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.


  1. Curt said,

    February 11, 2014 at 13:50

    I missed the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm, and probably wouldn’t have watched it if I had the opportunity. The controversy annoys me. It seems like the whole debate has devolved into a political controversy where its more important to win an argument and humiliate your opponent than to actually get to the truth. A search for truth doesn’t seem to be a part of anyone’s agenda. There is a lot of intellectual dishonesty present on all sides with arguments increasingly involving ridicule rather than reason and opinions presented as fact. Probably the worst offenders are the evolutionists. You state that science is darn effective because of its predictive power. Of course I agree. As a structural engineer my education is in applied physics. We can design buildings, confident that they will stand, because the principles on which the designs depend work every time in every laboratory in the universe. Evolutionists inevitably say that they depend on science as they ridicule faith for creationists. But is evolution really science? Just what is predictable about it? If any of its principles could be extrapolated there would be engineers doing that. I suppose “Genetically Modified Organisms” (Roundup-ready soy beans or corn or wheat) could be used as an example of applied science in this regard, but in the end they aren’t making new species or something that’s never existed before. When everything is done its still soy beans, corn and wheat.
    Evolutionists are pretty quiet about abiogenesis, the process by which life arose from non-living matter. To me the term, abiogenesis, is an attempt to relabel or re-spin Spontaneous Generation to remove all the bad connotations associated with that due to all of the bad science in its history. Certainly spontaneous generation is open to ridicule and it seems to me that life arising from nonliving matter is the Achilles heel of evolution. Life arising from nonliving matter is a miracle by anyone’s definition since it has never been demonstrated in a laboratory anywhere ever. Until a living thing can be produced from nonliving matter, assertions about how life arose are a matter of faith regardless of who you are. The hypocrisy of insisting that evolution is established science, repeatable and predictable, when a major tenet is a matter of faith, is just too much – especially if faith is being ridiculed when this assertion is being made.
    I think I’d be more inclined to listen if anyone would admit that their position has difficulties, but the admission that you could be wrong is probably fatal in winning the argument in the current politics of the debate. Truth be damned. Having difficulties isn’t the same thing as being wrong and science is supposed to be about exploring the difficulties to find the truth where ever it goes, but in the current climate I can’t help but think that truth would be suppressed if it is inconvenient.

  2. RjZ said,

    February 11, 2014 at 14:52

    First, Curt, thanks so much for your comment! Very thoughtful and well reasoned!

    I’ll take a stab at addressing some of the concerns you raised, even though I’m not actually an authority on this topic either (and was posting more about the structure and flaw of an argument, than about the actual evidence presented.)

    ” Just what is predictable about [evolution]?” Well, let’s say that, as a result of understanding how evolution works, we make a prediction about genetic diseases and how they will propagate over time. Well, before I go there, evolutionary theory actually predicts inherited traits which were unknown at the time of evolution’s first presentation, so that, in itself, is a prediction…but back to genetic diseases, suppose I want to understand how a disease like, say, AIDS, might propagate from one species to another. Evolutionary theory helps me to understand the mechanism, make a prediction about how it might occur and then verify that prediction. I can use evolutionary theory to look at traits in a given population and trace back to where these first occurred in the population. This sort of prediction goes like this: if evolutionary theory is correct, then I expect to see this trait in this many individuals with a specific phenotype. Let’s go look! Oh, hey, there it is, awesome, go evolutionary theory!

    Now I suppose from your comment you’re going to say: but where are the new species? That’s irrelevant to its predictive nature. If I assume that evolution explains how new species develop and then make predictions, thanks to what I’ve guessed about evolution, then those predictions strengthen the presumption, even if I never got to test the broader claim.

    Think of plate-tectonics. If I look at the continents and say, hey, they look like they might fit like puzzle pieces, (that’s my hypothesis) which way would they be moving, if they’re in fact moving, to explain their current locations? (That’s my prediction). Then I go and measure, ha! they’re moving, and in the direction I thought they’d be going! That’s my evidence, even though I haven’t yet been able to go back in time and see them stuck together (just as I haven’t maybe witnessed a new species popping out of a previous one.) [Plate tectonics, by the way, support evolution because we predict certain animals to be in certain places and not others thanks to expecting both theories to be true. And voila, no kangaroos anywhere but Australia. Were the Ark theory, for example, true, we'd predict that there should be 'roo fossils across Asia, but there aren't any....]

    “Evolutionists are pretty quiet about abiogenesis” That’s absolutely true. They’re also quiet about quantum mechanics and the theory of money. It’s not the same thing and evolutionary theory’s inability to comment on nuclear physics or abiogenesis doesn’t say anything about its veracity.

    You’re right that issues of “how life arose are a matter of faith” but be careful not to presume that this observation strengthens either side of the debate. There is no “hypocrisy of insisting that evolution is established science, repeatable and predictable, when a major tenet is a matter of faith” because abiogenesis isn’t a major tenet of evolution.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily true that “the admission that you could be wrong is probably fatal in winning the argument,” nor am I concerned that “having difficulties isn’t the same thing as being wrong” but I can’t speak for others. I can’t say I actually got that from either participant in the debate I watched, although I did get the latter, that difficulties, like not being able to explain abiogenesis, was presumed by the post debate commentators as evidence of failure and ‘wrongness.’

    You sound too insightful to fall into this trap yourself.

    Again, thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Curt said,

    February 11, 2014 at 18:21

    Probably a large part of my annoyance with the evolution/creation debate is the certainty with which so many, especially scientists who ought to know better, make their pronouncements. One thing that’s really been brought home to me over my career as a structural engineer is how complex the physical world is. Most of the basic principles of physics and mathematics that apply to my field have been known for hundreds of years, but research is going on all of the time. Some of the philosophical changes in building and bridge design in recent years due to recent research have been absolutely fundamental. Even so, every engineer knows (or ought to know) how imperfect our mathematical models are for practically everything. We make simplifying assumptions all of the time cause even the simplest problems are highly complex and are unworkable without the simplifications. The more sophisticated the model, the more careful a person has to be with it to avoid errors. My point is that most things are very complicated. Difficulties are inevitable. And I wish that people, especially the ones most in the know, would acknowledge it. I’m not saying this with you in mind. I’m just annoyed by the whole tenor of the debate and lack of intellectual honesty all around.
    Having just said that I think most things are very complicated, I have to admit that my statement that I don’t think that evolution offers the ability to predict is a pretty big simplification. But I think that it’s true especially as compared to something like structural engineering. Which is too bad. Evolutionary biologists should have a lot to say about the future effects of global warming because they have been studying the adaption of creatures to their climate and to changing climates through history. And if they can make accurate predictions about adaptation, they should be able to offer some help. But everything I hear is that there is going to be massive extinctions due to loss of habitat. Nothing will adapt and there is nothing that will help short of climate restoration. Obviously this is of enormous concern. Maybe this is a reliable verifiable repeatable scientific prediction – and I’m just not listening, or not accepting it, or I’m just frustrated that the options are limited to two things and there’s no help in between.
    With regard to plate tectonics, I’m not sure a person can say definitely that it supports evolution or not. I think its fascinating that giant land turtles are found only in the Galapagos Islands and in the Seychelles half way around the world. Both places have plants and animals that are found nowhere else, but they have the giant tortoises in common. How is that even possible? Perhaps its about the extinction of the species everywhere else. I don’t know. The remains of elephants, camels, and hippos and horses (prior to Europeans bringing them) dating to the not so distant past have been found near my home in Nebraska. Obviously, extinction explains the current lack of animals here in North America that we tend to think of as being native only to Africa.
    I think you’re wrong about abiogenesis being an issue that is completely disassociated from evolutionary biology. There would be no debate between evolutionists and creationists if the origin of life were not a critical concern to both sides. It seems unthinkable to me that evolutionists can allow that there could be a Creator who made living things. It is a violation of the basic premises of evolution that the development of living things is due to chance over along periods of time. The existence of a Creator making life negates chance since the presence of life would be intentional and it would negate the requirement of long periods of time as well since long periods of time wouldn’t be necessary for the development of living things. I think the absence of a Creator is axiomatic to evolutionary theory and therefore it has to own abiogenesis because its the only other explanation out there for life arising from non-living matter. If there’s another option for life arising from non-living matter I’m not aware of it. Abiogenesis has to be a major tenet of evolution because the only other option for the existence of living things is a Creator.

  4. RjZ said,

    February 12, 2014 at 9:38

    I really want to give you the last word, Curt, but I must respond to your characterization that it is “unthinkable to me that evolutionists can allow that there could be a Creator.”

    Of course they could, and literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of millions do.

    One could believe that God created the universe and watches over His creation (aka deism).
    One could believe that God fine-tuned the universe, that He created the conditions for life to exist.
    One could believe that God intervenes from time to time (but we’re not sufficiently sophisticated to observe it)

    None of these or many other options refutes evolution or God.

    Evolution does remove the requirement for God’s intervention to create the diversity we observe. God may be around, but if you choose not to believe in Him, you at least can begin to explain one of the most difficult problems we see: where did all variety come from. You, and many, many others are quite free to believe that a Creator is involved and influences your life and the victory of your favorite sports team. Evolution merely gives you an explanation for the incredible diversity we see, without needing to resort to the supernatural.

    Unfortunately, for atheists and materialists, there is, as yet, no widely accepted theory for abiogenesis, which is not to say there aren’t any, and perhaps many folks find these explanations sufficiently explanatory. Of course, it’s perhaps an even bigger question than where did the diversity come from. You knock down one tree, and there are many more behind it…. However, you make a critical error when you suggest “the only other option for the existence of living things is a Creator.” The other option is quite simply I don’t know.

  5. RjZ said,

    February 12, 2014 at 9:42

    Oh, by the way, for all this complaining about the certainty scientists display, you probably ought to watch that debate after all. When Bill Nye is asked a few tough questions, he doesn’t equivocate or make excuses. He proudly exclaims “We don’t know!” Check it out, maybe it will re-kindle your faith in scientists.

  6. Curt said,

    February 13, 2014 at 9:24

    I have to agree that its good to hear someone say that they don’t know. There should be more of that and the debate should be more civil. It is correct that that another option when no others seem to exist is simply, ‘I don’t know’.

    I have my own “by the way” — by the way, you’ve got some great pictures on Flickr. I’ve really enjoyed looking at them. I wish I could visit some of the exotic places you’ve been. Thanks for letting me experience them vicariously.

Leave a Comment