Description does not suffice for an explanation

On February 3, 1967, J. R. L. Allen gave the fifth “Geologists’ Association Special Lecture”, entitled “Some Recent Advances in the Physics of Sedimentation”. This is from the introduction:

“Two stages can generally be recognised in the historical growth of a reasonably advanced scientific discipline. There is an early, descriptive stage in which with little guide from theory, an attempt is made to collect, define and analyse phenomena. In the later, explanatory stage we see that efforts are concentrated on the production of generalisations and on the explanation of the reduced phenomena in terms of general laws. Of course, there is never a single point in time at which there is change over the entire scope of a discipline from the descriptive to the explanatory stage. The change is, rather, uneven, taking place earlier in some branches than in others, and more gradually in one branch than in another.

Sedimentology stands today in a period of transition. Its subject matter is sedimentary deposits, and its goal the origin and meaning of these in the context of planetary studies in general. But it is apparent, except to adherents of geological phenomenalism, that sedimentary deposits cannot be explained in terms of themselves. Already we are in possession of major generalisations about these deposits, and our chief task for some years should be to explore and ratify them in terms of general laws in order that our understanding of the sedimentary record can be made sharper. In those parts of the field where major generalisations have already been established, the provision of further descriptive data is of little value, except in so far as light is shed on the problems of particular deposits. These are validly a part of the subject, leading to a refinement of certain planetary laws. But the other and no less important laws in terms of which we should seek to frame our understanding are those of general chemistry, physics and biology. In order to achieve this framework in the case of detrital sediments, it will be necessary to set aside for a while the problems of particular deposits. This will, of course, be unacceptable to those who claim that geology, or sedimentology, is only to do with rocks as conceived in a historico-geographical manner. But they will be proved wrong, provided we keep our major goals in mind, for it is a mistake to suppose that a description will suffice for an explanation. Most of our explanations will probably turn out to be no better than qualitative, so complex are most sedimentary systems, but we should nevertheless attempt them and try to frame them as exactly as possible.”

Forty years after publication of the paper, this seems as timely as ever.

Reference:
Allen, J. R. L., 1969. Some Recent Advances in the Physics of Sedimentation. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 80:1-42.

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