Historical and observational science

Dealing with various creationists, you quickly begin to recognize the different popular flavors out there.

The Intelligent Design creationists believe in argument from pseudoscientific assertion; "No natural process can produce complex specified information, other than Design," they will thunder at you, and point to books by people with Ph.D.s and try to tell you they are scientific. They aren't. Their central premise is false, and trivially so.

Followers of Eric Hovind I find are the most repellently ignorant of the bunch. They love that presuppositional apologetics wankery: presuppose god exists, therefore god exists. It's like debating a particularly smug solipsist — don't bother.

The most popular approach I've found, though, is the one that Ken Ham pushes. It's got that delightful combination of arrogant pretense in which the Bible-walloper gets to pretend he understands 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.

A recent example of this behavior comes from Whirled Nut Daily, where I'm getting double-teamed by Ray Comfort and Ken Ham (don't worry, I'm undaunted by the prospect of being ganged up on by clowns.)

According to Ken Ham’s blog at Answers in Genesis, Minnesota professor PZ Myers, who was interviewed by Comfort, said: “Lie harder, little man … Ray Comfort is pushing his new creationist movie with a lie. … What actually happened is that I briefly discussed the evidence for evolution – genetics and molecular biology of fish, transitional fossils, known phylogenies relating extant groups, and experimental work on bacterial evolution in the lab, and Ray comfort simply denied it all – the bacteria were still bacteria, the fish were still fish.”

But Ham explained that Comfort “asks a question something like this: ‘Is there scientific evidence – observable evidence – to support evolution?’ Well, none of them could provide anything remotely scientific. Oh, they give the usual examples about changes in bacteria, different species of fish (like stickleback fish) and, as to be expected, Darwin’s finches. But as Ray points out over and over again in ‘Evolution vs. God,’ the bacteria are still bacteria, the fish are still fish, and the finches are still finches!”

Isn't that what I said? I gave him evidence, which he denied by falling back on a typological fallacy: the bacteria are still bacteria. What he refuses to recognize is that they were quantitatively different bacteria, physiologically and genetically. To say that something is still X, where X is an incredibly large and diverse group like fish and bacteria, is to deny variation and diversity, observable properties of the natural world which are the fundamental bedrock of evolutionary theory.

But the giveaway is that brief phrase "scientific evidence — observational evidence". That's where the real sleight of hand occurs: both Comfort and Ham try to claim that that all the evidence for evolution doesn't count, because it's not "observational". "Were you there?" they ask, meaning that the only evidence they'll accept is one where an eyewitness sees a complete transformation of one species to another. That is, they want the least reliable kind of evidence, for phenomena that are not visual. They're freakin' lying fools.

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.

Maybe some examples will make that clearer.

We can reconstruct the evolutionary history of fruit flies. We do this by observation. That does not mean we watch different species of fruit flies speciate before our eyes (although it has been found to occur in reasonable spans of time in the lab and the wild), it means we extract and analyze information from extant species — we take invisible genetic properties of the flies' genomes and turn them into tables of data and strings of publishable code. We observe patterns in their genetics that allow us to determine patterns of historical change. Observation and history are intertwined. To deny the history is to deny the observations.

Paleontology is often labeled a historical science, but it doesn't have the pejorative sense in which creationists use it, and it is definitely founded in observation. For instance, plesiosaurs: do you think scientists just invented them? No. We found their bones — we observed their remains imbedded in rock — and further, we found evidence of a long history of variation and diversity. The sense in which the study of plesiosaurs is historical is that they're all extinct, so there are no extant forms to examine, but it is still soundly based on observation. Paleontology may be largely historical, but it is still a legitimate science built on observation, measurement, and even prediction, and it also relies heavily on analysis of extant processes in geology, physics, and biology.

The reliance on falsehoods like this bizarre distinction between observational and historical science that the Hamites and Comfortians constantly make is one of the reasons you all ought to appreciate my saintly forebearance, because every time I hear them make it, I feel a most uncivilized urge to strangle someone. I suppress it every time, though: I just tell myself it's not their fault their brains were poisoned by Jesus.


More like this

I thought "historical science" was in contrast to "experimental science." Some observations cannot be replicated in an experiment, at least in the lifetime of this universe, so we have to infer the workings of nature from historical evidence.

By Donald Albury (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

..and yet, life is still full of mathematically improbable features. It must make you feel very 'scientific' railing against a theology, but you've yet to address actual arguments, made by actual scientists, supportive of ID.
Continue with your straw men, if it makes you happy.

By Joe Jensen (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

you’ve yet to address

You don't sound like you've read the archives of this blog. It goes back to 2005, you know. Everything's been addressed several times.

actual arguments, made by actual scientists, supportive of ID

Like what? Name one.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink


I'm an evangelical Christian who fully accepts evolution. I don't think the first 10 chapters or so of Genesis were meant to be read entirely literally. Needless to say, I frequently experience the matchless joy of debating young-earthers on this matter. Even though, unlike most scientists, I'm also able to point out the theological and biblical problems with their worldview, the conversations are usually about as fruitful as fishing with a baseball bat.

That being said, I was wondering if someone might be able to explain a little more in-depth about how the genetic patterns we observe in DNA are strong evidence for evolution. I know some about these studies, but I'm not an expert. I ask because I know that the way P.Z. Myers has presented it here, the creationist response would just be, "There are common patterns because of a common Designer." But I know there's more to it than just "patterns," right?

So, does this mean the Genesis flood didn't happen because we personally did not observe it? And, how can anyone claim the Grand Canyon was formed by the Genesis Flood if they have not personally observed it?

As a scientist by training who also enjoys reading blogs about atheism and religion, it is truly staggering to me the general lack of understanding of the scientific method that I sometimes observe in writings like the one cited in the current blog. But I think if we keep talking and communicating about how science really works, we can get the message out there.

On that vein, another blog I've been enjoying lately is by Foxhole Atheist. The blogger clearly has a good grasp of scientific method -- he recently did an analysis of the difference in tags used by Christians and Atheists in social media. What I liked was that he was very upfront that this wasn't a formal study, he didn't have random samples, and didn't do statistical analyses.

Sometimes I find it truly scary when I think about the lack of understanding of scientific principles that I see in the media. That's why I appreciate blogs like Pharyngula -- we need to get this information out there!

If you're interested, check out:


By daisy1968 (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

Like Donald Albury said. Since creationism is neither historical nor experimental, they had to use a new adjective. "Observational" is just a phatic interjection connoting goodness; it has no actual meaning.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 28 Jul 2013 #permalink

That being said, I was wondering if someone might be able to explain a little more in-depth about how the genetic patterns we observe in DNA are strong evidence for evolution. I know some about these studies, but I’m not an expert. I ask because I know that the way P.Z. Myers has presented it here, the creationist response would just be, “There are common patterns because of a common Designer.” But I know there’s more to it than just “patterns,” right?

Of course. First, like all other similarities between organisms, the similarities in DNA are arranged in a tree shape. Why a tree? Why not a line, a tape, a circle, a cross? A tree just so happens to be the one shape the theory of evolution predicts.

Second, all life as we know it shares characteristics that it doesn't need to share. Why DNA, when there are so many alternatives (Wikipedia lists the known ones)? If DNA, why precisely those four bases, when there are so many alternatives? Why only 20 to 22 amino acids coded by that DNA, when some 800 amino acids are known to occur in organisms? Why are many genes for very basic metabolism related (tree shape, see above)? I could go on for a long time. Keep in mind that not all of these examples are some kind of optimum. DNA, for instance, falls apart when stored in water – we spend much of our basic metabolic rate on constantly repairing it. Whose bright idea was that? Well, nobody's. It's a historical accident which we have inherited.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 29 Jul 2013 #permalink