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On the Relative Certitudes of “Observational” and “Historical” Science : A Chemist’s View | Righting America

by Mark Masthay

Rounding out our Putting Observational Science to the Test series, Dr. Mark Masthay, Associate Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Dayton, presents a series of posts in which he provides a case for how observational science might limit  scientific progress.

As a physical chemist who performs both experimental and theoretical research, I find Ken Ham’s bifurcation of science into “observational” and “historical” categories plausible—at least partially—because I agree with the supposition that knowledge of the ancient is less certain than knowledge of the modern.  That knowledge of the past is less definitive than knowledge of the present strikes me as simple common sense—for the two reasons Ham identifies: the past is neither (1) repeatable nor (2) directly observable.  My supposition applies to both human history and natural history.

I am thus inclined to view Ham’s “historical science” with some favor.  Even so, I do not regard the “historical science”–based conclusions of scientists regarding the origins of the universe, the age of the earth, and the emergence of life on earth with same degree of skepticism as Ham.  (This is true even though he and I share a common spiritual heritage.)

For example, I believe that the earth is more than 6,000 years old because of multiple lines of physical evidence, including but not limited to isotopic dating of geological strata using a variety of isotopes, each of which points to the antiquity of the earth.  That is, I believe the earth is old because of concordance of data—the lining up of multiple lines of evidence, none conclusive in its own right—into a self–consistent picture leading to a single, definitive conclusion.  But that conclusion—being an inference based on the concordance of data—is not ultimately definitive.  When dealing with the past, honesty demands that confidence be qualified with phrases such as “our best models suggest that…” or “the most plausible explanation of the data appears to be…”.  Such qualifiers are particularly important when addressing popular audiences. Though specialists presume these qualifiers even when they are not explicitly stated, non–specialists do not.

The natural sciences are humbling disciplines which push the limits of human epistemology—not only when they deal with what is ancient, unrepeatable and unobservable (“historical science”), but also when they deal with what is current and repeatable, yet sub–microscopic and invisible (ostensibly “observational science”).  As I will communicate in my next post, I believe Ham is overly confident about the truths provided by “observational science” and overly skeptical about the truths provided by “historical science.”