“Historical science”

Matthew_Shultz_webHere’s another faulty argument from The ghetto of apologetics “science”. A trick that creationists use to discredit scientific findings and justify by default their own “supernatural” explanations. This is their mechanical classification of science into “historical science” and “experimental science.” The creationist NZ blog True Paradigm was promoting this recently (see Types of science).

The usual philosophical “authority” used for this classification is Stephen Meyers, Executive Officer and co-founder of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for science and Culture. The intelligent design think tank and poliitcal promoter. He outlined it in his 1990 Ph D thesis “Of clues and causes: a methodological interpretation of origin of life studies.”

An opening for “supernatural agency”

Briefly, creationists argue that the scientific method really only applies in “experimental science” (sometimes also referred to as “operational” or “empirical science”). This is because laboratory experiments can be repeated and observations and measurements take place in the present. They sometimes also argue that this means “supernatural” explanations must be excluded – but  I think that’s just a tactical concession.

They claim scientific methodology has no special role in “historical science” (also called “inferential,” “event” or “origins science”). Because past events maybe one-offs, not repeatable and not capable of direct observation. They argue, therefore, that “supernatural agency” or “supernatural” explanations are just as valid, if not more so, than scientific “stories.” Notice that other apologetics/creationist trick? Critique a scientific approach and then declare the non-scientific one winner by default – without any critical assessment of it!

Now, at first sight, the layperson may at least buy into the argument that “historical science” has some differences to “experimental science”. After all we can’t put historical events into a test-tube. Nor can we repeat them under controlled conditions. Many events only occurred once. So far we have only one example of the formation of life, or of the universe.

A scientific approach

But the differentiation of science into “historical” and “non-historical” branches, let alone the denial of the legitimacy of the scientific method in “historical science,”  is not a real issue in science. Search for the term “historical” science and you will find most references are from creationist sources. However, the philosopher of science Carol Cleland provides a good scientific discussion of the concepts in her papers “Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method” (download pdf here) and Methodological and Epistemic Differences Between Historical Science and Experimental Science.” She provides a theoretical analysis and plenty of examples comparing experimental and historical scientific research. Her conclusion – “the claim that historical science is methodologically inferior to experimental science cannot be sustained.”

There are differences between all branches of science. All science is difficult but each branch has its own problems.We need to use different technologies and methods. The resulting data sets have different levels of statistical certainty.  Our ability to control other factors varies – actually “test tubes” are hardly ever used in scientific investigations these days. And even experimental laboratory science can, in essence, be historical. I can investigate the mechanism of a chemical reaction under controlled conditions in the laboraoty. But I don’t directly observe the mechanism. I measure the historical effects of the reaction by analysing the reaction products and determining changes in concentrations after the reaction event.

A balanced approach

To provide a balance here are some of the problems of “experimental science” and advantages of “historical science:”

We can control conditions and repeat experiments in the laboratory but this simple reductionism could mean that important factors are not considered. The conditions are artificial so results may not apply to real world situations. Extra work is usually required to put things into context. What seems like repeats of an experiment may actually be investigation of different conditions, or experimental redesign because the inital design was based on incomplete information.

A major problem with researching past events is loss of evidence over time. We can find fossil and isotope ratio evidence of soft bodied life forms back to 3.8 billion years but it’s hard to imagine what evidence the early stages of chemical evolution preceding life have left. (Although – don’t give up. Its amazing what we can find).

An advantage with past events is that there is usually multiple lines of evidence (instead of the single line in laboratory experiments). Consider the differtent evidential lines pointing to the reasosn for extinction of the dinosaurs – crater, ammonite fossils, shocked quartz, iridium in the K-T boundary, etc.  Multiple hypotheses can be compared and tested simultaneously. Usually lines of evidence will converge on one or a few hypotheses. And there can be new discoveries, and therefore new unexpected lines of evidence, occurring during the investigation.

The separate classification can be artificial also because laboratory experiment and “historical science” are often intertwined. An example is the laboratory investigation of chemical and mineralogical reactions at high temperature and pressure. This contributes to our understanding of geological and pedological transformations occurring over time. Investigations such as those planned for the Large Hadron Collider will contribute to our understanding of processes occurring in the first seconds of the formation of the universe. Observations of nucleosynthesis in various different types of stars, together with presence of certain radioactive elements in meteorites, helps us understand process that occurred during formation of our solar system (see Building blocks of early solar system came from nearby star). And our understanding of the origin of life on earth and elsewhere is being improved by laboratory experiments of possible or likely early organic chemicals and their evolution.

The world view trick

So, like any ideologically motivated and mechanical classification the separation of science into “historical” and “experimental” branches, and denial of authenticity to “historical science,” is dishonest. An attempt to justify an approach to reality (introduction of a “supernatural entity”) which is not supported by evidence. In fact to remove the need for evidence.

religious apologists love to talk about “world views.” It’s another trick from the apologist ghetto – attempting to discredit scientific findings by claiming ideological bias. However, the bias lies with the apologists. They try to replace the evidence-based scientific world view with the world view of theocratic mythology.

In fact this is an attempt to promote a worldview which replaces evidence based science with theocratic mythology. Which raises the question of “word view” – another argument permeating the apologist science ghetto.

(* Cartoon – Mathew Shultz, from Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientific Integrity, Cartoon Competition).


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4 responses to ““Historical science”

  1. Nice post, and I need to read the bits by Cleland, since it seems to tie into some of the stuff I’ve read on historical evidence vs predictions.

  2. Jim Thomerson

    I don’t think about this very much, as I think the thoughts I have are trivial. First, exact replication is impossible. Two test tubes sitting side by side do not have the exact same position in the universe therefore various factors are not the same. If replications are separated by time, the experiments are conducted at different places in the larger universe and conditions are not the same. Second. All science is historical. All observations, once made, have occurred in the past.

    So there!

  3. JUSS GO TO HELL DUDE I DONT LIKE YHU……………………… and I Beleive that God Mad The Universe! ;) Have a Nice Day!

  4. James Merryweather

    Thanks for this. The concept of ‘historical sicence’ (not to mention ‘historical biology’) was new to me until I was sent a copy of the address given by the recently appointed Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) posted here: http://christianobserver.org/dangerous-pseudoscience/
    It’s packed with creationist nonsense, including a ‘quotation’ from Daniel Dennett (presumably purporting to be from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 63) given as: “… evolution is a ‘universal acid that dissolves every ethical and moral system it encounters.’” The real and fake versions contain very different messages! About the mendacious version ‘quoted’ by the Rev Graeme Craig (probably plagiarised from Jerry Bergman of AiG) Dennett has told me (e-mail): “It is all a complete fabrication.” Ditto the new discipline, ‘historical science’, of which scientisist themselves are unaware.

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