The Oxford dictionary defines research as “the investigation of scientific study to discover facts. ” The purpose of any piece of research work is to add to our stock of knowledge, even if it is only in a small way. Almost all research is constrained by time, expense and formal requirements and this has put into question the validity and reliability of research. This question is primarily concerned with geographical research.
In order to answer the above question it is necessary to look at the methods of data collection, the manner in which research can be affected by the local environment that it is produced in, and finally the amount of supporting evidence that needs to be produced before a particular idea is accepted as the truth. The question of why science is so powerful within society also needs to be addressed. Modern science has always emphasized the importance of observation, experiment and the collection of data and the same applies when collecting information within the field of geography.
There are two main methods of research. There are deductive and inductive approaches. The first is where you study a topic and you apply the findings to similar areas and the second is where you (or somebody else) comes up with a theory and then your research is used to prove that theory right or wrong. The use of different methods can have a direct result on the type of results gained. For instance if you carried out a piece of observational research amongst a group of people, telling them about your intentions would result in them acting cautiously within that given environment and not in their normal manner.
As a researcher it is important that you recognise that your presence within an environment where you are collecting your data can in some circumstances have an effect on the type of results gained. Flowerdrew and Martin in their book ‘Methods in Human Geography’ give an example of how some philosophers of science as well some scientists themselves believe that empirical evidence is the only valid evidence that can be used in the certification of scientific claims as knowledge.
Although empiricism can take several different forms they point out that empiricists base a whole theory of knowledge on the basis of “… e can only be sure of what we can carefully observe. ” In some respects science can be seen as reliable to a degree because it bases many of its ideas upon findings that have been observed on several occasions, and where applicable ideas have been tested to prove validity. For example we know that the earth is round because we have seen images of it taken from space satellites. Scientists including physical geographers rely upon ‘casual’ laws for example gravity when explaining individual events such as mass movements etc.
One of the philosophical problems faced by the natural sciences is the basis on which they can establish their laws and theories as warranted knowledge. A further downfall of science is the fact that it can only be certain of explaining happenings that have already taken place. There is no way that it can be 100% accurate in confirming that what has already taken place will occur again in exactly the same manner.
The affects of local conditions upon data is also important when answering the question of ‘can certainty be assured in geographical research? because such things as climate, politics, religious beliefs, and the rate of development within a country can drastically alter findings from one investigation to the next. The amount of evidence that you as a researcher have to back up your findings is an important factor, as generally speaking, the more evidence you acquire the more certain you can be that your geographical research is valid or reliable. A single piece of research alone cannot be seen as warranted knowledge but twenty investigations of the same nature can be judged to be fairly reliable.
The role which science plays in society needs to be addressed because the population generally relies on scientists to identify global environmental problems and also to provide solutions to these problems. There is a considerable degree of uncertainty inherent within science that the general public are unaware of. D. S. G. Thomas in his paper “Science and the desertification debate,” uses the example of scientific knowledge over desertification as a means to test how valid (warranted) science is concerning geographical matters.
The paper outlines the downfalls of scientific research. It points out that scientific research doesn’t always provide instant solutions to urgent problems, and that it often operates over longer time-scales than social crises and political agendas. ‘Scientific controversies and details are irrelevant to people facing famine. ‘ He also says that the role of science is not principally to deal with short-term relief measures, but rather to enhance overall understanding of desertification, it’s causes, nature and solutions.
In relation to desertification Thomas points out that science has been unsuccessful in determining the rate at which the process operates and spreads. As local factors such as soil type, climate, topography, land use, and agricultural practices vary from one region to the next a simple scientific solution cannot be put forward that can be applied across the globe where desertification is operating to solve the problem. This therefore supports the argument that certainty cannot be assured in geographical research.
In conclusion it can be said that when answering the question of can certainty be assured in research, science cannot always be seen to be 100% accurate because firstly the different methods used mean that different researchers could in theory end up with opposing results. Also the affect that local factors have on data can mean that theories and ideas may only be applied to areas studied. It should further be recognised that time has an affect on certainty and that as time progresses so does scientific knowledge.