[Warning – these posts will not be succinct]
Historical versus Observational Science…. two thingies that seem to imply a mutual exclusion between the two. I wanted to write an article addressing these misconceptions in the epistemology behind the two terms. You may recall, this came up repeatedly in the recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate; again and again.
I wanted to ensure I had a decent understanding of what they meant, and I frolicked over to their website, and found this. It’s apparently a response to someone who wrote them some feedback/question, who also took issue with the peddled notion. Reading in, I knew, I must comment.
I don’t think they get science.
Before I dive in, allow me to poison the well a little.
We’re in a race. We scientists are sitting on the racetrack in our Formula-1 car, ready to go. To our right, we have Ken Ham sitting in a cardboard box with the word “racecar” scribbled on the side using a sharpie. With a sparkle in his eye, he’s twisting and turning an invisible steering wheel, spraying spittle, saying “PBPTBPTBPTBPT!” Michael Behe is to our left, also in a cardboard box, but he’s clearly spent a lot of effort with watercolors, attempting to make his box look like our Formula-1 car. The Discovery Institute honored him with a endorsing bumper sticker that has Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel scribbled out, and a DNA strand painted on top.
Behe and Ham share a wink, and begin arguing with the race coordinator, twisting the rules and interpretations of words, making up rules and requirements as they go, as to why our Formula 1 car should be disqualified from the race. After all, that’d be convenient, if the only real competitor was towed off the track.
The arguments are inane and vacuous, clearly ignoring why the qualifications are the way they are, grasping at anything to get us out of commission. Unfortunately for them, the race continues normally, and our car leaves them literally in the dust.
In this article I found, it’s more of the same. The scientific requirements they describe are gibberish.
Just so you know what they mean by Observational versus Historical science, here’s what they say about “Observational”:
Some bits of information can be gleaned simply by examining things with your senses—such as the height and weight. Other people can then check your results by making measurements of their own. We often call this operational science (also called observational science—for obvious reasons).
Here’s “Historical” science (same article):
But some research requires either making educated assumptions about the past by examining evidence in the present (historical or “origins” science)—or finding a primary source of information.
Got that? Nevermind that evidence-based extrapolations are definitionally not assumptions… but stay on target!
Here’s the first paragraph I’ll address from the letter response we’re addressing.
Not to try to frame things as a semantics debate, but there is some validity to that statement as regards your question. As you pointed out, we have stated that neither creationism nor cosmic evolution nor Darwinian biological evolution is observational science, and they are not observable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable events. Therefore, we would state that you cannot “empirically prove” them. Both creationists and evolutionists have the same sets of data, the same evidence, and often the same techniques to examine their evidence. The different conclusions, therefore, must be based on presuppositions (or worldviews). I understand that the following is a simplistic example, but bear with me.
Immediately, you’ll notice that they’re trying to cast creationism and evolution as, at least, being on level playing fields. They’re fine “being humble” about the shortcomings of their creationism assertion, as long as they get to take down evolution with them.
Let’s pick this apart.
As you pointed out, we have stated that neither creationism nor cosmic evolution nor Darwinian biological evolution is observational science,
Remember, what they mean by “observational science” is what you and I would likely call “direct observation”. I’m actually fine with a distinction between direct observation and building cases using indirect, circumstantial evidence. The point where we differ is whether one can demonstrate something beyond a reasonable doubt through indirect means.
But that’s not even the failure here at this point. Yes, actually, “Darwinian biological evolution” is directly observed, and thus, “observational science”.
I think some (some!) confusion exists about what we’re talking about with evolution. There’s two aspects:
- The mechanism
- The history
They probably wouldn’t disagree, but what seems to happen frequently, is that the creationist will conclude that, because we can’t replicate the entire history of evolution, we can’t conclude that the mechanism exists – “evolution cannot be repeated/confirmed“, they say. Ham is sitting in his box arguing that, since we can’t replicate the full history of where our Formula-1 car has been, we cannot verify that it runs.
Many creationists accept so-called “microevolution”, as in minor changes within species, but we actually have a growing list of observed speciation (TalkOrigins), in and out of the lab. We even have an extended history of human-witnessed and documented artificial selection (the core biological mechanism is the same – the selection of what lineages are progressed is different) on dogs, creating breeds that are as physically different from each other, as cats (one “kind” – felines) are from dogs (another “kind” – canines).
So yes, evolution is observed.
“Sure, your Formula-1 can roll 10 centimeters“, Ham interrupts, “… but you haven’t shown that it can go 100 feet!”
More on this later (probably next part), but moving on.
… and they [evolution and creationism] are not observable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable events.
Setting aside that evolution isn’t “an event”, but an ongoing world-wide continual process (gravity isn’t “an event” either)…
Well, we already addressed evolution’s observationabilityness, but I agree,
creationism is not observable (scratch that, someone wrote a book that has a self-reporting memo from the creator himself who claims to have done it, so someone observed it). At least with evolution, we can demonstrate the mechanism exists, and can produce new species, within the scope of direct observation. Creationists cannot even demonstrate there’s any god to do any creating, let alone the god-creating phenomenon manifesting in any observable way.
What about the other requirements? This is where their understanding of science starts to descend down the rabbit hole.
Their requirement of “observation” itself is a little bizarre. They seem to be under the mistaken impression that it requires a human element. Something is verified as true only when a human sees it, according to them. It’s frequently the same confusion about the collapse of wave functions in quantum physics. You know, the “reality changes when you look at it” notion, when the “observation” that’s occurring is a scientific instrument, that then spits out results. Think of using a voltmeter on a circuit. You’re observing the voltage across two nodes using a device… a device which, through the act of observing the electronic network voltage drop, slightly changes it.
Humans can be daft, biased, manipulable, delusional error vending machines. The major central core of science is to weed out human error. In science, “observation” is the empirical measurements and data, with the humans removed from the equation.Instead, they try to conflate scientific observation with “someone claims in a book that they saw something“. This is the avenue in which they claim that us reading some scientific publication in a journal is equivalent to someone claiming something in an old book. They’re missing the empiricism, peer-review, etc.
How does their versions of testability, repeatability and falsifiability stack up? Not well.
It’s funny that I should have to explain this one, since they already seem to get it. They just don’t apply it to science, but rather, only the Bible.
How many times have you heard “the Bible is true because of fulfilled prophecy“? That’s not a legitimate way of approaching validating the whole Bible at once. At best, it validates the claim that someone who wrote the Bible, somehow, had some ability to predict the future, somehow. The point is, they get the idea that the testability of a broader model can be accomplished through testing the individual components. The more components, the more they have to test.
… but it’s doable.
Evolution is testable. We have the ridiculous fruit-fly experiments, where we bombarded them with radiation to try to cause mutations, and evaluate the path of evolutionary changes. We have widespread breeding programs (artificial selection). There’s numerous ways we can experiment and test in terms of direct observation.
More importantly, we can even test the “macroevolution” model.
As an aside, during the Nye/Ham debate, Ham didn’t seem to understand what a “prediction” is. Emphasis on “pre” – as in, results that we did not know before hand, and then went looking for the results. This idea of “this bit of the Bible is consistent with what science knows now” isn’t a prediction. We’re talking about hypothesis testing:
- Take the current explanatory model, and extrapolate possible results
- Construct a falsifiable/testable experiment where the extrapolated results can be confirmed/disconfirmed
- Run experiment, and evaluate results
- Whether passed or failed, modify model from what was learned
- GOTO 1
This requires a stage where the end results were not known ahead of time. What Ham engages in is postdiction, not prediction.
We can do this with evolution. For example, evolutionary theory predicts a half-fish, half-tetrapod intermediate form, which we should be able to find somewhere. Scientists went looking, and even had a reasonable clue as to where to look – they found Tiktaalik.
For another example, if we shared a common ancestor with our best buds, the chimps, based on the rules of heredity, we should have genetic markers shared between us. (there’s your hypothesis)
Do you know what an endogenous retrovirus is? This is the problem with much of the evidence for evolution – you need a basic biology education before a lot of the data can be understood. Here’s the short version (I may get some details wrong – but the point stands).
There are some types of viruses (retrovirus) that don’t necessarily kill the host cell they inject their genome into. In fact, this injected DNA can integrate and carry with the host (Wikipedia), and can even be carried through the generations through heredity. In fact, the amount of retrovirus DNA in humans is significant. I’m about half-English, half-French and one-twentieth virus. That may seem disturbing, but interestingly, that DNA can actually play a role in adding information as extra genes, and creating the context for additional evolutionary changes.
Thanks to the field of genetics (the Bible didn’t “predict” this), we were familiar with this phenomenon. The question came to mind – “are there endogenous retrovisues we share with species we think with a common ancestor, who would have been the mutual source?”
That smells eerily like a test.
Did we find any? Yes, you share 7 of these genes, that we’ve identified so far, with chimpanzees (PubMed). Its surprising we have that many, given how rare the occurrence rate is.
Evolution made a testable prediction, was tested, and passed. Again.
Does the author do any better with repeatability? Not really.
Let’s stop a moment. Atheists, I’m addressing you. Do you dismiss the Bible because the events cannot be repeated from beginning to end? I don’t. I reject it, because the relevant component assertions haven’t been demonstrated. Walking on water hasn’t been repeated, so that bit I reject… but repeating the whole thing? Why would I even have that as a requirement?
That’s apparently what the author means by “repeatability” – repeating the history of evolution, from beginning to end, as opposed to, say, repeating the component tests and mechanism.
The Tiktaalik example above was a repeated test – finding predicted fossils, or finding similar additional fossils. The repeatability doesn’t have to be with the same exact fossil. Suppose someone claimed that blue Skittles, when ingested, allowed one to magically fly. If we set up a controlled, blinded set of trials to test this, it would be fine to repeat the experiment with additional blue Skittles. We wouldn’t require the subjects of the experiment to barf up the ones they already ate, and re-eat them.
The endogenous retrovirus example can be repeated by other scientists, when they’re engaging in further research or peer review.
The author of this AiG article seems to have gotten strange notions about the scope and requirements of repeatability. From where, may be one of the greatest mysteries yet to mankind.
Seriously? Off the top of my head:
- We find no hereditary mechanism (DNA), so natural selection couldn’t operate
- We look at the fossil record and find that it’s been the same creatures since the beginning
- We find that the basic mechanisms of life (ATP cycle, cellular structure, etc) are fundamentally different from species to species
What’s the problem? The notion that evolution is not falsifiable is so absurd that I’m not even sure what the author means. Maybe he/she thinks “falsifiable” means “has pancakes”, as in, “evolution has no pancakes”. Hell if I know.
I think many are confused about what falsifiability is. It’s a hypothetical. It’s asking – setting aside whether it’s true or not – setting aside any supporting evidence – how could this model/claim be hypothetically falsified. It’s a guarantee against false claims persistently festering, as untestable claims also tend to be unfalsifiable claims.
There’s no contradiction in this sentence: If something is true, outside of human error, it will not be falsified, even if it’s consistently falsifiable.
A god that doesn’t answer prayers when you test prayer – that’s unfalsifiable. A creation model where all the “creation” aspects (that demonstrably manifest) are indistinguishable from natural mechanisms, or indistinguishable from not having happened – that’s unfalsifiable.
Evolution does not have this problem.
Well, author of this article, you managed to get all 4 wrong. Congrats.
No, we are not on an even playing field. I’m sitting here in my racecar of science – time-tested with a long history of investigating reality, to the point that 100% of all advanced technologies were made possible by it, and 0% having come from the Bible (I know the objection here – when a Christian does science, it’s the science part that’s relevant, not the mere fact it was done by a Christian, or that Christians put up funds to do it – it was still science that did it). I’m in the vehicle that’s been honed to be incredibly effective at effectively understanding reality.
You’re sitting in a box; making “vroom vroom” noises.
Well, that’s one sentence down. You can see how Gish Gallops can be so frustrating. I’ll try to finish the rest of the paragraph next time.
Back a couple years ago, I took it upon myself to critique Geoffrey Simmon’s “What Darwin Didn’t Know“. My God. It took I think 2.5 months go get through chapter 1. Creationists are like X-Men, except, instead of being able to control the weather, or shoot lasers from their eyes, they have an uncanny ability to write articles and books where literally each and every single consecutive sentence is embarrassingly pathetically wrong. It’s almost admirable.