Thursday, 5 September 2013

Historical science and experimental science - refuting a YEC distortion of science

Ever heard Ken Ham infect the minds of school children with his all-purpose lie that he instructs them to chant whenever their teachers instruct them about the wonders of our ancient, evolving world?

Were you there?

Ham's lie is based on the nonsensical claim that 'historical science' is inferior to 'experimental science', one which highlights Ham's complete ignorance of the subject he criticises. The National Center for Science Education notes that:

The problem with these attempts to divide science neatly into two piles is that, as Sober observes, a given science, and even a given scientist, can switch between approaches in the quest to address a single question. Geologists can plumb the oldest rocks on earth for evidence of the first life, but they can also go to the lab and recreate the conditions of early earth to test predictions of hypothesis about events billions of years ago. And those results from a modern laboratory will send researchers back to the field to test predictions about historical events generated in the laboratory. 
Similarly, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are testing theories about the origin of the universe:
The LHC will recreate, on a microscale, conditions that existed during the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang. 
At the earliest moments of the Big Bang, the Universe consisted of a searingly hot soup of fundamental particles - quarks, leptons and the force carriers. As the Universe cooled to 1000 billion degrees, the quarks and gluons (carriers of the strong force) combined into composite particles like protons and neutrons. The LHC will collide lead nuclei so that they release their constituent quarks in a fleeting 'Little Bang'. This will take us back to the time before these particles formed, re-creating the conditions early in the evolution of the universe, when quarks and gluons were free to mix without combining. The debris detected will provide important information about this very early state of matter. 
Science and Technology Facilities Council (2008) "The Big Questions" page on "The Large Hadron Collider" website. Accessed September 18, 2008.
Which category of science does this belong to? Clearly, it is both historical science and experimental science. Other such historical claims can be evaluated using modern experiments. Another example of this approach can be found in the episode of Mythbusters in which claims about the destruction of the Hindenburg are tested using modern models of the combustible zeppelin. If a television show can accurately navigate these philosophical waters, it is entirely appropriate to expect a textbook to handle them responsibly as well.
The full article is here.