Is observational science better than historical science?

by Donald R. Prothero

One of the recurring themes at the February 4, 2014, debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham [1] was Ham’s continuous 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). I was part of the team that coached Bill Nye before the debate, and we told him to expect this over and over again. Sure enough, Ken Ham beat it to death. This strange distinction is one of the main talking points for Ham, although he clearly used it because it is widespread through the Young-Earth Creationist literature. For example, creationist Charles Thaxton [2] contrasts the supposedly reliable operations of (experimental) science with the “speculative” science of origins. The 2007 creationist textbook Explore Evolution distinguished “experimental science” from “historical science” [3]. Geisler and Anderson [4] distinguish “empirical” or “operational” science from “forensic” or “origins” science. In their words:

It is the proposal of this book that a science which deals with origin events does not fall within the category of empirical science, which deals with observed regularities in the present. Rather, it is more like a forensic science, which concentrates on the unobserved singularities in the past. … A science about the past does not observe the past singularity but must depend on the principle of uniformity (analogy), as historical geology and archaeology do. That is, since these kinds of sciences deal with unobserved past events (whether regular or singular), those events can be “known” only in terms of like events in the present. … The great events of origin were singularities. The origin of the universe is not recurring. Nor is the origin of life, or the origin of major new forms of life. These are past singularities over which creationists and evolutionists debate. Evolutionists posit a secondary natural cause for them, creationists argue for a supernatural primary cause.

Many examples could be found in the older creationist literature, going back to the publications of Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and the “Acts & Facts” series of the Institute for Creation Research. Among currently active creationists, Ray Comfort uses it often as well [5], and I’ll bet it’s part of the curriculum in evangelical creationist schools like Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, Bryan College, and many others. In the debate, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to recognize any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists [6] have pointed out, this distinction is bunk, and only Ken Ham and the Young-Earth Creationists seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he repeats this phony artificial distinction because it serves his purposes. Each time Nye pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the stupefying assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Nye was too much of a gentleman to raise the obvious challenge ask Ken how he can possibly know this. As Ham always puts it, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to discredit and throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but untenable distinction that serves his purposes — but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think.

As P.Z. Myers commented [7] 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”). As Myers puts it:

All scientific evidence is observational, but not in the naive sense that all that counts is what you see with your eyes. There is a sense in which some science is regarded as historical, but it’s not used in the way creationists do; it does not refer to science that describes events in the past.

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 — apparently without realizing it. At one point, he even seemed to concede that some stars were more than 6000 light-years away, which contradicts his assertion that the earth is only 6000 years old — unless he wanted to fall back on Gosse’s strange Omphalos argument and claim that objects were made to look as if they had an ancient past. Instead he made this astounding statement [8]:

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!

Apparently, Ham does not grasp the concept of light-years, which makes sense. Because he cannot admit that anything happened before 6000 years ago, he must construct strange, unfounded “explanations” for this uncomfortable reality. No matter how much he tries to rationalize the meaning of “light-year,” if something is millions of light-years away, then it really 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. Ham here clearly displays his complete ignorance of real science.

In addition, if Ham were correct about the nature of science, we could not 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 want to assert that chemistry and atomic physics are not real sciences because we can’t watch their objects of study in real time? If he does, how does he explain all the things we have learned and all the things we have invented using this knowledge?

When we coached Bill Nye for the debate, we knew this was coming, and gave Bill several examples to refute it. The best one is the television show “CSI” (an abbreviation for “Crime Scene Investigation”), which celebrates forensic science. If a crime is committed and no one saw the criminal, do the CSIs just shrug their shoulders and say “we can’t solve it”? Obviously, they don’t. The whole point of the show is that there are many clues all over the place that allow us to reliably infer things about the past, whether a few hours after a crime, or a few million years. Let’s say a burglar robbed Ham’s house while he was participating in the debate. Would he insist that the CSIs stop working the crime scene because he doesn’t believe in “historical science”? Not likely. Rather, 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.

Nye briefly mentioned CSI in his first segment. He indicated that Ham’s use of the phony distinction between historical and observational science was peculiar to creationism and completely false — but that did not stop Ham to going back to it again and again. Another angle that I suggested (though Nye did not use) was to bring up 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, Bill (the Planetary Society President), could have brought up the example of Halley’s comet. In 1705, Edmond Halley used Newton’s Laws and the historical record of comets going all the way back to 240BCE 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 allowed him to predict the comet would return in 1758, which did occur. 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 about 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.

So where do the creationists get the idea that this alleged distinction between historical and observational disciplines is recognized in science? One example is used by Ken Ham and many other creationists, such as Gordon Wilson, who said the following [9]:

I made it clear 9 years ago and this semester that I wasn’t going to promote my views or disparage evolutionary views in class. That said, I have stated that I do not share the views of common descent held by the main stream scientific community. Which is well within my rights to do. The only thing that I have presented (briefly) is a distinction between historical science and empirical science, and that conclusions drawn from the former don’t have the high level of certainty as conclusions drawn from the latter. This distinction is not a creationist invention. Ernst Mayr holds to this as well. The conclusions drawn from historical science are as good as the presuppositions on which they are based. This was simply a moment to encourage students to exercise some critical thinking skills in assessing truth claims of the scientific community.

He, and other creationists, quote Ernst Mayr (out of context) as follows [10]:

Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science — the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.

For example, three different scenarios have been proposed for the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous: a devastating epidemic; a catastrophic change of climate; and the impact of an asteroid, known as the Alvarez theory. The first two narratives were ultimately refuted by evidence incompatible with them. All the known facts, however, fit the Alvarez theory, which is now widely accepted. The testing of historical narratives implies that the wide gap between science and the humanities that so troubled physicist C. P. Snow is actually nonexistent — by virtue of its methodology and its acceptance of the time factor that makes change possible, evolutionary biology serves as a bridge.

However, if you read the entire context of the Mayr quote, in no way does he suggest that “historical science” is inferior or less reliable than “experimental” or “observational” science. That is a creationist distortion, designed to make what the scientists actually say sound like it supports their ideas. In many ways, it is analogous to the way creationists willfully misunderstand the meaning of the word “theory.” They act as if “theory” only meant a “wild, speculative scenario” (as in the popular usage), and do not acknowledge that to a scientist, a “theory” is a body of observations that is now well tested and supported. No matter how many times you correct them on this deliberate obfuscation, they will not abandon it because it fits their audience and their ideological agenda.

The contrast between more “observational” types of science and more “historical” science is indeed found in the literature of philosophy of science, but in no case do true philosophers of science argue that “historical” evidence is inferior or less trustworthy. Only creationists do that. Some philosophers and scientists have made the distinction popularized by Stephen Jay Gould [11], between the “nomothetic” (emphasizing the law-like, regular, predictable, experimental) aspects of science, and the “idiographic” (emphasizing unique, one-of-a-kind historical events). For example, Elliott Sober wrote [12]:

This division between nomothetic (“nomos” is Greek for law) and historical sciences does not mean that each science is exclusively one or the other. The particle physicist might find that the collisions of interest often occur on the surface of the sun; if so, a detailed study of that particular object might help to infer the general law. Symmetrically, the astronomer interested in obtaining an accurate description of the star might use various laws to help make the inference.

Although the particle physicist and the astronomer may attend to both general laws and historical particulars, we can separate their two enterprises by distinguishing means from ends. The astronomer’s problem is a historical one because the goal is to infer the properties of a particular object; the astronomer uses laws only as a means. Particle physics, on the other hand, is a nomothetic discipline because the goal is to infer general laws; descriptions of particular objects are only relevant as a means.

The same division exists within evolutionary biology. When a systematist infers that human beings are more closely related to chimps than they are to gorillas, this phylogenetic proposition describes a family tree that connects three species. The proposition is logically of the same type as the proposition that says that Alice is more closely related to Berry than she is to Carl. … Reconstructing genealogical relationships is the goal of a historical science.

As is clear from this quote, and many others that could be found in the literature of philosophy of science, in no way is “historical” evidence considered inferior to “observational evidence.” They are a seamless continuum, with many kinds of problems using both evidence in parallel, or lines of evidence merging from one into another. Sober says so clearly, and I couldn’t conclude in a more clear fashion myself [13]:

Although inferring laws and reconstructing history are distinct scientific goals, they often are fruitfully pursued together. Theoreticians hope their models are not vacuous; they want them to apply to the real world of living organisms. Likewise, naturalists who describe the present and past of particular species often do so with an eye to providing data that have a wider theoretical significance. Nomothetic and historical disciplines in evolutionary biology have much to learn from each other.


Donald Prothero is a paleontologist, geologist, and author who specializes in mammalian paleontology. His research has been in the field of magnetostratigraphy, a technique to date rock layers of the Cenozoic era and its use to date the climate changes which occurred 30-40 million years ago. He is the author or editor of more than 30 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five geology textbooks. His most recent book is Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future.

[1] The full debate is available online.

[2] Thaxton, C.B. (1984) The Mystery of Life’s Origins: Reassessing Current Theories. Allied Books, Ltd., London.

[3] Meyer, S., et al. (2007), Explore Evolution: Arguments for and against Neo-Darwinism. Hill House Publishers, New York.

[4] Geisler, Norman L. and J. Kerby Anderson (1987) Origin science: A proposal for the creation-evolution controversy. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 198 pp.

[5] See Pharyngula, 27 July 2013.

[6] Pharyngula, op. cit., Unreasonable Faith, January 2014; Ars Technica, February 2014; Slate, February 2014; The New Yorker, February 2014; NCSE entry on historical vs experimental science.

[7] Pharyngula, op. cit.

[8] At Answers in Genesis.

[9] Nothing in Biology, 26 February 2014.

[10] Scientific American on Darwin’s influence.

[11] Gould, S.J. 1980. The promise of paleobiology as a nomothetic, evolutionary discipline. Paleobiology, 6: 96-118.

[12] Sober, E. (2000) Philosophy of Biology 2nd ed., Westview Press: Boulder, CO. pp. 14-15.

[13] Ibid., p. 18.

23 thoughts on “Is observational science better than historical science?

  1. Good article! I think this problem of not understanding science properly is ultimately not limited to just creationist, even though they do make some of the most egregious errors. We do a disservice to young students interested in science by not covering topics of scientific epistemology and just focusing on feeding them facts, which leads to these very simple mistakes of “Well if I can’t see it, it didn’t happen, that’s science”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once something happens it is already history – whether it was a minute ago or a million years ago.


  3. I like the article and I agree of course with the main point that Ken Ham and his ilk are ignorant and use misleading incoherent arguments to criticise evolution.

    But I worry that we might be at risk of overstating a few points.

    I do agree with Ham’s intuition that what we can observe directly is generally more reliable than what we infer. This is the distinction Ken Ham is trying to make between observational science and historical science. It’s not so much about whether something happened in the past that’s important, it’s whether the evidence is direct, repeatable and easily interpreted or indirect, singular and more difficult to interpret.

    To be clear, the evidence we have for the broad strokes of the mainstream account of evolution is so good as to be undeniable by any well-informed honest person, but that doesn’t mean that it’s as certain as our models of phenomena we can observe directly every day.

    Still, it’s disingenuous of the creationists to argue that there are clear distinctions between “historical” and “observational” science. Rather there are differences of degree in directness of observation and ease of confirmation of findings. As the author notes, we’re dealing with a seamless continuum.

    However, I feel that the article makes a number of arguments which are not fair. The stars we can see may be thousands of years in the past but at least we can see them directly. Halley’s comet may have been discovered based on past observations, but it gave a clear unambiguous prediction which could be easily tested. The same goes for our inferences about subatomic particles. On these, Ham might well have been skeptical of the original findings, but given all that we have now built based on our models and especially our recent ability to directly image atoms and molecules he would presumably be persuaded (especially as none of this contradicts the Bible!). Remember that he is not arguing that inferences cannot be correct, only that inferences are less reliable the more indirect they are. Demonstrating examples of correct indirect inferences does not refute his argument.

    But we can’t directly perceive macroscopic evolution or measure the time elapsed since a fossil was formed. We (I would say correctly) interpret evidence such as genetic and phenotypic resemblances as well as radiometric dating to infer an account about how modern life forms came to be, but I would be far more surprised to learn that we were 1% wrong about value of the speed of light than that we were 20% wrong about the time since the Cretaceous extinction. Honesty demands that we acknowledge that the two are not on the same footing.

    ” to a scientist, a “theory” is a body of observations that is now well tested and supported.”

    This point is often made, but I don’t think it really matches usage. Of course I agree that ‘theory’ does not mean ‘hypothesis’, but string theory for example is not well tested or supported. My view (which is usually roundly rejected) is that usage seems to indicate that theory means a rigorous, extensive, formal body of knowledge built up based on some foundational hypotheses or axioms. In science, this usually only comes about once the foundational hypotheses are well-established, but this doesn’t have to be the case.


  4. I think you’re right to push back Despicable Me, but let me push back on the push back a bit. As I understand him, Ham advocates for a hard, never the twain shall meet, division between historical and observational science. In that context the point made by Prothero about the speed of light seems like a fair one.

    Relativity undermines the hard historical/observational distinction advocated for by Ham. That’s because measuring the star’s distance (observational) is the same as measuring the star’s place in time (historical). This fact not only undermines the idea a young cosmos, but (more importantly for Prothero’s point) shows that the line between observational and historical science can get blurry in a way Ken Ham’s simple dichotomy doesn’t acknowledge.

    There are two ways for a Creationist to overcome the challenge that relativity poses to their hard division between historical and observational science. The first is to engage in “Last Thursday-ism” in which God or Satan make the universe look older than it in fact is, rendering the historical implications of relativity moot. The second is to misconstrue what “light year” means. Since, as I recall, Ham doesn’t embrace the “Last Thursday-ism” explanation (for various theological reasons), he has to embrace the second option to maintain hard division between “historical” and “observational” science to hold up.


  5. Nice piece, Mr. Prothero, though I honestly wonder about the audience for it on this particular site. Recently Sean Carroll debated Ham in my neck of the woods, New Orleans, and I remember his followers, among which I’m one, suggesting that he was wasting his time and suggesting much of what you depict here. Sean later provided the youtube url for the debate. I watched about a third of it before deciding I could find a better use for my time. I sympathized when Sean nearly apologized to his followers for not doing a better job. But it really didn’t matter since those who agreed with Sean made themselves busy with assurances that he had won the debate while those who thought otherwise, well, they thought otherwise. All of which begs the question what the purpose of such exchanges are if not simply about skill in debate tactics and creating smoke-screens. Granted, I did not watch the whole debate, but it seemed to me that there are no real “winners” in such debates.

    Now, I long ago dismissed creationist argument, and I’m neither a scientist nor particularly astute when it comes to evaluating argument per se. I happen to enjoy reading various creation myths as myth, not science, and there is a long list of such myths to satisfy one’s curiosity in this matter here: And so, my first question is a rather general one, i.e., what purpose do you personally believe such debates serve?

    I’m particularly sensitive to what I believe are threats to the separation of church and state and thus feel that the underpinnings for these venues are essentially political in nature, not really about science or religious beliefs for most citizens regardless of their leanings.

    I have no problem with someone like Sean Carroll or Bill Nye participating as citizens in such debates to support the notion that some Christian fundamentalist, creationist belief blurs the distinction of separation of church and state (inasmuch as the contention is not that other creationist theories also are not given equal exposure) and while perhaps there is a place for Christian creationist myths, along with others, in a curriculum, that place is not in a course on scientific evolutionary theory. But I do wonder as a matter of practice whether the interests of science are best served in such matters. In other words, I’m concerned with the backfire effect of such venues.

    I offer this viewpoint while completely understanding that many scientists feel obliged to correct the notion that creationist evolutionary theory is in any way supported by current scientific theory. I’m just curious as to why no argument is made to include major creationist theories as a subject, outside of scientific subject matter, as a compromise.

    My second question is shorter, but is perhaps more complicated: Can you explain in greater detail what is meant by “seamless mix of things”? Adding another “ism” to the discussion hardly clarifies this matter for me, and the quote from P.Z. Myers that it is not what creationists maintain is less than enlightening in my opinion.


  6. Great article. It seems that the scientific method that was taught when I was in high school has fallen out of human conscience. But the fact that Nye even bothered to debate with someone who does not even believe in the scientific method is a little disturbing. There is no way to even the playing field with someone who basically decides that science as a method is not valid. I think it would be more instructive to hear two scientist who follow two different, even opposing, theories were to debate, based on the scientific method. Giving creationists the opportunity to debate with an evolutionary biologist suggest that both “theories” are just different ends of the same stick, that their is a didactic relationship between the two. I feel the debate just confused the issue further.


  7. In a way though the Young-Earth Creationists (like Ham) are more scientific than the Intelligent Designists. The Creationists try to warp science (to fit a biblical “history”) whereas the Designists (who accept the scientific “history” that the Universe is ~13.8b years old and the Earth ~4.54b years old) try to limit science (by proving that something “outside the naturalistic boundaries of science”* is required to explain the universe).

    * This is the syllabus a (proposed) course at Ball State University that is causing controversy:
    “The Boundaries of Science”


  8. A couple of sources people might be interested in: a new book “Understanding Evolution” by Kostas Kampourakis. You can read a review here and read the introduction here. It is available at the end of May.

    Kampourakis also has edited a book “The Philosophy of Biology: A Companion for Educators”
    in which Massimo has a chapter which I have on my reading list and entitled “The Nature of Evolutionary Biology: At the Borderlands Between Historical and Experimental Science.”
    I think you might be able to access this free from the link below:


  9. Good point, Philip.

    I checked out the link for the syllabus and note that of the texts only one is written by a scientist. Seems like this sort of thing would be offered as a philosophy of science course rather than honors science course.


  10. Hi Adam,

    Yes, the point made about light years is valid, as are many others, including the general gist of the argument that Ken Ham’s argument is incoherent.

    My point is that some of Prothero’s points were slightly unfair, so I don’t disagree with anything you say

    But I would say that last Thursday-ism has more plausible alternatives. The speed of light could be changing gradually over time, for example, which would distort our measurements. Or at least that’s an argument that seems to make sense on the face of it.

    Not that I actually give it any credence, of course. There are likely complex explanations for to show it doesn’t work.


  11. I think the creationists and the IDers are wrong in making this distinction. But I really cannot agree that this is something they are making up. I cannot even agree that most philosophers and an extremely broad segment of the general population disagree with them.

    Here’s a quote from the recent Kyle Johnson essay on the conflict between religion and science. “Testability: If a hypothesis makes no observable or novel predictions beyond what the hypothesis was originally introduced to explain, then it is unscientific.” Historical sciences do not
    make predictions. You might say history is all ad hoc. If it’s untestable, it’s unscientific. He said so plainly. It’s not that Johnson is some obscure modern figure saying this, it comes more or less from Karl Popper. Popper had a specific version called falsifiability which was refuted by Pierre Duhem and W.V.O. Quine. But as the cite shows, people just retreated to the vaguer term testable. But science is not a prediction algorithm. This view of the nature of science justifies the observational vs. historical science divide.

    Since there is no divide, evidently the view of science is wrong. Scientific explanations are fairly easily distinguished by their reliance on evidence garnered from experience. Originally the experience was direct observation and simple inference. But the accumulating store of knowledge permitted generalizations. Experience taught us that events have causes, that causes are impersonal and universal, that there is an objective universe, and other such essential notions that are simply incompatible with religious (and non-religious) superstitions.


  12. The course in question has long been cancelled. As far as I understand the beef is that it was replaced by another non science course which has a text which is heavily pushing the atheist viewpoint.

    That seems a fair complaint. The original course was not a required subject and the mathematician and scientist who wrote the texts are at least reputable. It did not pretend to be science, but rather philosophy of science.

    It seems to me that the DI have a point here. If they are going to cancel a course about the philosophy of science because it is weighted towards the theist viewpoint that is fair enough. But to replace it with a philosophy of science that is weighted toward the atheist viewpoint appears to be somewhat hypocritical.

    If they are going to ban discussion of science and religion then they should be consistent about it.


  13. And I can’t really see how, conceptually, you can limit something by exploring whether or not it has limits.

    Personally speaking, if I am doing a science course I would prefer they taught me science and did not try to push either theism or atheism onto me.


  14. I concur with the apparent consensus in this thread that this is a very instructive essay. I would make two points.

    One is on the question of whether events like the Nye-Ham debate should take place at all—from the point of view of supporters of science, of course (I have no idea what supporters of religious silliness think about this question). While it’s true that people like Ham and his followers are pretty hopeless when it comes to being instructed about the nature of science and rationality, since their minds seem to be in such a muddle that there is probably no place in them where even the simplest notions of rational thought can find purchase, I think there are also quite a few people out there who are seriously wondering whether the Bible or science gives a better understanding of the world, and it is possible that at least some of them might be attracted to such events by the chance to hear the views of a Ham and then find themselves agreeing at least a little with the science side of the debate, which they may never have been exposed to before. At least, it is clear that some naive religionists are being “deconverted” these days, suggesting that they have at least a flicker of rationality in their noggins somewhere. True, there may not be many such people, but we have to hope there are some.

    Secondly, there is the intriguing notion that the “historical science” of cosmology can’t tell us anything about the origin of the universe because “those arrogant, atheistic scientists weren’t there,” but believers in the Judaeo-Christian Bible do know for sure how the universe started. Why? Because God started it—“He sure was there, by gum”—and fortunately told us all about it in Genesis. I have seen this “argument” seriously proposed by any number of believers.

    This is related to the equally curious view that a Baptist, for example, may look forward to a wonderful eternal experience of heaven because he or she is preparing for it in the right way, whereas a Shiite Muslim, for example, is going about it all wrong. Of course the Muslim thinks the opposite. They might both stop and reflect that each of them has only one shot at getting into heaven (neither of them believes in reincarnation), so what makes each of them so positive that he or she is on the right track? (Yes, Monsieur Pascal, I’m looking at you.)

    The theory or theories of knowledge that such religious folks must have to be so sure they are right must be very strange. Certainly nothing like what I would recognize as a likely epistemology. But it has to be recognized that rationality, unfortunately, is a very fragile flower growing in the soil of the human brain, easily trampled under foot by the heavy tread of Ignorance. Or as Schiller famously wrote: “The gods themselves struggle vainly against stupidity.” And all of this applies as much to the elaborate mental constructions of the “sophisticated theologians” which opponents of the “New Atheists” are continually asking us to study as it does to the “common, ordinary folks in the pews.”


  15. zenner41, of course aside from what seems to me your rather stereotypical view of the two sides, those “religionists” could easily research this matter on their own if they wanted to be “deconverted.” Besides which, many established religions and denominations have no problem with established science on evolution. So I suspect there are both social and political aspects at play here.


  16. It’s a strangely constructed philosophy of science course. I actually am part of an effort to try to get more philosophy of science courses for science students but there is no need to get into issues of God in a philosophy of science class outside of helping us to understanding the difference between non-empirical and empirical claims and what science can address and not address. Most people would benefit IMHO, especially in understanding the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. If people are further interested in challenging metaphysical claims of God or naturalism, they can take the appropriate philosophy courses to do so.


  17. I would suggest you read Massimo’s book chapter I cited above to see why historical science can and does make predictions and is in no way inferior to observational methods.


  18. It looks as though you don’t care much for my view of religious believers. Very sorry about that, but I do think their world views are basically out of whack with the real world. However, if they choose to hold them, it’s OK with me, as long as they don’t harm anyone else.

    Yes, of course, there are many places to look for information and opinion on the religion/science conflict these days, and events such as the Nye/Ham debate are only a small part of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such events don’t broaden some minds.

    As for religions which have no problems with evolution, there are some people who have more or less understanding of the science of evolution and also profess various religions. How they combine these ideas with some consistency (assuming they care about making all their beliefs consistent, which many people don’t, especially) is up to them; various methods are possible. But what is not possible, I think, is messing with the science to make it consistent with their religious beliefs; the science is what it is. Generally, the folks who combine biological science and religion do it by altering their religious tenets from what was handed down over the centuries.

    For example, the people who originated the Abrahamic religions traditionally didn’t know anything at all about the history of life on earth as we now know it; the whole Adam and Eve story, etc., was an ancient myth that was composed long before there was even such a thing as scientific research, so it’s no surprise that today it has to go as a description of matters of fact, although it may still have some sort of moral or poetic meaning. The BioLogos Foundation people are still trying to find Adam and Eve in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, but I and many other people these days think they are pursuing a fruitless task. A lot of religious groups are very resistant to changing anything in their traditions, but as I say, science is what it is. You either have to modify your world view to accommodate it or live in another world from the real one, IMHO.

    I don’t know what you mean by social and political aspects that are in play; these are very vague terms. Socially, there are various segments of society with different levels of education and different groups they hang out with habitually involved in this subject, and one could say in very rough terms that people who don’t accept evolutionary theory as correct tend to be pretty conservative, but I don’t know that one could say anything more definite than that.


  19. No doubt if you waste enough ingenuity you can figure out at least one instance which can be interpreted as a prediction. Perhaps more. In geology, “predicting” widespread meteorological isotopes at the K-T boundary might be a notable example. Nonetheless, I must insist that geologists do not customarily make predictions, then test them. In particular, even when you find “predictions” in an historical science like geology, they are not customarily tested in controlled experiments. Confirmations of inductions are not what is meant by testing, which, as I said, is an evasive substitute for exploded Popperism. Simulations are more common, but are they predictions? What does a negative result with a simulation mean?

    I repeat, science is not an abstract model tweaked to generate predictions. Somebody whose name I forgot (Mario Bunge?) once suggested that even if we had a magic computer that cranked out the numerical answers to lab experiments, we would still need to do science. I also believe a set of matching numbers, one labeled “before” and the other “after,” do not constitute a scientific explanation.


  20. zenner41, thank you for the lecture on what’s wrong with religion and religious adherents. The post is specifically about the distortion of scientific inquiry and established scientific evolutionary theory by Ken Ham in what I believe is his preposterous attempt to provide some pseudo-scientific wiggle room for those choose to persist in literalist Biblical creationist theories. It’s about the specious representation of science as a debate tactic.

    You unilaterally decided to broaden the context of this post to include such topics as belief in the afterlife. Why is this relevant in the context of this post? I happen to be an agnostic but find your rambling, sweeping generalizations to be insulting and off-topic. I mean really what is one to say to this statement: “there are various segments of society with different levels of education and different groups they hang out with habitually involved in this subject, and one could say in very rough terms that people who don’t accept evolutionary theory as correct tend to be pretty conservative, but I don’t know that one could say anything more definite than that.”

    This is laden with social and political commentary. “Pretty conservative”? I have to admit that I sometimes find it ironic when I encounter what are essentially polemical viewpoints that somehow set out on the self-appointed task of saving others from their dim-witted delusional thinking.


  21. imzasirf wrote: “t’s a strangely constructed philosophy of science course. “

    I agree. The same goes for its replacement. Given that all of this is available for anyone who is interested there is no reason for it to be in a science course.

    Proper philosophy of science, on the other hand, has a place in all science curricula


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