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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero, Feb 26 2014


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.

16 Responses to ““Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!”

  1. Sean says:

    As a History graduate, this distinction annoys me very much. Historians use what Ham refers to as Observational science all the time. Archaeologists use it when investigating objects. Cut marks on arrow heads and spear points show different cultures and technology spreading across time and regions; the presence (or lack) of certain isotopes in teeth can tell what a person subsisted on and therefore what geographical area and social status they inhabited; Bones can show clear evidence of violence and damage and can show if it happened during, before or after death.

    All these techniques use knowledge gained from OS but apply them to other similar objects to come to reasonable conclusions. Indeed, even the application still builds on OS because anything that conflicts with the current knowledge now needs accounting for.

  2. Bjørn Østman says:

    If Ham lived by this observational/historical distinction, he would live in a very strange world.

    If he walks into his office and finds his furniture moved around, he would conclude that some person has been there and done that, but he really couldn’t, as he wasn’t there.

    He could also not, like Behe and Dembski would, conclude that a watch was made by an intelligent designer. It’s like he completely dismisses natural laws: How can we know that the natural constants were the same in the past when we weren’t there to measure them (and write it down, because human testimony, according to Ham, is the only valid evidence of anything.

  3. Smilodon's Retreat says:

    No jury could ever convict anyone, because forensic science is observational and the crime was historical (not to mention the “where you there” argument).

    My favorite from John Pierot:
    But, if you want to extend the analogy to a 300 year old crime, that’s easy enough. The scene shows signs of a struggle and flesh and blood is found under the victim’s fingernails, DNA is extracted and sequenced, as is the victim’s DNA. 300 years later a body is found in a remote place, clutching a bloody knife. DNA is extracted from the blood on the knife and from the body. In the admirably efficient police department’s records is found an account of the crime (the victim was very, very famous) with records of the DNA sequencing done back then. The blood on the knife matches the victim’s DNA and the body’s DNA matches that found under the victim’s fingernails. Is there a reasonable doubt that the body is that of the killer, even though how he got from the scene of the crime to the spot he died is a “missing link”?

    The 300 year old crime came from a commenter at my blog.

  4. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    This claimed distinction of two ‘kinds’ of science by young earth creationists is simply a rhetorical device and a way of making denial of certain facts look intellectually respectable. And the idea that ONLY an eye witness account can tell us what really did or did not happen in the unseen past is ridiculous. Even if the ‘eye witness’ in question is God, because if so he is telling us stuff happened – such as a literally worldwide and hill-covering flood less than 5,000 years’ ago – that has left behind no confirmatory physical or historical evidence other than claims in one ancient sacred text.

  5. Brett Lee says:

    Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, not April 10, 1905.

  6. Mark Scurry says:

    I would think DNA evidence must be one of the stronger examples out there. People will happily accept DNA evidence if it convicts a criminal they’ve already decided is guilty, but if it tells us that humans share a gene with a gibbon or a shrew, then it can’t be trusted.

    I don’t know if this classifies as “observational v historical”, but the announcement this week of 4.374 billion year old zircon crystals in Western Australia would be a great example of at least very selective thinking. The first arguments I heard against it were “you can’t trust Carbon dating”. I tried (with difficulty) to explain that Carbon dating isn’t the only dating method used, and it’s nowhere near appropriate for something this old. But you can just bet if the results had said 6,000 years old, Creationists would be all in favour of it.

    Even though they weren’t there.

    • I would agree that DNA evidence today would be one of the strongest lines of “historical” evidence, largely due to shows like “CSI” and others which have popularized it. But just think back to the O.J. Simpson trial, when a stupid jury completely ignored the overwhelming DNA evidence against Simpson and let him walk free to commit further crimes (and he’s now dying in jail for those crimes)

  7. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    Answers in Genesis have ALREADY produced this (which I’ve recently flagged under a RELEVANT blog post at Questioning Answers in Genesis):

    • Mark Scurry says:

      Funny I mentioned the zircon crystals mainly as it was topical for this week, and as it was found here in Australia. I didn’t expect AiG to have anything up about it.

      Having read that article, and not being a scientist, nor someone with expertise on dating methods, it’s still close to the most stupid thing I’ve ever read. It actually says at one point:

      “This history sounds reasonable, but none of it was observed”. I’m guessing when it’s almost one BILLION years before live arose might have had something to do with that!

      I’m afraid I just don’t get the mindset that can come up with that “argument”.

  8. Drew Kosonen says:

    I have my own criticisms about Nye’s performance in the debate, but I think he did better than most people are saying.

    My main gripe was basically the same as you, Donald – I wish Nye would have focused a lot more on destroying this false dilemma because it was Ham’s main pillar. Halley’s comet is a good example he could have used, which you mentioned, but I did like that he brought up the “sound” of the big bang. I think his main fault was that refuted the argument piecemeal rather than taking away the foundation. I’m not a scientist, but I guess I would have said something like “Observational science encompasses all of science. We use what we observe in the present to understand the past and make predictions of the future.” His argument essentially sent that message, but he didn’t package it well in my opinion. Your summary of uniformitarianism would have also been a much better way to package it.

    I think you and Nye both mentioned this as well, but I wish he would have really hammered home the point of applied science. If natural laws were as fickle as Ham suggests they are, we would not be able to build or invent anything, or have any idea how long it would last.

  9. Ashley Haworth-roberts says:

    “It is not possible to accept this version of history, which is built on a host of unverifiable assumptions piled one upon another, without disregarding God’s Word and implying that He is a liar.” But fundamentalist Christians normally decide that then Bible must be God’s Word (not Man’s) and THEN read to see WHAT it says and INSIST that if any of it is contradicted by science then the science ‘must’ be wrong. A very biased approach.
    PS I plan a further short comment at the Questioning Answers in Genesis thread:

  10. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Ken Ham should be forced to listen to at least one hundred readings of “They” by Robert A. Heinlein. It strikes at the heart of why we think we know what we think we know.
    I won’t describe it here and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but recommend reading it for yourself if you haven’t yet. It’s a quick read and worth every second spent on it. And you won’t think of the Taj Mahal the same way ever again.

  11. Chad Spurling says:

    “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”

    What they will say is that the Universe was created “everywhere all at once” (which may be kinda true) with the light from the distant stars already reaching earth. So, then they don’t have to worry about the distance problems and the problems of light speed.

    • Which is exactly what Gosse did with his Omphalos hypothesis–and it makes God into a trickster, fooling us by making the universe appear old when it isn’t. They never think this stuff through…