“Historical science” is a bad argument

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The debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham that took place awhile ago brought to light an issue I’ve dealt with in my exchanges with creationists that I’d like to tackle with this post: observational science vs historical science. I thought Nye did an excellent job debunking this idea in the debate, but for those of you who didn’t see the debate or aren’t familiar with the idea, allow me to sum it up for you.

Basically, “historical” science or evidence amounts to, “if you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.” Presumably followed by a neener-neener and a stuck out tongue. This trope is probably the most common among creationists, and is basically used to “debunk” everything that mainstream science holds near and dear. “Dinosaur fossils? Sorry, but nobody was around 65 million years ago so they really prove nothing.” Those fossils could have ended up there at any time in history for a variety of reasons! “Carbon dating is useless because nobody was around to measure the initial amount of carbon in the sample. What a shame.” See also, “Well it sure is too bad that nobody was around to see that first fish crawl out of the water and onto the land, so I guess it’s impossible to prove it ever happened.”

The idea of “historical” evidence or science relies exclusively upon the idea that, barring direct observation, it’s entirely possible, indeed probable, that the laws of physics behaved differently in the past than they do in the present. The reason for this is…well, there really is no reason why anyone would want to believe that the laws of physics were different 100,000 years ago. Unless of course you wanted to undermine something that categorically disproved your entire way of thinking and living.

There is no logical reason to ever think that for some reason the laws that govern the universe now were ever different 1,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago, or 1,000,000 years ago. There isn’t one shred of evidence, not one piece of logic, not one well presented philosophical or reasonable argument that would point to this idea or anything like it being remotely true. It’s a canard, a red herring, pseudo-terminology. It has no basis in reality other than helping creationists to undermine mainstream science that they don’t like. Let’s explore some of the many reason why the idea of “historical” science and evidence is outlandish and ultimately detrimental to creationists.

1. It’s impossible to prove anything, ever. Suppose we’re out to coffee and I decide to tell you about this amazing thing that happened to me last weekend. I was home alone, bored as usual, so I decided to try to teach myself to juggle. So I went and grabbed three tennis balls, and lo and behold, much to my surprise, when I threw them in the air they just kept floating up and up and up! In fact, they never came back to the ground. They just floated up to my ceiling and remained there for the entire weekend. Now, a normal, rational person would have to conclude that thanks to a little thing called gravity, my story is essentially full of shit. After all, gravity functions everywhere, all the time, 24/7. However, according to “historical” science, my claim has validity! Since nobody else was around to witness this amazing phenomenon I just describe, it could be totally true; you don’t know it wasn’t, because you weren’t there!

2. We might as well throw every court case out the window. Forget physical evidence. Unless there was a witness, “historical” science would seem to dictate that all physical evidence is useless. Even if the police found the guy, holding the knife, standing over the dead body. The dead body that has the suspects DNA on it. The same suspect who had opportunity and motive to kill the victim. And the guy confessed to doing it. It wasn’t caught on tape? Nobody saw it happen? Well then how do you know the suspect killed the victim?! It’s impossible, because according to this creationist idea, things only happened if someone saw them happen. Which leads me to…

3. Who painted the Mona Lisa? Most sane people will answer Leonardo Da Vinci. I bet if I asked this question innocently and out of context of this argument, most creationists would even answer that of course it was Da Vinci. Except that, sorry, there’s no evidence to back that up. Nobody saw him paint it. There isn’t even anyone alive who saw him paint it. In fact, how do I know that Da Vinci was even a real person? Or one person and not an amalgamation of different people? I never met the man. Nobody alive on the planet did. All I have are these vague physical clues that could really be attributed to anyone, really…thanks, “historical” science!

4. It’s enormously hypocritical. Shocking, I know, but bear with me on this final point. If you’re going to have the chutzpa to make the claim that, “nobody was around to witness the birth of the solar system, so it’s impossible to prove your theories correct,” then that same logic also applies to the bible. That’s right, logic and reason are two way streets. You don’t get to just pick and choose to which ideas they apply. After all, nobody alive was around to see the bible being written. Nobody alive was around to meet Adam and Eve, to see the flood of Noah, or anything else that happened in the bible. So I guess we’ll never be able to prove that any of it actually happened. Darn it. If only the laws of the universe didn’t rely exclusively upon direct observation! Curses!

In reality, there is no “historical science”–there’s just science. If one subscribed to the ideas about evidence and science that creationists hold near and dear, it’s impossible to ever know anything about anything that happened outside of the lifetime of the people who are currently alive. If it happened before the invention of the camera, well you’re just plum out of luck then. Sorry. Oh, unless of course it’s the bible. We don’t need any direct observation to prove that every claim in that is true. But science? Pic or it didn’t happen!

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11 thoughts on ““Historical science” is a bad argument

  1. Well said. You’re point #4 was what I was thinking about as I started reading. In fact I’ll go a step further. Historical evidence shows that the gospels themselves weren’t even written by anybody that knew Jesus. At best, the first gospel to have been written, which if I remember is Mark, was written by someone who knew one of the Apostles. It was written some 30-60 years after Jesus died. And of course this goes for much of the bible. We can’t verify who wrote many of the books of the bible, nor does it seem many of them actually witness the events they describe.

    Modern geology functions on the principle of uniformitarianism which in layman’s terms mean “The present is the key to the past” which as you said physical laws now, have been in operation in the past as well. Since there is no evidence that physical laws change slowly or suddenly over time. So not only is it a pretty good assumption to make it provides a natural explanation to phenomena we see without the need of the supernatural. Erosion is slow, but over a million years we can make a grand canyon. Continental drift is slow, but over few 100 million years places that are tropical now had glaciers as evidenced by the fact that we find glacial sedimentary rock in these tropical locations that currently never have temperatures that drop below freezing. There a number of laws that we have understood well for several hundred years and they have not changed at all, why bother even having them if there is no reliability to them and the supernatural is a necessity to explain the things we observe? I get easily irked by this tired creationist argument too!

    1. Thank you for adding the part about the gospels! Pertinent history that plays right into why historical science is an absurd notion.

      I find it totally ridiculous that people unflinchingly believe that a talking snake convinced a woman made from a dude’s rib to eat an apple, yet if you want to make a claim about a fossil it’s subject to the “if a tree falls in the forest…” argument.

  2. I guess I would add…not really in creationists defense, but that I think the overall goal with the creationist line of argument is that everything is belief-based. That we must believe the physical laws were the same even though we didn’t witness it, and the atheist uses just as much faith to come to their world view than a creationist. Thus creation is equal in terms of being a valid theory to be taught in science classes or that religion is an equally valid way to run a country or determine laws, etc. Even if that were true, it’s clear that they are still being hypocritical because then they’d have to admit that every religion then is just as valid. Past or present. Because all of it is a matter of faith or belief. They don’t want creation taught next to evolution, they want Christian creation next to evolution. They don’t want prayer in schools, they want Christian prayer in schools. So if you are going to argue that everything is belief, then at least be fair in that assessment and give way to the validity of all belief systems if you think science is such a belief system.

    1. That is an amazing point. I didn’t think of the hypocrisy in those terms, but you’re absolutely correct. I mean, what other tactic do they have other than to try to make science and creation equivalent to each other, since science plainly does not support their narrative? Well, they could always undermine science, but in the end they just fall into the logical fallacies that you and I are speaking of. It drives me up the wall when creationists claim that it takes faith for me to believe in something like electrons. Or gravity. To me, statements about “faith in science” just underscore the general scientific illiteracy or ignorance running rampant in that community.

  3. I think the term ‘historical science’ was coined so they could differentiate what science they can accept and what science they cannot. Fortunately it does not work that way. Science is the best way to know the world around us. Magical thinking that the laws of physics change every now and then is just not tenable. The very cars they drive around in rely on a chemical which was produced by physical processes that go back hundreds of millions of years and more. If the physical laws changed we’d not be able to find and produce that chemical and there would be nobody driving cars.

    They believe in evolution within the species but not so much as to create a new species. It’s only a matter of time before this house of cards falls.

  4. Sorry for the late response. Nye didn’t debunk the idea of observational vs. historical science. He doesn’t understand the concept, and one can’t debunk what one doesn’t understand. Historical science is a simple concept, but it isn’t accepted by evolutionists because it debunks their evolutionary beliefs.

    Your summary explanation demonstrates this. No creationist would ever sum up this concept as “if you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.” That’s a straw man argument: create a false idea, then knock it over.

    Why are you even bothered that creationists have debunked everything mainstream science holds near and dear, and why are you so emotionally attached to evolution? The desire for truth should be more valuable than clinging to falsehoods.

    Historical science is basically a study of the past, while observational science is the study of the present. Science done in the present can be observed, and experiments can be repeated and falsified. Historical science can never be observed or tested via the scientific method. These are real differences and aren’t imaginary, as you propose.

    If, for example, we want to study medicine, airplanes, or a volcano erupting, we can do this in the present via the scientific method. Scientists can determine how people with certain conditions respond to various medications. If the medication or treatment is successful, then we continue using it to treat that condition, but if the treatment fails or has too many unintended consequences, then the treatment is abandoned for more successful treatments. Engineers can build airplanes, and successful engineering will improve the process and will be accepted for future designs. But poor engineering will be abandoned. Scientists can observe a volcano erupting. All this can be done in the present. But scientists who study the past aren’t able to observe the dinosaur, for example, as it lives, eats, reproduces and dies, so they cannot know important variables that would enable them to piece together an accurate picture. They must guess, but even the best guesses could be wrong… how would anyone know? Are scientists immune from mistakes? Must we believe whatever interpretations they espouse? Are we allowed to question them? What if an evolutionary scientist claims such and such a dinosaur evolved into a bird… must we simply bow to their supreme knowledge, intellect and clairvoyance? What if we don’t buy into the dino-to-bird theory? Is it possible they could be wrong? How would we know?

    As an evolutionist you must accept mainstream interpretations and reject the idea that they could be wrong; you must bow to their knowledge and superior degrees. But a creationist has no such obligation. A creationist understands something evolutionists don’t… namely that we can’t perform the scientific method in the past, so any interpretation is open to scrutiny and alternative explanations. We don’t have to abandon our beliefs. It doesn’t mean that “it didn’t happen”. It just means that we aren’t obligated to blindly accept whatever conclusions are propagated.

    Creationists don’t believe that dinosaur fossils “prove nothing”, or that carbon dating is “useless”, but we would say that it’s impossible to prove that a fish crawled onto land and evolved into an amphibian, dinosaur and mammal.

    Creationists don’t believe that “historical science relies exclusively upon the idea that, barring direct observation, it’s entirely possible that the laws of physics behaved differently in the past than they do in the present”. Can you point me to a single creationist who has espoused such an idea? I know of none. However I do know evolutionists who believe that the laws of physics behave differently; in fact that’s the idea behind multiverses… to allow for the possibility of universes with different laws of physics.

    It’s interesting that you poo-poo the idea of creationists believing that the laws of physics behaved different in the past, even though it’s evolutionists who believe that and not creationists. Creationists believe that there are alternative interpretations of the evidence that would explain what we observe. But I suspect that you believe that the laws of physics are different in different universes at different times in the past, even though you’re on record as saying that there’s not one well-presented philosophical or reasonable argument for it. You’re now obligated to accept such ideas, otherwise you’re as anti-science as any creationist you’re ridiculing.

    The problem with argument #1 is that you’re unable to repeat the process you’re claiming happened, and in all of human experience, such a scenario has never been observed, so the onus is on you to repeat the phenomenon you’re espousing. Creationists would be under no obligation to accept it, but evolutionists would be forced to believe it if a mainstream scientist published a paper explaining how such an event could have happened.

    Agrument #2 is a great creationist argument you’ve stumbled upon. Yes, you can’t prove who the murderer was, but in a court of law you only need to prove who the murderer was beyond a reasonable doubt. In extraordinary cases, innocent persons have been convicted of murder, and that’s precisely because it’s impossible to “prove” who committed the murder. But as an evolutionist you must reject such a possibility and believe whatever the evidence says- otherwise you could be accused of being anti-science. The other problem with this argument is that historical science is forensic science, and honest scientists recognize that; they also understand that forensic science is not a perfect science and contains inherent flaws. So if you ever admit that forensic science is responsible for convicting the innocent, then you’re recognizing the creationist argument as valid. When you attempt to debunk the concept of historical science, you’re really debunking forensic science.

    Argument #3. You’re correct that nobody really knows who painted the Mona Lisa. But that doesn’t mean we can’t answer this question correctly. The “correct” answer is Leonardo Da Vinci, but just because that’s the correct answer doesn’t mean it’s true. We know that it’s true to the best of our knowledge, but any reasonable person would have to admit, if pressed, that they don’t know with absolute certainty who painted it because, as you correctly pointed out, there’s no observational evidence to corroborate that Leonardo Da Vinci ever existed, or that he’s the one to have done the painting. In fact by expressing argument #3 so elegantly, you’ve demonstrated that you know that we can’t use the scientific method to prove who the painter was. All science can really do is use forensic science to demonstrate without a reasonable doubt who the painter was. And that’s why we can say with confidence that Da Vinci was the painter of the Mona Lisa. We have no reason to reject that notion, even though it’s not provable via the scientific method.

    Arguent # 4: You’re admitting that evolutionists are hypocrites. As soon as you suggest that we can’t prove any of the Bible’s historical claims, then you admit that creationists are right that we can’t prove any historical event, including evolution and the Big Bang. You seem to understand that the Bible can’t be proven, but you reject the idea that evolution and the Big Bang are ideas resulting from historical science. Creationists understand historical science enough to admit that we can’t prove any of the Bible’s claims via the scientific method. Creationists readily admit this, therefore we’re not hypocrites. But evolutionists are hypocrites because they reject historical science only when it interferes with their worldview, but gladly accept the limitations when applied to the Bible and criminal justice.

    Finally, if you’re right that there’s no such thing as historical science, then I urge you write an article calling for the abolishment of “forensic” science and urge your readers that there’s only science, and that the criminal justice system should no longer recognize the term “forensics”. But if you don’t, then your claim that there’s no “historical” science is bogus.

    1. “Creationists understand historical science enough to admit that we can’t prove any of the Bible’s claims via the scientific method.”

      And yet, isn’t that exactly what creation science is?

    2. I don’t really see how the multiverse idea applies here. You speak of straw man arguments, and then speak of the multiverse. How the laws of physics may or may not behave in a different universe has no bearing on how they behave in this one.

      I guess I’m attached to evolution because it’s the only explanation offered which I can physically observe. I realize that you disagree with mainstream science about that and that’s your right. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that if there were physical evidence that God created the earth in six days that I would be interested in that. As far as I know, that evidence doesn’t exist except for printed words in a bible.

      And yes, I suppose no creationist has ever literally uttered the idea that the laws of physics were different in the past than they are today. But I can’t really think of any other way your argument fits together. The only way not being able to apply the present laws of physics to things in the past makes sense is if the laws were different in the past. One would have to think that if this wasn’t the case, and the laws that govern the universe are uniform, that they could be applied to any event at any point in time.

      1. I thought I clearly explained why I brought up the multiverse idea. You’re the one ridiculing creationists for believing that the laws of physics change, yet you can’t name a single creationist who believes that. On the other hand I know plenty of evolutionists who do believe that the laws of physics aren’t the same everywhere. So who is it that believes the straw man argument you set up? If anyone believes that the laws of physics aren’t the same everywhere, it’s evolutionists, not creationists. My point was to demonstrate that your argument is completely flawed from beginning to end.

        Have you really observed “evolution”? Or have you observed changes in a population over time? Has that kind of organism remained the same kind of organism, or has it really evolved into a different kind of organism? I suggest that what you’ve actually observed is speciation, not evolution (although evolutionists don’t make any real distinction in this regard). Again it’s creationists who describe this process consistently with the observational evidence, not evolutionists. If you really think you’ve observed evolution, then please explain it in light of what creationists believe, and explain how what you’ve observed is not consistent with what creationists really believe. Of course you need to understand what creationists believe before you can answer this question. However the Bible tells us that God created animals to reproduce after their kind, and that’s exactly what we do observe. God created animals with the capacity to change and adapt to their environment, but that is not evolution.

        A second explanation as to why creationists believe certain things about the past has to do with how the evidence is interpreted, and that has nothing to do with the laws of physics changing. Evolutionists interpret the evidence according to their worldview, while creationists do the same, but they come to different conclusions. No one is suggesting that the laws of physics have changed; it’s the interpretation of the evidence that’s at the heart of the issue.

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