Observation and historical science: a distinction without a difference

Posted in Society at 17:58 by RjZ

Modern scientists make a giant assumption about the nature of the universe while almost never giving it a second thought. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s nearly the same assumption that religious proponents claim is the origin of modern science itself. Apologists (here’s one at random), remind us that modern science was fostered by religious institutions. Modern science and the scientific method that began around the enlightenment is founded on the fundamental premise that the laws of logic and nature are constant and ubiquitous (or nearly so). Scientists make take this for granted, but the devout have a more detailed answer: a perfect God created a perfect, consistent, universe.

During the recent debate between popular science proponent Bill Nye (the science guy) and Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis.org and the Creation Museum, Ham wanted to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Ham defended the compatibility of science and evolution by noting the achievements scientists and engineers who share his beliefs in young earth creationism. He insisted that understanding the Bible is necessary in understanding the laws of the universe, telling us that the laws of nature are consistent because God created the universe this way as the Bible tells us.

Meanwhile, much of Ham’s debate centered around novel categorization of observational science as opposed to historical science. The exact same observational evidence is available to Nye and Ham. It’s only when we move from what we can actually see to things we can never see, such as the past, that we must use historical science and, he explains we can’t assume it’s always been the same. Here’s an example. Ham refutes plate-tectonics as evidence of an earth older than 6000 years, suggesting that the rate of movement of the plates could change over time. “To assume it’s always been like that in the past, that’s historical science.” Throughout his presentation, Ham readily admits that his source for historical science is the Bible. Nye, he claims, has no where to turn for his justification.

If you’ve never heard of this observational vs. historical distinction before, you shouldn’t be surprised, it’s really only verbal sleight-of-hand. It may sound like a compelling difference between the two methods of inquiry, but suggesting there are two kinds of science isn’t even self-consistent with the rest of Ham’s claims, and “were you there?” certainly isn’t a very effective rebuttal, just because he uses it so often.

Plate tectonics wasn’t the only time Ham used a variation of his “were you there” argument. According to him creation scientists accept radioactivity because we can observe it, but we can’t assume that radio-dating works because the decay rates might not have always been the same. Hmmm. If God created a perfect world with constant laws of nature and the decay rates of strontium and rubidium haven’t changed for as long as we’ve been observing them, why should we think they were different in the past?

We weren’t there to watch sediment collect in ancient lakes and rivers but we can observe (with observational science) how fast it happens today. What reason do we have to think there were different deposition rates in the past? Trees we plant and cut down in our lifetimes build up a new ring for each year of their lives. What reason do we have to think that Swedish trees with 8000 rings spent a part of their lives laying down two, or three rings per year? Ham offered this possibility questioning whether we must “… assume one layer a year…” to explain why these rings falsely date the trees as living longer than God’s creation. We weren’t there, but doesn’t Ham also think that God isn’t changing the rules over time and that there was only one summer per year 6000 years ago just like there is today?

Ham is hoping we won’t notice that he’s both taking credit for the consistency of natural laws; citing them as justification for studying the Bible to become a better scientist, while at the same time rejecting Nye’s dependance on scientific discoveries to date rocks and fossils. We won’t be fooled so easily.

Nye pressed Ham over and over again about predictions. It’s easy enough, as Ham did many times, to suggest that the Bible correctly predicts things we all discover are true after the fact. In Jeremiah 51:15 we read “He made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.” 6000 years later Ham tells us this vague description is a prediction about the expanding universe. Even if we are impressed by this sort of cherry picking, isn’t science’s track record for predictions dramatically better?

Ham is cooking up yet another controversy where there isn’t one, like macro- vs. micro-evolution, but do we have to rely on the Bible to justify the consistency of natural laws? Why is Nye, and with him virtually every scientist, so convinced that the laws of nature can be trusted to behave in the past as they appear to now? Simple. The assumption is built into every hypothesis and if things work out well, we can accept it until we find a contradiction. A complete hypothesis might go like this: An apple and the earth will fall toward each other as a result of gravity [and they'll do so here, there, yesterday and tomorrow]. It is is tiresome to have to restate that bit in the brackets every single time, but every successful hypothesis is evidence for the bracketed assumption.

Science is just darn effective. The predictive power of science that Nye pressed Ham to compare his creationism against is, in itself, tremendous evidence that this, often unspoken, unconsidered, assumption really is valid. There is no new controversy, no real distinction between observable and historical science. We do make a leap of faith when we make observations about the past without seeing it with our own eyes. The real question is whether we believe that occasional cherry picking or repeated explanatory power is a better justification for that faith.

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