they do for a living? Physical factors of significance can include location, climate type, and terrain. Human factors include cultural traditions, ethnicity, language, religion, economics, and politics.

World regional geography focuses on regions of various sizes across the earth’s landscape and aspires to understand the unique character of regions in terms of their natural and cultural attributes. Spatial studies can play an essential role in regional geography. The scientific approach can focus on the distribution of cultural and natural phenomena within regions as delimited by various natural and cultural factors. The focus is on the spatial relationships within any field of study, such as regional economics, resource management, regional planning, and landscape ecology.

The regions studied in world regional geography can be combined into more substantial portions called realms. Realms are large areas of the planet, usually, with multiple regions that share the same general geographic location. Regions are cohesive areas within each realm.

Understanding Science

Scientists seek to understand the fundamental principles that explain natural patterns and processes. Science is more than just a body of knowledge; science provides a means to evaluate and create new knowledge without bias. Scientists use objective evidence over subjective evidence to reach sound and logical conclusions.

Objective observation is without personal bias and the same by all individuals. Humans are biased by nature, so they cannot be completely objective; the goal is to be as unbiased as possible. A subjective observation is based on a person’s feelings and beliefs and is unique to that individual.

Another way scientists avoid bias is by using quantitative over qualitative measurements whenever possible. Quantitative measurement is expressed with a specific numerical value. Qualitative observations are general or relative descriptions. 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 they can be analyzed using statistical calculations. This is why quantitative measurements are much more useful to scientists than qualitative observations.

It is challenging to establish truth in science because all scientific claims are falsifiable, which means any initial hypothesis may be tested and proven false. Only after exhaustively eliminating false results, competing ideas, and possible variations does a hypothesis become regarded as a reliable scientific theory. This meticulous scrutiny reveals weaknesses or flaws in a hypothesis and is the strength that supports all scientific ideas and procedures. Proving current ideas are wrong has been the driving force behind many scientific careers.

Falsifiability separates science from pseudoscience. Scientists are wary of explanations of natural phenomena that discourage or avoid falsifiability. An explanation that cannot be tested or does not meet scientific standards is not considered science, but pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a collection of ideas that may appear scientific but does not use the scientific method. 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, which is 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. Research papers and data submitted for publication are rigorously reviewed by qualified peers, 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 tend to wait until a hypothesis is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence from many independent researchers before accepting it as a scientific theory.

Early Scientific Thought

Western scientific thought began in the ancient city of Athens, Greece. Athens was governed as a democracy, which encouraged individuals to think independently when monarchies or military conquerors ruled most civilizations. Foremost among the early philosopher/scientists to use empirical thinking was Aristotle, born in 384 BCE. Empiricism emphasizes the value of evidence gained from experimentation and observation. Aristotle studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. Alexander would later conquer the Persian Empire, and in the process, spread Greek culture as far east as India.

Aristotle applied an empirical method of analysis called deductive reasoning, which applies known principles of thought to establish new ideas or predict new outcomes. Deductive reasoning starts with generalized principles and logically extends them to new ideas or specific conclusions. If the initial principle is valid, then it is highly likely that the conclusion is also valid. An example of deductive reasoning is if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. Another example is if all birds have feathers, and a sparrow is a bird, then a sparrow must also have feathers. The problem with deductive reasoning is if the initial principal is flawed, the conclusion will inherit that flaw. Here is an example of a flawed initial principle leading to the wrong conclusion; if all animals that fly are birds and bats fly, then bats must also be birds.

This type of empirical thinking contrasts with inductive reasoning, which begins from new observations and attempts to discern underlying generalized principles. A conclusion made through inductive reasoning comes from analyzing measurable evidence, rather than making a logical connection. For example, to determine whether bats are birds, a scientist might list various characteristics observed in birds–the presence of feathers, a toothless beak, hollow bones, lack of forelegs, and externally laid eggs. Next, the scientist would check whether bats share the same characteristics, and if they do not, conclude that bats are not birds.

Both types of reasoning are consequential in science because they emphasize the two most important aspects of science: observation and inference. Scientists test existing principles to see if they accurately infer or predict their observations. They also analyze new observations to determine if the inferred underlying principles still support them.

Greek culture was spread by Alexander and then absorbed by the Romans, who help further extend Greek knowledge into Europe through their vast infrastructure of roads, bridges, and aqueducts. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, scientific progress in Europe stalled. Scientific thinkers of medieval time had such high regard for Aristotle’s wisdom and knowledge they faithfully followed his logical approach to understanding nature for centuries. By contrast, science in the Middle East flourished and grew between 800 and 1450 CE, along with culture and the arts.

Near the end of the medieval period, empirical experimentation became more common in Europe. During the Renaissance, which lasted from the 14th through 17th centuries, artistic and scientific thought experienced a great awakening. European scholars began to criticize the traditional Aristotelian approach, and by the end of the Renaissance period, empiricism was poised to become a vital component of the scientific revolution that would arise in the 17th century.

An early example of how Renaissance scientists began to apply a modern empirical approach is their study of the solar system. In the second century, the Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy observed the Sun, Moon, and stars moving across the sky. Applying Aristotelian logic to his astronomical calculations, he deductively reasoned all celestial bodies orbited around the Earth, which was located at the center of the universe. Ptolemy was a highly regarded mathematician, and the scientific community widely accepted his mathematical calculations. The view of the cosmos with Earth at its center is called the geocentric model. This geocentric model persisted until the Renaissance period when some revolutionary thinkers challenged the centuries-old hypothesis.

By contrast, early Renaissance scholars such as astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed an alternative explanation for the perceived movement of the Sun, Moon, and stars. Sometime between 1507 and 1515, he provided a credible mathematical proof for a radically new model of the cosmos, one in which the Earth and other planets orbited around a centrally located Sun. After the invention of the telescope in 1608, scientists used their enhanced astronomical observations to support this heliocentric, Sun-centered model. Two scientists, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, are credited with jump-starting the scientific revolution. They accomplished this by building on Copernicus’ work and challenging long-established ideas about nature and science.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a German mathematician and astronomer who expanded on the heliocentric model—improving Copernicus’ original calculations and describing the planetary motion as elliptical paths. Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) was an Italian astronomer who used the newly developed telescope to observe Jupiter’s four largest moons. This was the first piece of direct evidence to contradict the geocentric model since moons orbiting Jupiter could not also be orbiting Earth.

Galileo strongly supported the heliocentric model and attacked the geocentric model, arguing for a more scientific approach to determine an idea’s credibility. Because of this, he found himself at odds with prevailing scientific views and the Catholic Church. In 1633 he was found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest, where he would remain until his death in 1642.

Galileo is regarded as the first modern scientist because he conducted experiments that would prove or disprove falsifiable ideas and based his conclusions on mathematical analysis of quantifiable evidence—a radical departure from the deductive thinking of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle [15; 18]. His methods marked the beginning of a significant shift in how scientists studied the natural world, with an increasing number of them relying on evidence and experimentation to form their hypotheses. During this revolutionary time, geologists such as James Hutton and Nicolas Steno also made significant advances in their scientific fields of study.

The Scientific Method

Modern science is based on the scientific method, a procedure that follows these steps:

  • Formulate a question or observe a problem
  • Apply objective experimentation and observation
  • Analyze collected data and Interpret results
  • Devise an evidence-based theory
  • Submit findings to peer review and publication

This has a long history in human thought but was first fully formed by Ibn al-Haytham over 1,000 years ago. At the forefront of the scientific method are conclusions based on objective evidence, not opinion or hearsay.

Step 1: Observation, Problem, or Research Question

The procedure begins with identifying a problem or research question, such as a geological phenomenon that is not well explained in the scientific community’s collective knowledge. This step usually involves reviewing the scientific literature to understand previous studies that may be related to the question.

Step 2: Hypothesis

Once the problem or question is well defined, the scientist proposes a possible answer, a hypothesis, before conducting an experiment or fieldwork. This hypothesis must be specific, falsifiable, and should be based on other scientific work. Geologists often develop multiple working hypotheses because they usually cannot impose strict experimental controls or have limited opportunities to visit a field location.

Step 3: Experiment and Hypothesis Revision

The next step is developing an experiment that either supports or refutes the hypothesis. Many people mistakenly think experiments are only done in a lab; however, an experiment can consist of observing natural processes in the field. Regardless of what form an experiment takes, it always includes the systematic gathering of objective data. This data is interpreted to determine whether it contradicts or supports the hypothesis, which may be revised and tested again. When a hypothesis holds up under experimentation, it is ready to be shared with other experts in the field.

Step 4: Peer Review, Publication, and Publication

Scientists share the results of their research by publishing articles in scientific journals, such as Science and Nature. Reputable journals and publishing houses will not publish an experimental study until they have determined its methods are scientifically rigorous, and the conclusions are supported by evidence. Before an article is published, it undergoes a rigorous peer review by scientific experts scrutinizing the methods, results, and discussion. Once an article is published, other scientists may attempt to replicate the results. This replication is necessary to confirm the reliability of the study’s reported results. A hypothesis that seemed compelling in one study might be proven false in studies conducted by other scientists. New technology can be applied to published studies, which can help confirm or reject once-accepted ideas and hypotheses.

Step 5: Theory Development

In casual conversation, the word theory implies guesswork or speculation. In the language of science, an explanation or conclusion made in theory carries much more weight because it is supported by experimental verification and widely accepted by the scientific community. After a hypothesis has been repeatedly tested for falsifiability through documented and independent studies, it eventually becomes a scientific theory.

While a hypothesis provides a tentative explanation before an experiment, a theory is the best explanation after being confirmed by multiple independent experiments. Confirmation of a theory may take years, or even longer. For example, the continental drift hypothesis, first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, was initially dismissed. After decades of additional evidence collection by other scientists using more advanced technology, Wegener’s hypothesis was accepted and revised as the theory of plate tectonics.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is another example. Originating from the work of Charles Darwin in the mid-19th century, the theory of evolution has withstood generations of scientific testing for falsifiability. While it has been updated and revised to accommodate knowledge gained by using modern technologies, the theory of evolution continues to be supported by the latest evidence.

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 the ideology of the group. This section focuses on how to identify evidence-based information and differentiate it from pseudoscience.

Science Denial

Science denial happens when people argue that established scientific theories are wrong, not based on scientific merit but rather on subjective ideology – such as 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
  • Linking human activity to climate change.

Among these, denial of climate change is strongly connected with geography. A climate denier denies explicitly or doubts the objective conclusions of geologists and climate scientists. Science denial generally uses three false arguments. The first argument tries to undermine the credibility of the scientific conclusion 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 motivated by ideology or economic agenda. This is an ad hominem argument in which a person’s character is attacked instead of the merit of their argument. 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 are using their results to lobby for expanded government regulation.

The third argument is to demand a balanced view, equal time in media coverage, and educational curricula to engender the false illusion of two equally valid arguments. Science deniers frequently demand equal coverage of their proposals, even when there is little scientific evidence supporting 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 possible 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 science research and education. For example, it would be inappropriate to teach the flat earth model in modern geography or earth science courses because this idea has been disproved by the scientific method. Unfortunately, widespread scientific illiteracy allows these arguments to be used to suppress scientific knowledge and spread misinformation.

The formation of new conclusions based on the scientific method is the only way to change scientific conclusions. We would not teach Flat Earth geology and 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 be seen as meaning that the science is unsettled. Because of widespread scientific illiteracy, these arguments are used by those who wish to suppress science and misinform the general public.

In a classic case of science denial, beginning in the 1960s and for the next three decades, the tobacco industry and their scientists used rhetorical arguments to deny a connection between tobacco usage and cancer. Once it became clear scientific studies overwhelmingly found that using tobacco dramatically increased a person’s likelihood of getting cancer, their next strategy was to create a sense of doubt about the science. The tobacco industry suggested the results were not yet fully understood, and more study was needed. They used this doubt to lobby for delaying legislative action that would warn consumers of the potential health hazards. This tactic is currently employed by those who deny the significance of human involvement in climate change.

Evaluating Sources of Information

In the age of the internet, information is plentiful. Geologists, scientists, or anyone exploring scientific inquiry must discern valid sources of information from pseudoscience and misinformation. This evaluation is especially critical in scientific research because scientific knowledge is respected for its 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 inferences 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 highly 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. When looking into any research, the author(s) should be investigated. An author’s credibility is based on multiple factors, such as having a degree in a relevant topic or being funded from an unbiased source.

The same rigor should be applied to evaluating the publisher, ensuring the results reported come from an unbiased process. 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 show their peer review style. Some journals are predatory, where they use unexplained and unnecessary fees to submit and access journals. Reputable journals have recognizable editorial boards. Often, a reputable journal will associate with a trade, association, or recognized open-source initiative.

One of the hallmarks of scientific research is peer review. Research should be transparent to peer review. This allows the scientific community to reproduce experimental results, correct and retract errors, and validate theories. This allows the reproduction of experimental results, corrections of errors, and proper justification of the research to experts.

Citation is imperative to avoid plagiarism, and also allows readers to investigate an author’s line of thought and conclusions. When reading scientific works, it is essential to confirm that the citations are from reputable scientific research. Most often, scientific citations are used to reference paraphrasing rather than quotes. The number of times a work is cited is said to measure the investigation has within the scientific community, although this technique is inherently biased.

Careers in Geography and GIS

Geography is not a discipline of endlessly memorizing capitals, countries, rivers, mountain ranges, and more. The discipline is about scientifically analyzing the spatial and temporal distribution, connections, and patterns of the physical and cultural environments we live within.

The following information on careers in geography is from the website of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), which is a resource for those interested in pursuing employment in the field of geography.

Many occupations require knowledge of and skills in geography. Geographers work in many different areas, such as environmental management, education, disaster response, city and county planning, community development, and more. Geography is an interdisciplinary field that offers diverse career opportunities.

Many geographers pursue rewarding careers in business; local, state, or federal government agencies, nonprofit organizations; and schools. Geographers with graduate (master’s and doctorate) degrees may become educators in higher education (community colleges and universities).

Because of modern location technology such as GPS, web-based mapping technology, satellite imagery, and now small unmanned aerial systems – also known as drones – careers in geospatial technology are exploding. The U.S. Department of Labor, in partnership with the National Geospatial Technology Center for Excellence, has created the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) as a way to have industry help determine what knowledge and skillsets are needed to be successful in this career path. The global leader in GIS, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), has created a great resource of industries that use geospatial technology.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography 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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