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There is no such thing as "historical science"

Posted at 10:00 on 02 January 2023

Now if you're a Christian homeschooling parent, looking for a science curriculum that takes a Christian worldview while teaching accurate and reliable information about the history and nature of God's creation, I would recommend that you look no further than BioLogos's Integrate. In recent years, BioLogos have risen in prominence as champions of factual accuracy and honest discussion about science within evangelical Christian circles, and their entry into the homeschooling curriculum market is much needed in an arena that at times seems saturated with pseudoscientific and pseudobiblical woo---much to the dismay of an increasing number of Christian homeschooling parents.

Naturally, the peddlers of pseudoscientific and pseudobiblical woo aren't taking this quietly. Answers in Genesis's response to BioLogos Integrate is fairly predictable. In an article in September 2021 titled "Human Wisdom: Something to Suspect?", Bryan Osborne says this about it:

BioLogos’ Integrate curriculum critiques young earth creation with logical fallacies and fails to distinguish between historical and operational sciences

It's a common refrain that comes up in young earthist literature time and time again. They claim that "operational science" and "historical science" are two different things, and while the former is observable, testable and repeatable, the latter relies entirely on unproven assumptions and interpretations about the past that cannot be tested because no-one was there to check. Those of us who, as Christians, accept scientific facts about the age of the earth and evolution, overlook this distinction, they say.

Osborne goes so far as to say that because of assumptions, interpretations and worldviews, "historical science" is nothing more than guessing:

What about “operational” versus “historical” science? Operational science is using the scientific method in the present to gain and apply knowledge. Operational science is observable, testable, repeatable, and falsifiable. Historical science is using present-day observations, such as rock layers, fossils, radioisotopes, and interpreting them with a set of assumptions about the unseen past, a worldview, to make a guess about their origin and age. Since the past is gone, historical science is not observable, testable, repeatable, or falsifiable. Thus, historical science is drastically different from operational science. In historical science, your assumptions about the humanly unobserved past drive your conclusions in the present. And if you start with the wrong assumptions (wrong worldview) built on the wrong foundation (man’s ideas), you will likely get the wrong conclusions.

This is completely untrue. It is untrue because it itself overlooks something very important: namely, the one critical thing that both "operational" and "historical" sciences have in common.

"Operational" and "historical" science share a common set of rules.

Interpretation of scientific evidence is not a free-for-all. If it were, then we could claim that current mortgage rates were evidence for a young earth, because treknobabble. Similarly, one can not simply dismiss assumptions out of hand as being "just an assumption," otherwise you would be able to claim in court that gunshot wounds were not necessarily caused by bullets. Good luck with that.

Clearly, some interpretations are valid, but others are not, and likewise some assumptions can be legitimately challenged but others can not. We have to draw the line somewhere, and what allows us to draw the line is a common set of rules and principles that sit at the foundation of every branch of science, "historical" as well as "operational." It is by applying these rules that scientists can make a distinction between valid and invalid interpretations, and in so doing they can place constraints on what could or could not have happened in the past. A 4.5 billion year old Earth in a 13.8 billion year old universe fits within those constraints. A six thousand year old Earth in a six thousand year old universe does not.

What are the rules in question? The rules and principles of mathematics, measurement, logic and basic honesty.

  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to have accurate and honest weights and measures.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to report evidence accurately.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to interpret evidence in ways that are mathematically consistent and coherent.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to make sure that their conclusions are consistent with their measurements, and that they are not exaggerating things nor playing things down.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to correctly account for sources of error such as contamination.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to take steps to account for and eliminate cognitive biases.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to avoid logical fallacies.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to quote people in ways that accurately reflect the context from which the quotes are taken.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to apply the same standards of quality control to evidence in support of a theory as to evidence against it.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to account for all the evidence and not just a cherry-picked subset of it.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to have their findings reproduced by other researchers.
  • "Operational science" and "historical science" alike are both required to keep accurate lab notes.

These are rules that apply to every area of science without exception. They are not arbitrary. They are not designed to "stack the deck" against anyone. They do not change to suit anyone's whims or political agendas. Nor were they made up in some sort of ivory tower. They were forged in the fires of hands-on, practical experience over many centuries, in a wide variety of different contexts. Nor do they depend on your worldview in the slightest: addition, subtraction, geometry, trigonometry, differential and integral calculus, linear regression, error bars, standard deviations, Bayes's theorem and so on and so forth all work in exactly the same way whether you are a Christian or an atheist, and whether you believe that miracles are a legitimate explanation for scientific evidence or not. Neither "naturalism" nor "materialism" nor "secularism" nor "Darwinism" nor any other weasel word ending in "ism" have anything whatsoever to do with them. These rules are exactly the same for both "operational science" and "historical science." They are rules that everyone must follow in every context without exception, for the simple reason that not sticking to them is lying.

Why "historical science" needs to stick to the rules too

Now to be fair, you could claim that "historical science" differs from "operational science" in that you are less likely to do any direct damage if you get it wrong. But that doesn't give you a free pass to flout the rules. In fact, flouting the rules when discussing the "historical sciences" can do a lot of indirect damage for two reasons in particular.

First of all, it sows confusion in people's minds about what the rules actually are. If your arguments about "historical science" are riddled with blatant mathematical errors, sloppy thinking, logical fallacies, and misrepresentation of evidence, people in your audience will end up believing that such mathematical errors, sloppy thinking, logical fallacies and even misrepresentation of evidence are legitimate forms of reasoning. They will end up applying them to other areas of science and engineering, to finance and commerce, to politics, and to just about everything else as well. They will believe that they are acting with honesty and integrity when in reality they are not. This will have all sorts of bad consequences, from undermining their ability to do their jobs properly, to opening them up to prosecution for fraud, to even in some cases killing people. In fact we saw this happening a lot during the covid-19 pandemic. Many of the falsehoods in arguments against vaccination or masks have exactly the same logical fallacies and non sequiturs that I see time and time again in YEC arguments.

Secondly, it is a breach of trust. As I've said, the rules are simply the rules of honesty and getting your facts straight. If someone thinks that the rules do not apply to the historical sciences, what else do they think they do not apply to? What other forms of dishonesty do they think are acceptable and in what contexts? Furthermore, even if they acknowledge the need to follow the rules in other contexts, are they practicing what they preach? If someone isn't prepared to even acknowledge the need for accuracy and honesty about everything, how can they expect anyone to consider them accurate and honest about anything? It is this breach of trust that causes many young Christians to struggle when they learn that their church leaders hadn't been straight with them.

So I'm sorry, but when discussing "historical science," you must still stick to the rules. You must still report and interpret both the evidence and the methods used to analyse it accurately and honestly. For this reason, not only is the distinction between "operational science" and "historical science" invalid, but it can actually do a lot of damage.