One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.
As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think.
As P.Z. Myers posted in his Pharyngula blog:
It’s got that delightful combination of arrogant pretense in which the Bible-walloper gets to pretend he understands science better than scientists, and simultaneously allows them to deny every scientific observation, ever. This is the argument where they declare what kinds of science there are, and evolutionary biologists are using the weak kind, historical science, while creationists are only using the strong kind, observational science. They use the distinction wrongly and without any understanding of how science works, and they inappropriately claim that they’re doing any kind of science at all.
In reality, all science is a seamless mix of things we observe directly, and things we infer using natural laws extended into the realms of the past, the very distant, or the very tiny (what is called “uniformitarianism” or “actualism”). Using Ham’s distinction, we could never say anything about the universe, because most objects are so far away from us that their light has traveled hundreds to thousands of light-years or more to reach us. What we see already happened long ago. Yet in the debate Ham conceded that many objects in space are thousands or more light-years away, an admission that he is recognizing “historical” science—but he was probably not smart enough to realize this. At one point, he seemed to concede that some stars were more than 6000 light-years away, which even contradicts his assertion that the earth is only 6000 years old—unless he wanted to fall back on Gosse’s silly omphalos argument and claim that objects were made to look as if they had an ancient past. Instead he made this truly bizarre statement:
When we hear the term light-year, we need to realize it is not a measure of time but a measure of distance, telling us how far away something is. Distant stars and galaxies might be millions of light-years away, but that doesn’t mean that it took millions of years for the light to get here, it just means it is really far away!
Ummm….sorry, Ken, but if something is millions of light-years away, then it does take millions of years for its light to reach us. That’s how light years are defined—the distance that light travels in a year! And once again, Ham shows his complete ignorance of real science.
Nor could we say much about things at the very tiniest scale of things: molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. As anyone who has taken chemistry or physics knows, nearly all the properties of molecules or atoms were inferred years ago by indirect methods, using their chemical and physical behavior. No one could see molecules directly, much less atoms, when they were first discovered and described. (Only recently with the advent of scanning tunneling microscopes have we been able to image molecules and some atoms). So does Ham assert that chemistry and atomic physics are not real science because we can’t watch them in real time? If he did, he could never expect to benefit from all the things we have learned and all the things we have invented using this knowledge.
When we prepared Bill for the debate, we knew this was coming, and gave Bill several examples to refute it. The best one is the example of CSI, or forensic science. If a crime is committed and no one saw the criminal, does the CSI just shrug their shoulders and say “we can’t solve it”? NO! The whole point of the show is that there are many clues all over the place that allows us to reliably infer things about the past, whether a few hours after a crime, or a few million years ago. Let’s say a burglar robbed Ham’s house while he was not at home. Would he insist that the CSIs stop working the crime scene because Ham doesn’t believe in “historical science”? NO! He’d want them to use any science that would solve the crime–just like real scientists use any evidence available to solve the mysteries of nature.
Bill briefly mentioned CSI in his first segment, although I wish he’d stated it more clearly, as I did just now. He indicated that Ham’s use of the phony distinction between historical and observational science was peculiar to Ham and completely false—but since Ham kept on using it again and again, I was hoping Bill would slam back at it with other examples. Another one that I came up with (and wish Bill had used) was the predictive power of historical science. We study ancient earthquakes recorded in the sediments, and it allows us to predict future earthquakes. We study ancient volcanic deposits around active volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Rainier, and it allows us to predict their next eruption. In particular, I was hoping Bill the Planetary Society leader would use Halley’s comet. In 1705, Edmond Halley used Newton’s Laws and the historical record of comets going all the way back to 240 B.C. as well as famous appearances such as in 1066 (coinciding with the Norman conquest), 1456 (co-occurring with the fall of the Byzantine Empire), 1531, and 1607, to realize that all of these observations were of the same comet which passed by the earth every 75-76 years. Halley’s use of this historical data (which Ham would reject here, even though he accepts historical data when it supports the Bible) allowed him to predict the comet would return in 1758, and it did. Sadly, Halley himself never saw it, because he died in 1742. But this is a classic example of how science is a seamless whole. From inferences about the past drawn from various historical records Halley made a successful prediction of the future. That is science at its best.
I was fortunate to see Halley’s comet in 1986 during its last pass by earth. Although it was not as impressive as it was in 1066 or 1758, it was worth the effort to view it, because I won’t live long enough to see it again when it returns in 2061. One of the interesting quirks of history is that Mark Twain was born the year it arrived in 1835, and died at age 75 when it appeared in 1910. As he famously said,
I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.
Sure enough, Twain died on April 21, 1910, the day after the comet appeared in the sky.
These are just a few examples of why the distinction between observational and historical science is phony. I welcome the readers to post their own favorite examples.