From the arguments put forward here, we can see that physical geography is a complex science comprising a collection of related subjects whose methodologies and foci of attention straddle the ranges of science. In geomorphology alone, there is a range from small-scale studies employing classical mechanics and stochastic interpretations of process, to large-scale narratives dominated by ideas of contingency, equifinality and non-linearity. I believe that we should see this range of approaches as a strength, and some researchers have contested that the greatest challenge facing physical geographers can be found here. They believe that developing methodologies that can bridge the scales is both achievable and desirable.
Such views may be misplaced if we adopt the view that geomorpho-logical explanation is predicated on a 'question and answer logic' (Collingwood, 1994) where the answer obtained from the system under observation depends upon the type of question asked of it. For example, by 'asking' a small-scale process question of a landscape, we may obtain answers about the nature of soil creep on the hill slopes, the rate of sediment transfer in river channels, and so on. Landscape-scale questions will elicit answers about the nature and influence of tectonic processes, the effects of glaciation or the nature of uplift and denudation. The reductionist and emergent approaches therefore provide us with complementary rather than competing descriptions of landscape change. The future challenge for physical geographers may be to prescribe these approaches in greater detail and to recognize that the subject (and science in general) is like a commonwealth of knowledges, not an empire.
I would like to thank Steve Pile, Phil Dunham, Ali Rogers and Noel Castree for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this chapter, and Nick Spedding for discussions on these issues.
1 'Problems of explanation in physical geography relate to methodological approaches to scale issues.' How far do you agree with this statement? This question is aimed at understanding the debate between reductionism and emergence. You should read Harrison (2001) who argues for a re-engagement of landscape scale study, but also Kennedy (1977). Sugden et al. (1997) widen the debate to call for a strategy to link short-term processes and landscape evolution. Spedding (2003) provides a readable and up-to-date review of some of the issues.
2 In what sense, if any, was the Davisian approach to landscape change scientific? This question attempts to bring out the distinction between historical, evolutionary narratives of landscape understanding and the more quantitative, process-based subject which emerged in the 1950s. Baker (2000) provides an interesting slant on this topic, and further insights can be found in Kennedy (1983) and Bishop (1980). To get a flavour of the origins of the debate, you should read the original works: Davis (1899) and Strahler (1950).
1 Work by philosophers such as Reichenbach and Duhem shows that there are insuperable problems with falsifiability as a discriminator. Reichenbach (1970) reasons that the problem of induction (where the past success of a theory is used to highlight its future success) cannot be solved in a purely falsificationist way. It would also mean that science is only concerned with explanation and never with prediction. Duhem (1954) shows that auxiliary assumptions are always used to test the validity of deductive statements from observations (Worrell, 2002), therefore, no scientific theory can have empirical consequences in isolation from other assumptions and, as a result, falsification can never be conclusive. A more pragmatic objection is that it is unreasonable to require that a new theory be immediately rejected as soon as falsifying evidence is produced, since it does not accord with usual scientific practice which is to modify the theory and thus preserve it. Over-reliance on falsification makes serendipitous discoveries and flashes of intuition (both embedded in notions of 'revolutionary' science) much less likely. Yet these are often the means by which breakthroughs in scientific understanding are accomplished.
Anderson, P.W. (1972) More is different: broken symmetry and the nature of the hierarchical structure of science. Science 177, 393-396.
Baker, V.R. (2000) Conversing with the Earth: the geological approach to understanding. In Frodeman, R. (ed.) Earth Matters: The Earth Sciences, Philosophy and the Claims of Community. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, pp. 2-10.
Barrow, J.D. (1998) Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Benn, D.I. and Evans, D.J.A. (1998) Glaciers and Glaciation. Arnold, London.
Beven, K. (1996) Equifinality and uncertainty in geomorphological modelling. In Rhoads, B.L. and Thorn, C.E. (eds) The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology. Wiley, Chichester, pp. 289-313.
Bishop, P. (1980) Popper's principle of falsifiability and the irrefutability of the Davisian cycle. The Professional Geographer 32, 310-315.
Bohm, D. (1957) Causality and Chance in Modern Physics. Routledge, London.
Casti, J.L. and Karlqvist A. (eds) (1996) Boundaries and Barriers on the Limits to Scientific Knowledge, Addison-Wesley, New York.
Chorley, R.J. (1962) Geomorphology and General Systems Theory. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper, 500B.
Collingwood, R.G. (1994) The Idea of History, revised edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Culling, W.E.H. (1987) Equifinality: modern approaches to dynamical systems and their potential for geographical thought. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 12, 57-72.
Davis, W.M. (1899) The geographical cycle. Geographical Journal 14, 481-504.
Deutsch, D. (1998) The Fabric of Reality. Penguin, London.
Duhem, P. (1954) Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Atheneum, New York.
Eyles, N.J. (ed.) (1983) Glacial Geology: An Introduction for Engineers and Earth Scientists. Pergamon, Oxford.
Fraenkel, A. (1993) Complexity of protein folding. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 55,1199-1210.
Glasser, N.F. and Hambrey, M.J. (2001) Styles of sedimentation beneath Svalbard valley glaciers under changing dynamic and thermal regimes. Journal of the Geological Society of London 158, 697-707.
Harrison, S. (1999) The problem with landscape: some philosophical and practical questions. Geography 84, 355-363.
Harrison, S. (2001) On reductionism emergence in geomorphology. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 26, 327-339.
Harrison, S. and Dunham, P. (1998) Decoherence, quantum theory and their implications for the philosophy of geomorphology. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 23, 501-514.
Harrison, S. and Dunham, P. (1999) Practical inadequacy or inadequate practice? Quantum theory, 'reality' and the logical limits to realism. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 24, 236-242.
Harrison, S., Pile, S. and Thrift, N.J. (2004) Grounding patterns: deciphering (dis)order in the entanglements of nature and culture. In Harrison, S., Pile, S.
and Thrift, N.J. (eds) Patterned Ground: Entanglements of Nature and Culture. Reaktion, London, pp. 15-42.
Hendy, R. (1998) Models and approximations in quantum chemistry. In Shanks, N. (ed.) Idealization in Contemporary Physics. Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp. 123-142.
Kennedy, B.A. (1977) A question of scale. Progress in Physical Geography 1,154-157.
Kennedy, B.A. (1983) Outrageous hypotheses in geography. Geography 68, 326-330.
Kim, J. (1992) 'Downward causation' in emergent and non-reductive physicalism. In Beckermann, A., Flohr, H. and Kim, J. (eds) Emergence or Reduction? Essays on the Prospects of Nonreductive Physicalism. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 119-138.
Küppers, B.-O. (1992) Understanding complexity. In Beckermann, A., Flohr, H. and Kim, J. (eds) Emergence or Reduction? Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 241-256.
Le Hooke, R.B. (1998) Principles of Glacier Mechanics. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Linton, D.L. (1955) The problem of tors. Geographical Journal 121, 470-487.
Nagel, E. (1961) The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Nicolis, G. (1996) Physics of far-from-equilibrium systems and self-organization. In Davies, P. (ed.) The New Physics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 316-347.
Ollier, C.D. (1977) Terrain classification, principles and applications. In Hails, J.R. (ed.) Applied Geomorphology. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 277-316.
Palmer, J.A. and Neilson, R.A. (1962) The origin of granite tors on Dartmoor, Devonshire. Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society 33, 315-339.
Palmer, J.A. and Radley, J. (1961) Gritstone tors of the English Pennines. Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 5, 37-52.
Paterson, W.S.B. (1994) The Physics of Glaciers. Pergamon, Oxford.
Peltier, L.C. (1950) The geomorphic cycle in periglacial regions as it is related to climatic geomorphology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 40, 214-236.
Phillips, J.D. (1992) Nonlinear dynamical systems in geomorphology: revolution or evolution? Geomorphology 5, 219-229.
Phillips, J.D. (1999) Spatial analysis in physical geography and the challenge of deterministic uncertainty. Geographical Analysis 31, 359-372.
Primas, H. (1983) Chemistry, Quantum Mechanics and Reductionism. SpringerVerlag, Berlin.
Reichenbach, H. (1970) Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Silberstein, M. (2002) Reduction, emergence and explanation. In Machamer, P. and Silberstein, M. (eds) Philosophy of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 80-107.
Spedding, N. (1997) On growth and form in geomorphology. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 22, 261-265.
Spedding, N. (2003) Landscape and environment: biophysical processes and biophysical forms. In Holloway, S.L., Rice, S.P. and Valentine, G. (eds) Key Concepts in Geography. Sage, London, pp. 268-281.
Strahler, A.N. (1950) Davis' concept of slope development viewed in the light of recent quantitative investigations. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 40, 209-213.
Strahler, A.N. (1952) The dynamic basis of geomorphology. Geological Society of America Bulletin 63, 923-938.
Strahler, A.N. (1980) Systems theory in physical geography. Physical Geography 1, 1-27.
Sugden, D.E., Summerfield, M.A. and Burt, T.P. (1997) Linking short-term processes and landscape evolution. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 22, 193-194.
Summerfield, M.A. (ed.) (2000) Geomorphology and Global Tectonics. Wiley, Chiche-ster.
Thomas, M.F. (2001) Landscape sensitivity in time and space: an introduction. Catena 42, 83-98.
Worrall, J. (2002) Philosophy of science: classic debates, standard problems, future prospects. In Machamer, P. and Silberstein, M. (eds) Philosophy of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 18-36.
Was this article helpful?