Problems with “historical science”

“Historical science” is a creationist rhetorical device employed to inject faith into science. Under this model, creationists have divided science into two categories: that which we are able to directly observe, and that which happened in the past. The argument here is that since we were not able to directly observe something in the past it is therefore impossible to ever “know” something about that past event. Any assertion about something that happened in the past according to this framework thus requires a degree of faith, or put another way every event in the past is surrounded by a degree of uncertainty. Anyone who saw the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye is familiar with this concept.

Nye’s assertions about cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology were met by Ham’s intellectually dishonest retort, “Were you there?” This simple question pulls the thread that begins to unravel the creationist framework that “historical science” operates on. For every biblical assertion that Ham made Nye could have (and should have) asked him, “Were you there?” Because if the problem with the big bang and evolution is that nobody was there to witness them, then that same problem can be extended to biblical claims: nobody was around to witness God creating the universe. Nobody alive was around to meet Adam and eve, and no physical record of their existence is available. These things are equally uncertain according to “historical science” because we cannot directly observe them. This is the conclusion that the creationist “historical science” narrative leads us to.

The popular creationist response to this claim, of course, is the bible. The bible, being the word of God, is infallible, and therefore everything in it must must be true and accurate. But the same logic can still be applied here. “The word of God.” What does that mean? Does it mean God took a physical form and literally put his own words to physical paper himself? No, it doesn’t. We know that human hands wrote the bible. Even the most conservative and devout biblical scholars acknowledge this. So then the rationale quickly becomes that the human beings who wrote the bible were “divinely inspired,” that they were vessels through which God conveyed his message.

To which I would ask, “Were you there?”

Scholars use historical evidence that can’t be directly observed to assign authorship to the various gospels, but “historical science” would dictate that nobody could ever be certain who the authors were. So how could anyone claim that they were divinely inspired or God’s vessels? They can’t according to the very argument that creationists use against mainstream science. There’s no way to prove that the bible was divinely inspired or that its authors were vessels for God, because we cannot go back in time and witness its authoring

All of this notwithstanding, the division of science into these two categories and the introduction of uncertainty and our ability to “know” things represents a fundamental misunderstanding of science and statistics. The idea that we “know” something because we can observe it is what the division of science by creationists would imply, but we know that to be untrue. Even if we directly observe something, we cannot know whether or not there was something lurking in the background which we were unable to detect or quantify. Confounding and lurking variables also apply to experimental  or “observational” science, which is something creationists neglect in this argument. This is easily seen in pharmacology. There are many instances when we give a medicine to a patient, but we can’t be sure whether the medicine was actually the cause of the convalescence, or whether it was the human body itself or some other unknown cause. The two volunteers who contracted Ebola and were treated in the US are a prime example of this: they received an experimental new drug to fight Ebola, and they both recovered. Yet this correlation does not imply causation.

And that’s the crux of the issue: correlation and causation apply even to experimental science and phenomena which we can directly observe. Everything we know–and I do literally mean everything–has some degree of uncertainty surrounding it. It’s impossible to operate in a world where everything is uncertain, though, because things in the universe do happen and they do have causes. So we talk about things like confidence. Confidence is gained if something is observable, measurable, and repeatable. There’s still a degree of uncertainty, but the confidence gained by the scientific method is great enough to make it much, much more likely that X is the cause than Y, Z, etc.

But it’s disingenuous to accept uncertainty in one part of science and then to reject it in others–that distinction is completely arbitrary.  You don’t get to just pick and choose to which areas of science uncertainty applies based on your ideological beliefs.

Let’s frame this another way with two examples. Let’s say a creationist finds a strange lump on his abdomen and he goes to see his physician, and the physician does some diagnostic tests and they determine that the mass is a tumor. Time for decision number one: does he trust the results? Tests can and do come back with false positives, human errors causes misdiagnosis, etc. Perhaps a second opinion is obtained, and the second physician concurs with the first.

Now let’s say that both the physicians tell our creationist patient that there is a 98% chance that the tumor is malignant. Time for choice number two: does he start treatment or does he say, “Well there’s a 2% chance that it’s not so I’ll wait and see?” 98% is pretty confident. I’d be willing to bet most people, even creationists, would accept the diagnosis and begin treatment. Even though there is a degree of uncertainty involved. If uncertainty is enough to reject a conclusion about, say, the fossil record, why isn’t it enough to reject the conclusion here?

The difference is most likely quantification. In the above example, we have an actual number–98%. That’s a tangible metric. But what about something like the big bang? How do you quantify the probability of that occurring? Indeed, you never hear a cosmologist or astronomer say something like, “There is a 90% chance that the big bang happened.” Science, logic, and common sense would indicate that we don’t need to quantify something in order to determine how probable it is compared to another explanation, though.

Let’s deal with the second example, one that deals with the unobserved this time. Let’s say that my creationist friend recovered from his cancer, and I’m driving him home after he’s been discharged from the hospital. When we arrive at his home, we find it covered in egg. To have one’s house egged is not an uncommon thing, and so when we get out of the car my creationist friend says, “Oh great, some of the neighborhood kids egged my house while I was in the hospital.”

To which I say, “I don’t believe that. I believe that someone catapulted a series of chickens over your house, and all the chickens just happened to lay eggs at exactly the right moment to cover your house.”

Here we have two explanations for an event that neither of us observed. If I were using “historical science” as a framework for my conclusion, I could easily ask, “Were you there?” when my friend eventually expressed doubt and incredulity at my chicken catapult explanation. According to creationist logic, that should be enough to win the argument. We can use the exact same logic that Ken Ham used in the debate to cast doubt on whether or not it was actually local hooligans who caused the damage instead of a ludicrous explanation like a chicken catapult.

Well, my friend might say that this sort of thing, egging of houses by local teens, has been known to have happened before. To which I would reply, “Were you there?”

Fine, my friend might concede that he wasn’t there to witness any egging, but he might say that a block or two away there were empty egg cartons. To which I would reply, “Were you there?”

Yet anyone in this situation–even the staunchest of creationists–would come to the inevitable conclusion that it was local kids that egged the house and not a chicken catapult. Despite the fact that I’ve used the exact same logic that Ham and other creationists use against mainstream science. There was even physical evidence in the form of empty egg cartons, and I’d be willing to bet that any creationist would accept that evidence if this scenario were real, despite the fact that using “historical science” there is no way to “know” that the cartons are linked to the egging. In this example there is no quantification, nobody can say whether ‘egged by local boys’ is 99% probable and ‘chicken catapult’ is only 1% likely. Yet we’ve still reached a conclusion about which event is more probable, even without direct observation and even without quantified metrics. Creationists are willing to use physical evidence, logic, and prior experience to arrive at conclusions for events which they did not or cannot observe all the time.

The idea that the outcome of a certain set of events in the past would be different than the outcome of an identical set of circumstances in the present doesn’t hold logical water from a biblical point of view either, yet that’s what “historical science” is arguing. Let’s take something simple and observable, something that Nye brought up in the debate: trees that are older than 6,000 years. The creationist argument using “historical science” is that sure, we can observe the rate of tree growth and we can see the creation of rings at a rate of one per year, and we can even repeat this observation–but trees may have behaved differently in the past and we’ll never be able to prove that they didn’t behave differently since we weren’t there to observe it. This is an odd argument, though, considering that if you’re a creationist who interprets scripture literally, you’d have to believe that God created the universe and all of it’s laws exactly as we see them today. If that’s your interpretation, there is no room for an argument that the laws of physics and chemistry and biology were different in the past, because they were created by God exactly as we see them now. 

And this is why “historical science” ultimately doesn’t hold any water. The idea that uncertainty can only apply to things in the past is false, and the delineation between uncertainty in the past and uncertainty in the present is completely arbitrary on the part of the creationist. The hypocrisy here becomes quite apparent: Nye and other mainstream scientists can’t use geological evidence to cast doubt upon the bible because physical evidence from the past can never have an absolute degree of certainty to it, but if a creationist or religious scientist wants to use geological evidence to prove biblical events, that’s perfectly acceptable. The same rationale behind physical evidence regarding unobserved events apparently doesn’t apply to Christian scientists. Pretty convenient, huh?

Scumbag-Ken-Ham-meme

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2 thoughts on “Problems with “historical science”

  1. How did you know that I built a chicken catapult? Were you there?

    I am backing away slowly, giving you an odd look right now. 🙂

    …I swear it wasn’t me that used it.

    The arguments of creationists reveal the great lengths they will subscribe to to keep their imaginary friends safe. Rationalizing all the way down.

    It’s no wonder they are desperately trying to dumb down science education. I had a moment a while back and wrote/composed a song. One of the lines goes thus: Preacher says ya don’t need, an education. Keep em stupid for the money… Don’t need no science, to be compliant… let’s be a dumbass nation.” I need to get the old 4 track recorder out and make it postable…

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