Thursday, 15 January 2015

There is no such thing as 'historical science' and 'operational science'. It's just science

In an earlier post, I touched on the bogus distinction made by YECs between 'historical science' and 'observational science', in their desperate attempt to wave away geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology, and palaeontology, and the powerful evidence they provide for an ancient universe and an evolutionary natural history. Typical of the specious arguments made to support this illusory difference is this article by Answers in Genesis writer Roger Patterson:
Making a distinction between two types of scientific study helps us to understand the limitations of naturalistic presuppositions in science:
Operational (Observational) Science: a systematic approach to understanding that uses observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable experimentation to understand how nature commonly behaves.
Operational science is the type of science that allows us to understand how DNA codes for proteins in cells. It is the type of science that has allowed us to cure and treat diseases, put a man on the moon, build satellites and telescopes, and make products that are useful to humans. Biblical creationists believe that God has created a universe that uses a set of natural laws that operate consistently in the universe. Understanding how those laws operate is the basis for scientific thinking. 
Some events defy natural laws. Christians refer to these things as miracles, but naturalistic science must find a way to explain these occurrences naturally. This approach rejects miracles in the Bible because they cannot be explained using natural laws. Such scientists occasionally try to explain the miracles in the Bible as natural phenomena, but this ultimately undermines the authority of God and His Word.
Historical (Origins) Science: interpreting evidence from past events based on a presupposed philosophical point of view.
The past is not directly observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable; so interpretations of past events present greater challenges than interpretations involving operational science. Neither creation nor evolution is directly observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable. Each is based on certain philosophical assumptions about how the earth began. 
Naturalistic evolution assumes that there was no God, and biblical creation assumes that there was a God who created everything in the universe. Starting from two opposite presuppositions and looking at the same evidence, the explanations of the history of the universe are very different. The argument is not over the evidence—the evidence is the same—it is over the way the evidence should be interpreted. [1]
The fundamental problems with such an attempt to create a historical / observational science dichotomy is that in reality, one cannot draw such a line. As the National Center For Science Education notes:
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. [2]
Developmental biologist Paul Myers likewise points out the vacuity behind the special creationist attempt to create two tiers of science in order to evade what evolutionary biology tells us about natural history:
All scientific evidence is observational, but not in the naive sense that all that counts is what you see with your eyes. There is a sense in which some science is regarded as historical, but it’s not used in the way creationists do; it does not refer to science that describes events in the past. 
Maybe some examples will make that clearer. 
We can reconstruct the evolutionary history of fruit flies. We do this by observation. That does not mean we watch different species of fruit flies speciate before our eyes (although it has been found to occur in reasonable spans of time in the lab and the wild), it means we extract and analyze information from extant species — we take invisible genetic properties of the flies’ genomes and turn them into tables of data and strings of publishable code. We observe patterns in their genetics that allow us to determine patterns of historical change. Observation and history are intertwined. To deny the history is to deny the observations.
Paleontology is often labeled a historical science, but it doesn’t have the pejorative sense in which creationists use it, and it is definitely founded in observation. For instance, plesiosaurs: do you think scientists just invented them? No. We found their bones — we observed their remains imbedded in rock — and further, we found evidence of a long history of variation and diversity. The sense in which the study of plesiosaurs is historical is that they’re all extinct, so there are no extant forms to examine, but it is still soundly based on observation. Paleontology may be largely historical, but it is still a legitimate science built on observation, measurement, and even prediction, and it also relies heavily on analysis of extant processes in geology, physics, and biology. [3]
Patterson’s confusion on this point  quite likely betrays a superficial and confused understanding of the philosophy of science, a point that palaeontologist Donald Prothero makes quite effectively:
The contrast between more “observational” types of science and more “historical” science is indeed found in the literature of philosophy of science, but in no case do true philosophers of science argue that “historical” evidence is inferior or less trustworthy. Only creationists do that. Some philosophers and scientists have made the distinction popularized by Stephen Jay Gould, between the “nomothetic” (emphasizing the law-like, regular, predictable, experimental) aspects of science, and the “idiographic” (emphasizing unique, one-of-a-kind historical events). For example, Elliott Sober wrote: 
This division between nomothetic (“nomos” is Greek for law) and historical sciences does not mean that each science is exclusively one or the other. The particle physicist might find that the collisions of interest often occur on the surface of the sun; if so, a detailed study of that particular object might help to infer the general law. Symmetrically, the astronomer interested in obtaining an accurate description of the star might use various laws to help make the inference.  
Although the particle physicist and the astronomer may attend to both general laws and historical particulars, we can separate their two enterprises by distinguishing means from ends. The astronomer’s problem is a historical one because the goal is to infer the properties of a particular object; the astronomer uses laws only as a means. Particle physics, on the other hand, is a nomothetic discipline because the goal is to infer general laws; descriptions of particular objects are only relevant as a means.  
The same division exists within evolutionary biology. When a systematist infers that human beings are more closely related to chimps than they are to gorillas, this phylogenetic proposition describes a family tree that connects three species. The proposition is logically of the same type as the proposition that says that Alice is more closely related to Berry than she is to Carl. … Reconstructing genealogical relationships is the goal of a historical science. 
As is clear from this quote, and many others that could be found in the literature of philosophy of science, in no way is “historical” evidence considered inferior to “observational evidence.” They are a seamless continuum, with many kinds of problems using both evidence in parallel, or lines of evidence merging from one into another. Sober says so clearly, and I couldn’t conclude in a more clear fashion myself: 
Although inferring laws and reconstructing history are distinct scientific goals, they often are fruitfully pursued together. Theoreticians hope their models are not vacuous; they want them to apply to the real world of living organisms. Likewise, naturalists who describe the present and past of particular species often do so with an eye to providing data that have a wider theoretical significance. Nomothetic and historical disciplines in evolutionary biology have much to learn from each other. [4]
The previous quotations are hardly exhaustive, but they demonstrate that the YEC division of science into ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ is not one that reflects the reality of science. We would do well to avoid taking our intellectual lead from such intellectually disreputable sources as AiG.


[1] Patterson R “What Is Science?” Answers in Genesis Cited 7th January 2014

[2] “Historical Science” vs. “experimental science” National Center for Science Education. September 24th 2008
[3] Myers P.Z. “Historical and Observational Science” Pharyngula 27th July 2013

[4] Prothero D.R. “Is observational science better than historical science? Scientia Salon April 16, 2014