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!