The Meaning of "Meaning": Causes & Consequences

Kim Kastens
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published Aug 5, 2009

In an earlier post, I asked "how is it that skilled spatial thinkers can construct meaningful inferences from observations of shape, size, position, orientation, configuration or trajectory of objects or phenomena of the Earth and environment?"

It seems to me that "meaningful inferences " fall into two broad categories: causes and consequences. What processes caused the observed spatial phenomena to be the way they are? And, what are the consequences or implications of the observed spatial phenomena?

Let me try an example. In the United States, the spatial distribution of mountains is such that there are mountains in the east (Appalachians), mountains in the west (Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Cascades), and no mountains in the middle. This spatial configuration is not inevitable; in fact, no other continent has this spatial distribution of mountains.

North America Topography E-W slice
Topography of North America is mountainous in the east and west, and low and flattish in the middle. (image info)

A skilled spatial thinker concerned with the causes of Earth's spatial patterns would look at this spatial pattern and infer that the eastern and western edges of North America had been tectonically active in the relatively recent geologic past (within a few hundred million years), whereas the flat center of the continent had been tectonically stable for much longer (on the order of billions of years).

A spatial thinker interested in the consequences of Earth's spatial patterns would note that the early European settlements of North America spread westward from the coast only as far as the seaward-sloping flank of the Appalachians, and infer that the Appalachians were a major barrier to westward expansion of European settlers (or from a different perspective, a major protection to the Native Americans living west of the mountains.)

The disciplines that most thoroughly exploit spatial thinking about Earth's patterns are geosciences and geography. In general, geoscientists are more concerned about causes (why the Earth is the way it is) and geographers are more concerned about consequences (implications of Earth's attributes for human society), but there is considerable overlap.

Students can benefit from thinking about BOTH causes and consequences/implications while interpreting data. I've had some luck prompting students who are stalled in interpretation/discussion along the lines of "So far you've told me about the implications of your data for ABC; now what can you say about the causes, in other words, what Earth processes caused this part of the Earth to be the way it is?"

The hypothesis templates of the earlier post, written by a geoscientist, are suited for extracting meaningful inferences about possible causes of spatial patterns. Could you construct similar templates for extracting meaningful inferences about consequences?

Notes on sources: I first tried out this "causes" and "consequences" idea in a talk at a meeting on spatial thinking in geography education at the National Geographic Society in fall 2008. I thank the meeting participants for feedback on the idea, in particular the point that there is overlap between geosciences and geography in this regard. I got the idea about Appalachians as protection for North Americans--as well as a barrier for Europeans settlers--while trolling through Wikipedia. No primary source was provided.

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