Posts Tagged ‘defining science’

On the Ontology of Science

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

When we think about whether GIS represents a science or a tool, we must consider how exactly do we define science. Wright et al throw around a huge number of terms without defining them when considering just this question. Some of their suggested approaches to understanding how science explains the world include humanism, positivism, structuralism, empiricism,  realism, Marxism, and postmodernism (353). The article concludes with an analysis that suggests positivism holds the most explanatory power for understanding the world. However, they decline to take a strong position, admitting that they don’t want to “downplay the explanatory power of these alternative, non-positivistic approaches” (353). For those of us unacquainted with the philosophy of science, what exactly does this debate over the definition of science actually mean?

Positivism represents the view most of us heard in grade school where science consists of a view that in both the social and natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical or mathematical treatment (through testing) represent the exclusive source of all worthwhile information. However, if we consider science through a humanistic lens that places human values at the center of all inquiry or a postmodern perspective that repudiates objective, sensory observation in favor of viewing reality as a social construct, our definition of science changes dramatically.

As this definition changes, so to does our consideration of whether or not GIS can be viewed as a tool or a science. From the approach of a positivist, GIS can be thought of both as a means for observing and testing data (as a tool) or a method for treating types of geographic data and examining research questions (as a science). Yet if we take a postmodern perspective, does GIS hold any weight (beyond being a tool) as a discipline reliant on particular methodologies which reveal self-evident truths about the world? Although Wright et al do a great job with their primary task of covering the GIS tool vs. science debate in their article, their lack of specificity on how to define science opens the door to a variety of theoretical questions.

– climateNYC