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Living landscapes in the lab, virtually and in real life: causation and a feeling for what happens in research, education and societal impact

The landscapes built by rivers and coasts in conjunction with ecological engineering plant species have been and will be under stress by population pressure and global change. The expertise of geoscientists, well-trained graduates and an educated society are dearly needed to face the interdisciplinary challenges. Public and politics often ask for more evidence in view of the short-term expenses to reduce future likelihood of disaster. These issues are related in two fundamental questions. When do we have causal relationships and when do we have sufficient evidence for them? How can students and the public gain causal understanding? I will argue that two main philosophical concepts underlie our activities targeting students, professionals, school pupils and stakeholder publics, in addition to the usual simplifications. The first concept is that we need two kinds of causal relationships: mechanical and probabilistic. Asking for more data fits the latter and correlation is a strong indicator of causation, but knowing the mechanism is complementary and at least as important in the geosciences. However, we need yet to begin explaining this to undergraduate students who have both statistical and physical training without realizing that these pertain to two different kinds of causation. The second concept is that of embodied understanding of mechanisms: the feeling for what happens that can be gained through interactions with natural systems, and through analogue and numerical modelling. This feeling particularly aids the mechanistic causation in somewhat deterministic systems. For students, this means learning to do controlled experimentation with simple lab setups and models, which then offers direct experience pertaining the theory of relevant biological and physical mechanisms. We also found a fruitful way to bring delta technology professionals, students and scientists together in an annual lecture series augmented by an attractive visit to a large analogue experiment in the facility.


Maarten G Kleinhans
Faculty of Geosciences, Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands
GeoUtrecht 2020
10.48380/ dggv-xatn-1t54