Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

The Nature of Geoscience

What is the nature of knowledge in geoscience? There is an extensive body of literature that examines the nature of science in general, but few have taken the same level of philosophical approaches to geoscience specifically. Yet the underlying assumptions and approaches taken by geoscientists often differ markedly from those discussed by philosophers of science. A number of scholars have focused specifically on the nature of geoscience, however.

One of the foundational papers in the nature of geoscience was written in 1890 by Thomas Chamberlin, founder of the Journal of Geology, entitled "The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses" (Chamberlin, 1890 ). Chamberlin writes, "The effort is to bring up into view every rational explanation of new phenomena, and to develop every tenable hypothesis respecting their cause and history," and describes how this approach is particularly amenable to the nature of questions and observations of Earth, which have complex causes.

In 1963, the Geological Society of America published a collection of essays entitled The Fabric of Geology ; this collection covers many aspects of the philosophy of geoscience and is an excellent resource for learning more about the philosophical underpinnings.

More recently, philosophers of science and geoscientists have focused on the nature of geological reasoning and geology as an interpretive and historical science. These include:

Resources for teaching about the nature of geoscience


  • Barry Bickmore describes how he approaches teaching the nature of science and geoscience to elementary education majors in his Earth Stories course at Brigham Young University.
  • Jeff Thomas teaches a History and Nature of Science course for secondary science teaching majors that includes a component of the history and nature of geoscience.


  • Exploring the nature of geoscience describes an interactive activity in which students must develop an explanation from an incomplete dataset, allowing for explicit discussion of many aspects of the nature of knowledge in the geosciences.
  • The Cube Exercise and the Methods of Science compares and contrasts the descriptive and experimental methods and can launch a discussion about the unique aspects of the nature of geoscience.