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Historical and operational science

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"Historical science" is a term used to describe sciences in which data is provided primarily from past events and for which there is usually no direct experimental data, such as cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, geology, paleontology, archaeology, and the sub-field of geology known as petrology. Creationists often misuse the term by applying it to any science that "interpret[s] evidence from the past and includes the models of evolution and special creation".[1] "Historical science" covers those sciences which creationists have complaints about, such the Big Bang, geologic timeline, abiogenesis, evolution, and the nebular hypothesis,Wikipedia and which they see as the opposite of operational or experimental science.

"Operational science" (not to be confused with Operations researchWikipedia) is a term coined by creationists for any science that "deals with testing and verifying ideas in the present and leads to the production of useful products like computers, cars, and satellites."[2] (Compare the safer topics of applied scienceWikipedia — or, indeed, technology.Wikipedia) In practice, of course, it may take a while before silly-sounding abstract blue-sky ideasWikipedia (about, say, very small particles or string theory) may lead to the evolution of "useful" products (like atomic bombs or wormhole travel-craft). So perhaps there's hope for scientific minds working on abiogenesis or on the documentary hypothesis yet...

Scientific consensus does not regard the term "operational science" or the creationist understanding of "historical science" as valid scientific terminology, and these heresies primarily appear in arguments presented by creationists about whether ideas such as the Big Bang, geologic timeline, abiogenesis, evolution, and the nebular hypothesisWikipedia are really scientific. As Bill Nye pointed out when debating Ken Ham, even Ken Ham admits that the distinction is entirely a creationist invention, and no scientist not on the Answers in Genesis (AiG) payroll agrees with him about it.

Support for historical science[edit]

In her 2001 paper, "Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method,"[3] Carol Cleland of the Department of Philosophy and Center for Astrobiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder writes:

Many scientists believe that there is a uniform, interdisciplinary method for the practice of good science. The paradigmatic examples, however, are drawn from classical experimental science. Insofar as historical hypotheses cannot be tested in controlled laboratory settings, historical research is sometimes said to be inferior to experimental research. Using examples from diverse historical disciplines, this paper demonstrates that such claims are misguided. First, the reputed superiority of experimental research is based upon accounts of scientific methodology (Baconian inductivism or falsificationism) that are deeply flawed, both logically and as accounts of the actual practices of scientists. Second, although there are fundamental differences in methodology between experimental scientists and historical scientists, they are keyed to a pervasive feature of nature, a time asymmetry of causation. As a consequence, the claim that historical science is methodologically inferior to experimental science cannot be sustained.

The National Center for Science Education points out on their website that:[4]

Philosophers of science draw a distinction between research directed towards identifying laws and research which seeks to determine how particular historical events occurred. They do not claim, however, that the line between these sorts of science can be drawn neatly, and certainly do not agree that historical claims are any less empirically verifiable than other sorts of claims.

Michael Shermer writes in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things, that:

Science does deal with past phenomena, particularly in historical sciences such as cosmology, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology. There are experimental sciences and historical sciences. They use different methodologies but are equally able to track causality. Evolutionary biology is a valid and legitimate historical science.

Claims by creationists[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Anti-science

In the words of Answers in Genesis:[5]

Recognizing that everyone has presuppositions that shape the way they interpret the evidence is an important step in realizing that historical science is not equal to operational science. Because no one was there to witness the past (except God), we must interpret it based on a set of starting assumptions. Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence; they just interpret it within a different framework. Evolution denies the role of God in the universe, and creation accepts His eyewitness account[note 1] and that the God — the Bible — as the foundation for arriving at a correct understanding of the universe.

AiG claims that both creationists and gravitationists — you know, evolutionists — make assumptions about how the universe works. Still, they accuse the second group of "denying" their god's work. This "denial" — as allegedly perpetrated by so-called evolutionists — is really just searching for facts and evidence while making the least assumptions and without having a biased presumption on what they will/should find. When science makes an "assumption", that assumption in fact begins as a falsifiable hypothesis which can either pass the test by fitting in the evidence mold, or be modified to hone its accuracy using subsequent findings, or fail completely and be rejected. A scientific theory is well past the hypothesis stage. Finally, why of all the scientific theories is biological evolution the one that somehow contradicts their scripture, but not (anymore) the heliocentric model or an ellipsoid-shaped Earth?

Other examples of "non-operational" science[edit]

History is not the only barrier to direct viewing and repeating in science. Many of the famous examples of solid scientific discoveries were, and are, not open to direct viewing and repeating. Things which are too small or too big, too fast or too short, or too distant or too hard to get to, all provide substantial grist to science's mill.

Newtonian science discovered that gravity applied to all of a space, not only to the surface of the Earth. Not until the 20th century was it possible to make repeatable tests of Newton's laws more than a few miles above the Earth. (And even today, we can dig only a few miles down to learn first-hand about the interior of the Earth.) An opponent of Newton's physics could ask, "Are you there?" (Only God is in outer space to see (or otherwise observe) what is going on there. Corollary: cameras aboard artificial human-made space-probes count as divine.)

Much of quantum mechanics relies on the reality of electrons and other sub-atomic particles and forces that cannot be directly observed. The chemical bond, electronics, and nuclear physics make sense only by these unobservables.

An early scientific discovery is that the Evening Star ("Hesperus") and the Morning Star ("Phosphorus") were observations of the same object, Venus. Direct observation of the transition change was not possible because the Sun would hide it, either as it happens on the far side of the Sun, or — as it happens on the near side — in the glare of the Sun. The shadow was not seen until a transit of Venus was observed in 1639. (Of course, the identity was so accepted by everyone by then that this "confirmation by operational science" was not worth remarking on.)[note 2]

In the early 19th century, August Comte wrote in The Course in Positive Philosophy (Cours de Philosophie Positive) that we could never determine the chemical structure of the stars. Yet now, with spectroscopy, we can do just that. In fact, the study of the stars' composition began just a few decades after Comte dismissed the idea.


  1. This assumes that the Bible is a reliable case of eyewitness testimony (anecdotal evidence is notoriously weak for many reasons, not the least of which is eyewitness fallibility), and that God is also an honest narrator, when the Bible itself states that God is not an omniscient being. Why would an omniscient being need to ask Cain where Abel is, for instance?
  2. Much of the information about this discovery is to be found in the discussion about the philosophical topic "Frege's Puzzle". The recognition that the bright light which appears in many mornings is one and the same object (the Sun) is also "non-operational".