Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2021

Interdisciplinarity and the Earth Sciences: Transcending Limitations of the Knowledge Paradigm

Abstract and Keywords

The inherent interdisciplinary of the Earth sciences derives from combining aspects of other disciplines when studying the Earth. Though most commonly viewed as providing science-as-knowledge, the Earth sciences can yield greater societal benefit through their nature-directed transdisciplinarity. As an example, paleoflood hydrology involves a relating to the complexities of natural world that overcomes limitations imposed when simplifying reality in order to make predictions. Paleoflood hydrology discovers the natural recordings of ancient (but very real) cataclysmic processes that have the documented ability to cause harm. The commonsense recognition that what has actually happened can indeed happen again provides much more incentive to generate engaged and wise public action than does an abstract prediction of the so-called hundred-year flood. This kind of science differs from that of its constituent disciplines, and it has great potential for making progress on many issues of current societal concern through public education, communication, and guided policy.

Keywords: Earth sciences, education, flood, hydrology, policy, transdisciplinarity

7.1 Interdisciplinary “Dilettantism”

A number of years ago I made a presentation to a group of planetary science researchers on the geology of ancient water-related features on Mars. The talk outlined new research from ongoing planetary missions, but it also placed these discoveries and controversies in the context of historical arguments over similar issues. Moreover, the seminar discussed philosophical problems arising from differing scientific approaches to the understanding of the geological and hydrological evolution of Mars.

The audience for this talk included many young scientists from universities and government research laboratories. Also attending, however, was a visiting senior scientist from the Czech Republic, who later wrote about the experience. He found the seminar quite surprising because, while it was not unusual in Europe for science presentations to include perspectives on history and philosophy, he had not previously seen such a talk during his extended visit to the United States. Asking for opinions from several of the young scientists attending the talk, he received comments along the following lines, “Yes, we know this lecturer. He commonly gives presentations much of which will likely be very useful to our scientific work. However, he also mixes in a bunch of philosophical and historical stuff, which, while occasionally entertaining, will be of no use for advancing our scientific careers.”

Scientific careers increasingly depend on positive outcomes from peer reviews of grant applications and successful editorial decisions on manuscript submissions to highly cited journals. Judgments by promotion committees, department heads, and deans depend on standards developed within established disciplines. Spreading one’s professional activities across multiple disciplines leaves one open to charges of doing science that is “soft,” “lacking in depth and/or rigor,” or “spread too thin” and thereby deficient in demonstrating the scholarship expected for accountability standards of accomplishment and expertise. Thus, the (p. 89) young scholar who strays from disciplinary standards risks being perceived by colleagues as engaging in mere “dilettantism,” that is, treating important matters of science in an amateurish manner.

By being inherently interdisciplinary, Earth scientists and the Earth sciences in general are as a whole vulnerable to this sort of judgment. In one example, a paper published in the journal Science was deemed irrelevant to the official promotion evaluation of an economic geology faculty member because the paper concerned logic, epistemology, and public policy. In another example a unit head refused to sign off on a research proposal by a very senior and accomplished geochemist because the proposed research concentrated on bacteriological, not geochemical questions.

At my own university there are interdisciplinary programs that have no equivalents at other universities. Nevertheless, the board of regents requires the performance evaluations for these units to include comparisons to equivalent units at other institutions. Since there are no such equivalents, a problem is created for unit accountability, not by the quality of the scholarship, but by the arbitrary protocol for unit evaluations. Should this problem be addressed by criticizing the units—or by throwing out the disciplinary assumptions underlying the protocols? These issues merely illustrate internal impediments to achieving effective interdisciplinarity. However, there are even larger questions about how interdisciplinary science is to be conducted, particularly if that science is to be effective in benefiting humankind.

7.2 The Earth Sciences

Concepts arise out of the history of their inception, and they evolve through their subsequent application. The concept of a discipline arose from the need to classify the flood of information produced by the newly evolving sciences of the modern era. This process began in earnest with the French encyclopedists of the eighteenth century, notably Denis Diderot (1713–1784). It was during the nineteenth century, however, that the idea of academic disciplines became ingrained within academia. This first occurred at German universities, and it eventually became codified into the familiar academic divisions found at today’s colleges and universities. Up until the later nineteenth century, considerable academic effort was expended on the classification of the sciences. Though today such classification is hardly a thriving branch of academia, uncritical vestiges of this antiquated activity, as noted above, remain in place as standards of judgment for the certification of expertise.

Conventional disciplinary classification of the sciences involves four main groupings: (1) the natural sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, geology), (2) the formal sciences (e.g., mathematics, logic), (3) the social sciences1 (economics, sociology, political science, history), and (4) the applied sciences (e.g., medicine, engineering). The natural sciences are, in turn, split into physical sciences and life sciences. Problems immediately appear for various Earth sciences. Geography is both a social science and a natural science, with the latter split between life science (biogeography) and physical science (physical geography). (p. 90) Ecology, the science that studies interactions of organisms with their environment, combines aspects of life science with physical science.

The inherent interdisciplinary of the Earth sciences derives from the need to combine aspects of other disciplines into the practice of studying the Earth. For example, the Earth sciences necessarily apply methods from physics and mathematics (geophysics, physical geology), chemistry (geochemistry), biology (paleontology), and computer sciences (simulation modeling of climate change). All this interdisciplinarity has a number of consequences, including uncertainty as to how Earth scientists should define themselves. Empirical evidence for this is provided by disagreements over how to name Earth science academic departments (Table 7.1). Many Earth science departments have changed their names multiple times, perhaps reflecting a sense, contrary to the nominalism that supposedly underpins positive science, that there is a kind of reality to the names that are applied, and that the nature of Earth scientific endeavors is changing with time, thereby requiring new names.

Another consequence for the inherent interdisciplinarity of the Earth sciences is the perception that their incorporation of knowledge from “more basic” scientific disciplines is generally limited to the less rigorous and softer components of those disciplines. Thus, in contrast to cosmology, which incorporates cutting-edge physics and mathematics into its interdisciplinary formulations, the Earth sciences mainly apply eighteenth-century principles of Newtonian mechanics and differential calculus. Does this mean that the Earth sciences are merely derivative from their constituent disciplinary branches of knowledge? Moreover, given the limited sophistication of that derivative knowledge, is this not indicative of scientific immaturity? Finally, does this mean that the Earth sciences really just “reduce” to the more rigorously advanced disciplines of which they are composed?

Interdisciplinarity suffers from a kind of “pop” philosophy that holds some sciences to be more “basic” than others. Related to this is the notion of “rigor” that is commonly attributed to particular disciplines. These vague concepts are used to define hierarchies that rank or order the sciences from those that are “basic,” “rigorous,” and/or “hard” to those considered to be “derived,” “descriptive,” and/or “soft.” An example is the sequence that proceeds top-to-bottom from mathematics to physics to chemistry to biology (particularly molecular biology) to Earth sciences to the social sciences (with economics at the top), and eventually to more human endeavors that fail to get recognized as sciences at all. Of course, the notion that mathematics provides scientific “rigor” suffers from the fact that mathematics does not in itself need to have any relation to nature at all. Physics, as the most mathematical of the natural sciences, derives its “rigor” by appropriating for its study those parts of nature that can be simplified sufficiently for mathematical expression. This leaves the more complex, that is, difficult, or “hard,” parts of nature to be studied by those sciences that are lower on the hierarchical scale. Earth sciences, of course, deal with all the meanings of hardness, including things that are complex, rather than simple, as well as the concrete parts of nature that are rock hard, as opposed to being very “soft” transitory wisps of thought about the world.

Hierarchies are embedded in the assumptions that are used to achieve them. One can get a completely different hierarchy of the sciences by placing at the top those sciences that deal with the most complex and difficult issues for humankind’s relationship to the natural world. Alternatively, instead of a downward scaling from basic to derived sciences, one might envision an upward branching from a base that is intrinsic to the world in which humans find themselves. The famous British geologist Arthur Holmes proposed this kind of disciplinary (p. 91) (p. 92) classification in his classic 1945 textbook Principles of Physical Geography. Modifying Holmes’s vision slightly, one can put Earth itself at the base (not just the physical planet, but all the life within and on it, including humankind). From this base one moves upward to sciences that deal with Earth’s spatial and temporal domains: geography and geology. On the geological side there is split between historical (time-bound) dimensions and physical (causal) domains. The historical domain clearly involves the evolution of life that is studied in paleontology, but which also is key to all biology. On the physical side are the causal processes involving rocks (mineralogy and petrology), their relationships (structural geology), the planetary surface (geomorphology), the interior (geophysics), the atmosphere (meteorology and climatology), the hydrosphere (hydrology and oceanography), and ultimately the extraterrestrial (astronomy and planetary science). All these branches spread outward toward generalities involving the realms of physics, astronomy, and molecular biology.

Table 7.1 Some Earth Science Departmental Names Associated with Natural Sciences Schools and Colleges

Department Name



University of Maryland, Portland State University, University of Kansas


Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, University of Arizona, Virginia Tech University, Stony Brook University

Geological Sciences

Stanford University, University of Colorado–Boulder, University of Oregon, University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

Geology and Geophysics

University of Wisconsin–Madison, University of Utah, Louisiana State University, University of Wyoming, University of Alaska–Fairbanks, Yale University


Colorado School of Mines, Stanford University

Earth Sciences

University of California–Santa Barbara, Rice University, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of Michigan, University of Southern California, Dartmouth College

Earth and Environment

Franklin and Marshall College, Boston University

Earth and Environmental Science(s)

Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Boston College, Vanderbilt University, Rutgers University

Earth System Science

University of California–Irvine, Stanford University

Earth and Oceanic Science

University of South Carolina, Duke University

Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science

University of British Columbia, Oregon State University, Florida State University

Earth and Planetary Sciences

University of California–Berkeley, Harvard University, University of California–Santa Cruz, Tokyo University, University of New Mexico, Johns Hopkins University, University of California–Davis, Northwestern University

Earth and Space Sciences

University of Washington

Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences

University of California–Los Angeles

Earth, Environment, and Planetary Sciences

Case Western Reserve University, Brown University

Geology and Planetary Science

University of Pittsburgh

Geological and Planetary Sciences

California Institute of Technology

Earth and Space Exploration

Arizona State University

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Cornell University, Georgia Tech University, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Atmospheric Sciences

Colorado State University, University of Arizona, University of Washington, University of Utah, University of Illinois

Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

University of California–Los Angeles

Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences

North Carolina State University


University of Washington, Texas A & M University, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Dalhousie University

Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences

University of Arizona

Land, Air, and Water Resources

University of California–Davis

7.3 Epistemic Interdisciplinarity

We have seen that academic disciplines involve focused study in a particular academic field, and that they derived from a history that produced a parsing of the various branches of human knowledge. This focus on “knowledge” appears in the very word “science,” which derives from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge.” Classically, the meaning of “knowledge” traces back to ancient Greece and writings of Plato, who viewed knowledge as “justified true belief.” Modifying this definition to specify the sound justification that is presumably provided by science, one arrives at the commonplace modern view that science acts as a repository well-justified true beliefs, and thus provides the source of what is held to be the expertise that is needed to underpin effective decision-making.

(p. 93) The power for achieving positive action in a democratic society, a goal considered to be the role of politics, is commonly presumed to require a basis in well-justified, true beliefs. Given that politicians have not demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy generators of such knowledge, it is the common view that the expertise needed for wise societal action must come from science, viewed as the premier source of knowledge. Following from that, a sizable portion of public treasure can justifiably be allocated to the scientific enterprise in support of this mission.

Despite its dominance in the realm of public policy the science-as-knowledge concept leads to a number of problematic consequences. According to the classical definition of knowledge, emphasis is placed on epistemological issues for achieving truth and for the justification of that truth. For the intrinsically interdisciplinary Earth sciences this science-as-knowledge assumption necessarily involves epistemic interdisciplinarity.

7.4 An Example of Earth-Science Interdisciplinarity—The Study of Floods

Floods are clearly an Earth phenomenon worthy of study as an interdisciplinary Earth science. They are natural processes of great importance in the evolution of landscapes, the operation of the hydrological cycle, and the emplacement of sedimentary records. They also can pose immense hazards to humans and their property. Nevertheless, there is no academic discipline devoted to the study of floods per se. If there were such specialty it might be called “plimmyrology” which combines the Greek words for “flood” (plimmyr) and “study of” (logos) into a rather ugly unity. Instead of a single discipline for the study of floods there are multiple disciplines that deal with floods, though with different purposes and perspectives, and generally as secondary concerns relative to other issues. Various flood-related disciplines include flood hydraulics, which deals with the physical equations of flood water flows; flood engineering, which deals with applications of flood science to problems of hazard evaluation and the design of protective works; flood hydrology, which emphasizes the calculation of flood frequency for the estimation of risk; flood geomorphology, which deals with the effect of floods on landscapes; and flood geology, which deals with interpreting the history of ancient floods and their role in the geological history of the planet. Each of these disciplines brings its own perspectives to flood studies, but also its own limitations in regard to how it relates to other disciplines, and even in how it relates to the nature of floods.

7.4.1 “Dilettantism” in Flood Science

In the early 1980s I attended a seminar by a prominent flood hydrologist dealing with the problem of alluvial fan flooding in the American West. The speaker derived a series of equations that predicted the risks posed by flooding to life and property as well as providing the basis for mitigation adjustments that might include protective structures and hazard zonation. His viewpoint was clearly that of hydraulic engineering, a branch of applied physics (p. 94) that treats river basins as hydraulic machines driven by physical laws of force and resistance that have universality of application and certainty in their predictions, relative, of course, to various assumptions. Hydraulic engineering exemplifies the “rigor” and “depth” that can be achieved by a “hard science” in which the expertise of the practitioner can readily be certified by disciplinary standards.

At the end of the talk I asked the speaker how he recognized the alluvial fan situations to which his equations applied. This question obviously required thinking about geomorphology, the science of landforms such as alluvial fans, the processes associated with landforms, and the modes of recognizing preserved evidence of those processes. The speaker answered my question by citing a well-regarded textbook on fluvial geomorphology, thereby implying that the general descriptions contained therein would assure the recognition of the alluvial fan situations to which his equations would apply. Of course, there are many kinds of processes that can occur on alluvial fans, and every alluvial fan is subject to a combination of these processes, depending on the rock types and structures in the fan source areas, the local climate, weathering processes, and even regional tectonic history. All these function together in ways that are unique to every alluvial fan and therefore cannot be outlined as generalities in a textbook.

This is clear example of epistemic interdisciplinarity involving science-as-knowledge. It also reveals a profound naïveté in regard to complexities of Earth processes. Earth’s realities dictate that all alluvial fans are different; each alluvial fan develops from a complex of processes that range from pure water floods to highly viscous debris flows, all of which exhibit very different kinds of physical behavior. Alluvial fans are always evolving through real time in a progressive, not strictly random, manner. While the history of this change can be read in the details of the landscape and reasonably be extrapolated to likely future conditions, it cannot be accurately predicted from an arbitrary set of generalized equations chosen on the basis of necessarily simplifying assumptions.

This example illustrates epistemic interdisciplinarity because the hydraulic engineer is indeed using knowledge from other disciplines, but is doing so from the point of view of a particular knowledge discipline, that of hydraulic engineering. Hydraulic engineering is concerned with the design of hydraulic structures, such as large dams. Since these structures can be at risk from extremely large floods, it is necessary to generate numeric measures of risk that can be used to achieve designs within some level of tolerance. However, given the rarity of extremely large floods that would pose very great risk to these structures, the prediction of flood probabilities for risk analysis must entail assumptions, nearly all of which are highly problematic. Despite this limitation, however, these problematic assumptions continue to be made because of the necessity to make engineering design decisions in the light of what is presumed to be a lack of information on extremely large, rare floods. This presumption of ignorance about extremely large, rare floods is not science (ignorance being the lack of knowledge or information); one learns nothing when one presumes in advance that there is nothing to learn. Moreover, as discussed below, data on extremely large, rare floods is exactly the kind of information that is provided through another discipline: the geological study of evidence from the well-preserved effects of such floods.

Another kind of interdisciplinarity arises not from the questions that are posed to nature, but from the questions that are posed by nature. In the alluvial fan case, nature’s questions are posed by the real-world existence of a landform belonging to a highly complex class of phenomena to which has been attached the vague label “alluvial fan.” The practitioner (p. 95) of hydraulic engineering noted above looked to a geomorphology textbook as a source of knowledge, in essence treating the results of past inferences generalized in that textbook as facts that could be assumed in getting on with the mathematical expressions needed to generate quantitative predictions. This example is particularly relevant because modern flood hydrological science emerged from origins as an appendage to hydraulics and hydraulic engineering (Klemes 1986). However, to be a true interdisciplinary science of floods, flood hydrology cannot restrict its purview to that of hydraulic engineering. To do so, in spite of all the rigor and predictive emphasis of that discipline, is to deal with the reality of floods by merely toying with the subject matter. Klemes (1986) has termed this “dilettantism,” applying that label in the context of science-as-knowledge. The problem is even worse, however, because, as noted above, any flood hydrology that makes this assumption of ignorance is radically antiscientific. Above all and most fundamentally, science, as process of inquiry, rather than a repository of knowledge, must embrace openness of inquiry as an absolute requirement. By claiming ignorance as a matter of assumption, much of conventional flood hydrology cuts off inquiry and thus kills any chance for productive science in regard to understanding extremely large, rare floods.

7.4.2 Paleoflood Hydrology as a “Transdiscipline”

When nature presents the questions, the scientist must seek the methods from those disciplines that can most effectively deal with what nature presented. This is more than just an application of knowledge. It is an interaction with the messy details of nature to produce new understanding. In this spirit, a new approach to the scientific study of floods began to emerge in the middle twentieth century. Dubbed “paleoflood hydrology” (Kochel & Baker 1992) this approach provides an example in which disparate branches of the Earth sciences are combined in a kind of nature-directed “transdiscipline” to advance scientific understanding.2 Paleofloods are past or ancient floods whose characteristics are indicated by means of natural recording processes. The scientific “transdiscipline” of paleoflood hydrology arose by combining geological, hydrological, and hydraulic approaches to the study of flooding phenomena, and by incorporating recent technological advances in geochronology (p. 96) and hydraulic flow modeling to estimate the magnitudes and frequencies of paleofloods from evidence of their paleostages (Baker 2008, 2014).

Whereas interdisciplinarity transcends disciplinary boundaries by transferring knowledge and methods from one or more disciplines to another, it does so from the perspective or research framework of a receiving discipline. Transdisciplinarity, on the other hand, involves new perspectives that go beyond what may have been part of any of the disciplines involved. There continues to be disagreement as to whether these new transdisciplinary perspectives should emphasize the unification of knowledge, whether the scientific knowledge and/or methods should be extended to areas outside science itself, or whether some other combination should arise. Before moving on to these questions, more attention is given to the paleoflood example.

The scientific study of paleofloods derives from a long tradition in geology concerned with field evidence for ancient floods. The geological approach is both causal and historical, involving the recognition of various preserved signs or traces that can be interpreted by the experienced geological investigator as evidence for past flood processes. The geological investigator of floods works out a history of past flood events in much the same way that a history of past biological organisms is worked out through paleontological studies of their fossil forms. This history serves as a source of discoveries about the nature of the flooding, including its patterns in time and space.

Of course, this extension beyond the physics-based hydrological tradition led to criticism. The following critique appeared in a 1986 technical review3 of a report to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics dealing with progress in paleoflood hydrology (Stedinger & Baker 1987):

Imagine a solid-state physicist, organic chemist or other practitioner of “hard science” reading this manuscript … Shaking his head with sad amusement as he muses about how far the geologists still have to go before their field of study can properly be called science, he leafs through the final section of the manuscript and references. This wipes the smile off his face, for he discovers that these paleohydrological methods are being advocated, in all seriousness, for use in assessing the safety of dams and choosing sites for hazardous waste disposal.

These comments are reminiscent of a well-known assertion by Sir Ernest Rutherford: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” This sentiment is true to the extent that Rutherford, or the anonymous “hard science” reviewer of the paleoflood hydrology paper, if they ever attempted to do some geology, would likely indeed perform an activity in a manner similar to that of “stamp collecting,” thereby confirming their ignorance as to what it is to do geology. Physics is the natural science that makes maximal use of mathematics, but mathematics is a formal science, not a natural one. This makes physics the least natural of the natural sciences. Physics is the science that offers absolutely the least possible understanding of the real time of duration that is the subject of history, either human or natural; and while physics works wonderfully for expressing universal generalities that underlie fundamental aspects of natural processes, it also offers the least understanding of the complex web (p. 97) of causation that exists in the innumerable, messy, and constantly changing particularities of the natural world.

7.5 Transdisciplinary Earth Sciences?

The fundamental paradox of flood damages is that they continue to increase despite major advances in flood-science-as-knowledge, including the application of much quantification and mathematical modeling. Science continues to be used to justify immense public expenditures on flood mitigation. Flood damages do indeed partly correlate to the causative factors identified by scientific study, but there are much stronger correlations to the value of construction and other human activities in areas that can very easily be designated as potentially hazardous. Flood damages also correlate especially well to those rivers where the most money has been spent on infrastructure that is purported to “protect” against flood damages. The most expenditure has been on the Mississippi River, which continues to experience the most damage, and the second-most money has been spent on the Sacramento River, which experiences the second-most damage. If one rejects simplistic correlation as causation, namely, that research and its results cause the damages, then it might be hypothesized that something is wrong with the research program and its practical implementation.

These are issues that clearly transcend the disciplinary contexts in which flooding has traditionally received scientific attention. Thus, they are transdisciplinary in the vague sense being used in this essay, but let us see if some clarification can be achieved through more examples.

7.5.1 The Science/Policy Interface

Public policy continues to embrace the notion that decision-making should be based on the best possible “science,” but this is science-as-knowledge. It typically employs quantitative models, and there is no question that the capabilities and power of this scientific resource are being very rapidly advanced through spectacular technological innovations. Moreover, there is also no question that the predictive capabilities of these models have immense appeal in a political system that is geared to invoking science, not as a process of adaptive inquiry, but as source of expert authority for claims that problems are being solved. There remains an immense question, however, as to whether the business-as-usual approach of providing the best possible science-as-knowledge to decision makers is resulting in the best possible policy outcomes. There certainly is evidence that our current paradigm of predictive modeling of environmental systems can lead to disastrous policy outcomes (Pilkey & Pilkey-Jarvis 2007; see also Vogel et al., this volume).

The science-policy-action paradigm is not working in regard to flooding. We have a national program of designating flood-hazard areas as a by-product of applying an insurance-based mindset of using of large-population statistics to assess risk to the insuring company—rather than to inform people in ways they can understand and ways that motivate them to take effective action. This manifests itself in the so-called hundred-year flood designation, which is a by-product of the hydraulic engineering approach to flood risk (p. 98) assessment. It is also an example of science-as-knowledge at its worst. The “hundred-year flood” can be calculated in a systematic way by universally applicable mathematical expressions, understood only by an elite of technical experts and conveyed through authoritative government pronouncements. It is an idealization that does not refer to any actual flood, and that has essentially nothing to do with real years. Instead, it is the inverse of an annual exceedance probability4 that must be estimated by mathematical extrapolations that are necessarily based on highly questionable assumptions.

The contrast with paleoflood hydrology is striking. Paleoflood information derives its authority not from claims of mathematical perfection, but from the discoveries of natural recording of ancient (but very real) cataclysmic processes with obviously documented potential to cause harm. The commonsense recognition that what has actually happened can indeed happen again has much more potential to incur engaged and wise public response than does the invocation of abstract terminology that befuddles rather than informs.

7.5.2 Public Understanding/Education

The level of public understanding of the Earth sciences in the United States is totally antithetical to the importance of the Earth for human existence. This is evidenced by the media success in swaying pubic opinion to the view that there is a valid scientific controversy in regard to human activity as a causative factor in Earth’s climate change (Oreskes & Conway 2010). This sorry state of affairs has been achieved by design. Our science education system is largely based on what Sir Karl Popper once termed the “bucket theory” (Popper 1979, p. 61). Imagine a student with a bucket instead of a head. The facts of science-as-knowledge are poured into the bucket, and output from the student can be measured and certified by testing for “science literacy”—as though science is something that one reads in textbooks as opposed to being an attitude engaged in by a community dedicated to searching for the truth in things. Moreover, the formula for science-as-knowledge is the nineteenth-century classification of disciplinary knowledge that has high school students taking coursework in hierarchical arrangement, with physics at the top, chemistry below, and so forth. The interdisciplinary sciences of Earth and environment are relegated to lower grades, as befitting their lower status in the flawed hierarchy of science-as-knowledge.

Students can only get beyond the limitations of science-as-knowledge (Popper’s “bucket”) by practicing science for themselves. In regard to the science of floods, they need to explore the effects of floods, to study the flood histories of their own towns, to see the effects of past flooding in their own areas, and to feel empowered to raise questions about what their communities are doing about floods. This is can be termed a “flashlight theory,” wherein the student is empowered by scientific reasoning to illuminate the darkness.

(p. 99) 7.5.3 Transdisciplinarity

The foregoing examples involve very timely “wicked problems.” These may have high degrees of risk and uncertainty, as with the problem of extreme floods. There may be political and social issues, such as those arising from the lack of public understanding of science and the sorry state of science education. There are many other issues of current concern that need very timely attention, have disputed values, and involve considerable complexity in their scientific treatment. The Earth sciences are involved in many of these, including global climate change, environmental degradation, health and sanitation, societal vulnerability to natural hazards, sustainability, and so forth. All of these problems need highly creative solutions involving science that is very responsive to social concerns. The involvement of stakeholders is becoming essential for achieving effective action.

The term “transdisciplinarity” is increasingly being applied to such efforts (Bernstein 2015), and that term is also being applied to efforts at achieving a kind of unification of disciplines that extends beyond the sciences to the arts and the humanities. However, this is not the kind of unification that developed during the mid-twentieth century’s “Unity of Science” program. A recent resurrection of that earlier unification quest appeared in E. O. Wilson’s best-selling book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998a; see also Wilson 1998b). Wilson’s enthusiasm for the spectacular advances in science-as-knowledge that are the by-products of scientific inquiry compels his vision for extending the web of causal explanation achieved in the hard sciences to the social sciences and even to the humanities. It is this ideal alignment of knowledge to which Wilson applies the term “consilience.” Wilson’s vision coheres with that of those who would promote a new kind of scientism, one that ultimately views science as knowledge and power. Sadly, this equating of science to scientism has led some scholars in the humanities to resist any such unification. One of the few philosophers to engage in debate on this issue is Richard Rorty, who observed, “it is not clear that our answers to … moral … questions will be improved by better knowledge of how things work” (Rorty 1998).

The unification associated with transdisciplinarity is not one in which some disciplines get reduced to others. Instead there should be a union that gets beyond the limitation of each discipline in generating that which is larger than the components of the union. Thus a transdisciplinary union would function more like the growth of a marriage than like the interdisciplinary borrowing and transfer from discipline to discipline. The Earth sciences are particularly well suited to participate in such unions. The continued welfare of humankind compels them to do so.

7.6 Conclusion

Interdisciplinarity is inherent to the Earth sciences. This commonly manifests itself through the science-as-knowledge paradigm. Though this paradigm has current ascendancy in regard to generating the expert knowledge that is converted for use in political/policy discourse, it is both limited and compromised by attitudes that restrict the full capability of science to relate to the natural world and to convey that relationship in a way that more (p. 100) effectively advances humankind. The developing concept of transdisciplinarity offers hope to remedy this problem by creating new scientific viewpoints through unions of multiple disciplines and through the participatory involvement of nonscientists in areas ranging from public policy to public education. An example of trandisciplinarity in the Earth sciences is provided by “plimmyrology,” the science of floods, particularly in regard to its branch, paleoflood hydrology. Because of its focus on “letting the floods tell their own stories” paleoflood hydrology is truly transformative from flood hydrology that emphasizes the assumptions that permit theoretical statements and predictions to be made about flood phenomena. It thus represents a transitioning from an interdisciplinary study of floods to a transdisciplinary one, resulting in something different from what was in any of the constituent disciplines. Such transdisciplinary Earth science has profound implications for many issues of current societal concern, including the communication of scientific issues to the general public, science education in a democracy, and the future habitability of the planet.


Baker, V. R. (2008). Paleoflood hydrology: Origin, progress, prospects. Geomorphology, 101, 1–13.Find this resource:

    Baker, V. R. (2014). Paleohydrology. IAHS Benchmark Papers in Hydrology, 9. Wallingford, UK: International Association of Hydrological Sciences Press.Find this resource:

      Bernstein, J. H. (2015). Transdisciplinarity: A review of its origins, development, and current issues. Journal of Research Practice, 11 (1), Article R1. Retrieved from this resource:

        Klemes, V. (1986). Dilettantism in hydrology: Transition or destiny? Water Resources Research, 22 (9), 177S–188S.Find this resource:

          Klemes, V. (1987). Hydrological engineering relevance of flood frequency analysis. In V. P. Singh (Ed.), Hydrologic frequency modeling, pp. 1–18. Dordrecht: Reidel.Find this resource:

            Klemes, V. (1989). The improbable probabilities of extreme floods and droughts. In O. Starosolszky & O. M. Molder (Eds.), Hydrology of disasters, pp. 43–51. London: James and James.Find this resource:

              Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press.Find this resource:

                Pilkey, O. H., & Pilkey-Jarvis, L. (2007). Useless arithmetic. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                  Popper, K. R. (1979). Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                    Rorty, R. (1998). Against unity. Wilson Quarterly, 20 (1), 28–38.Find this resource:

                      Stedinger & Baker, V. R. (1987). Surface water hydrology: historical and paleoflood information. Reviews of Geophysics, 25, 119–124.Find this resource:

                        Wilson, E. O. (1998a). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

                          Wilson, E. O. (1998b). Resuming the Enlightenment quest. Wilson Quarterly, 20 (1), 16–27.Find this resource:


                            (1) My university places philosophy in its College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, something that is rare at other academic institutions.

                            (2) Klein (this volume) outlines the complex relationship of “transdisciplinarity” to the taxonomy of interdisciplinarity. Coined during the early 1970s, “transdisciplinarity” originally applied to the transcendence of disciplinary worldviews to achieve an overarching synthesis. Klein’s example of anthropology construed as a transdisciplinary “science of humans” illustrates how a transdisciplinary “science of floods” is embodied in “plimmyrology” with its critical component of paleoflood hydrology. Klein further describes how current trends have involved diverse applications of the transdisciplinarity concept to multiple themes, including those of (1) traditional movements seeking unifications of science-as-knowledge (e.g., Wilson, 1998a); (2) critical transgressions across disciplinary boundaries to crate new theoretical paradigms; (3) holistic frameworks like general systems theory, Marxism, and policy sciences that transcend the narrow scope of disciplinary worldviews; and (4) emphasis on problem solving that commonly incorporates collaborations among academics with industry, social actors, “stakeholders,” and other nonacademics to achieve workable solutions to society’s most pressing problems. Despite these multiple meanings, in this essay I adopt the term “transdisciplinarity” because its vagueness affords an openness of inquiry to new forms of synthesis that allow for transcendence beyond the science-as-knowledge paradigm that impedes the most productive forms of interdisciplinary interplay within the Earth sciences.

                            (3) The review was anonymous, following the common practice of secrecy for the review of scientific papers, a practice totally at odds with the ethical norm of openness in scientific inquiry.

                            (4) See Klemes (1987, 1989) for a discussion of how flood-frequency analysis introduces probability concepts that are contrary to both common sense and a scientific spirit directed at understanding the natural world.