Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Validity and Usefulness of Laws in Geographic Information Science and Geography

     We all know about Tobler’s First Law of Geography, stating “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." Tobler’s law is the frame work for all things GIS, the concept that backs up the entire field of geostatistics logically. But is one law for the whole discipline of geography truly enough?

     To understand the difference between a law, a principle, a theory and a norm is to see that there is little distinction between them. What makes each statement valuable is not the ability to call it one thing or another, but the simplicity and elegance of its meaning, and how valid and true it is. Laws are meant to be facts—“facts provide the evidence for geographic processes, the evidence from which processes are inferred, and the boundary conditions needed to simulate their effects” (Goodchild 301).

     Tobler’s Law has much value in GIScience, giving words to what we have considered too obvious to note in everyday life. An example of Tobler’s Law in action is taking measurements of temperature. One cannot measure temperature in every square foot of every section of the earth, so it is acceptable to measure temperature for an area and assume that all places in close proximity to that area share the same temperature. It is in this way and more that Tobler’s Law “…forms the conceptual foundation for the entire field of geostatistics” (301). Every method requires the validity of the law and its application.

     But could there be possible candidates for additional laws? There are several principles that make sense:

  1. The principle of spatial heterogeneity by Harvey: there is no concept of an average place on the earth’s surface “comparable to the concept of an average human” (302).
  2. The Eden Effect: any extreme condition is possible on the earth’s surface if one reaches far enough
  3. Fractal principle: geographic phenomena reveal more detail the more closely one looks, and this process reveals additional detail at an orderly and predictable rate
  4. The principle that “two distinct conceptualizations of geographic information are possible—as collections of countable, discrete objects littering an otherwise empty space and as finite set of continuous fields, or functions of location” (302).
  5. The uncertainty principle: the geographic world is complex and any attempt to represent it isn’t perfect

     So, perhaps one day there will be an organized system to represent the certainties of geography, helping people understand the world around them and leading to more breakthroughs that may help us further our knowledge of the world around us.

Goodchild, Michael E. "The Validity and Usefulness of Laws in Geographic Information Science and Geography." 
     National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis and Department of Geography (2004): 300-03. Web.

Schmitt, Harrison. The Blue Marble. 1972. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons. Wikipedia, 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. 

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