The dark art of interpretation in geomorphology

Brierley, G., Fryirs, K., Reid, H. and Williams, R. (2021) The dark art of interpretation in geomorphology. Geomorphology, 390, 107870. (doi: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2021.107870)

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The process of interpretation, and the ways in which knowledge builds upon interpretations, has profound implications in scientific and managerial terms. Despite the significance of these issues, geomorphologists typically give scant regard to such deliberations. Geomorphology is not a linear, cause-and-effect science. Inherent complexities and uncertainties prompt perceptions of the process of interpretation in geomorphology as a frustrating form of witchcraft or wizardry – a dark art. Alternatively, acknowledging such challenges recognises the fun to be had in puzzle-solving encounters that apply abductive reasoning to make sense of physical landscapes, seeking to generate knowledge with a reliable evidence base. Carefully crafted approaches to interpretation relate generalised understandings derived from analysis of raw data with field observations/measurements and local knowledge to support appropriately contextualised place-based applications. In this paper we develop a cognitive approach (Describe-Explain-Predict) to interpret landscapes. Explanation builds upon meaningful description, thereby supporting reliable predictions, in a multiple lines of evidence approach. Interpretation transforms data into knowledge to provide evidence that supports a particular argument. Examples from fluvial geomorphology demonstrate the data-interpretation-knowledge sequence used to analyse river character, behaviour and evolution. Although Big Data and machine learning applications present enormous potential to transform geomorphology into a data-rich, increasingly predictive science, we outline inherent dangers in allowing prescriptive and synthetic tools to do the thinking, as interpreting local differences is an important element of geomorphic enquiry.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Williams, Professor Richard
Authors: Brierley, G., Fryirs, K., Reid, H., and Williams, R.
College/School:College of Science and Engineering > School of Geographical and Earth Sciences
Journal Name:Geomorphology
ISSN (Online):1872-695X
Published Online:22 July 2021
Copyright Holders:Copyright © 2021 Crown Copyright
First Published:First published in Geomorphology 390: 107870
Publisher Policy:Reproduced under a Creative Commons License

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
303063Catchment susceptibility to hydrometeorological events: sediment flux and geomorphic change as drivers of flood risk in the PhilippinesRichard WilliamsNatural Environment Research Council (NERC)NE/S003312/1GES - Geography