Righting America

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Scientific Commentary: A Reflection and An Invitation | Righting America

by Patrick Thomas

Patrick Thomas reflects upon the contributions of our colleagues from the natural sciences from our recent series, Putting Observational Science to the Test.

In his book The Lie, Ken Ham delineates the differences between “observational” and “historical” science, explaining that

…observational science involves, of course, observation, using one or more of our five senses (taste, sight, smell, hearing, touch) to gain knowledge about the world and to be able to repeat observations. Naturally, one can only observe what exists in the present. It is an easy task to understand that no scientist was present over the suggested millions of years to witness the supposed evolutionary progression of life from the simple to the complex. No living scientist was there to observe the first life forming in some primeval sea. No living scientist was there to observe the big bang that is supposed to have occurred 15 billion years ago, nor the supposed formation of the earth 4.57 billion years ago—or even 10,000 years ago! No scientist was there; no human witness was there to see these events occurring. They certainly cannot be repeated today. (47)

For the past three weeks we have featured guest posts from scientists working in the fields of geology, physics, and chemistry who have reflected upon observational science, the particular kind of science endorsed by AiG and legitimated at the Creation Museum. As this series of guest posts concludes, we look back at the contributions our colleagues in the sciences make to our understanding of observational science and the ways observational science impacts contemporary scientific inquiry.

So, what do we learn when we consider our scientists’ contributions to the conversation about observational science?

One thing that stands out for us is how quickly Ham’s supposedly simple and obvious definition of observational science becomes murky in the context of actual scientific practice. A key question our contributors ask is what, precisely, delineates “the present” and “the past”? If the scientist herself does not observe with her own senses, but rather trusts the observations of others who conducted their observations before her, why are those observations questionable or irrelevant? Are yesterday’s observations allowable, or the observations of 10 minutes ago? The present is always receding, so what, exactly, constitutes an observation “in the present”?

In addition to his unclear notion of “the present,” Ham’s definition of observational science highlights scientists’ use of the human senses (taste, sight, smell, hearing, touch). If that is the expectation—that observational science is limited to direct human perception, then what of the use of scientific instrumentation? As Bob Brecha asks, are telescopes or microscopes allowed? Or do they necessarily distort human observation?

In short, when we look closely at Ham’s definition of observational science in the context of actual scientific practice, his definition is not so simple or obvious.

As it is with observational science, so it is with Ham’s distinction between observational science and historical science. For Ham, sustaining the difference between observational science (straight forward observation and experimentation) and historical science (which offers up theories to explain observations) is easy. A good scientist ought to be able to suspend historical science in the lab and just focus on doing observational science. She can engage her “starting points” to make meaning of what has been observed. Within the work of historical science, so the reasoning goes, each scientist can decide whether to apply a creationist or evolutionist agenda to their data.

If only the differences were so simple! But there’s more going on in the context of scientific practice, as our colleagues make clear. For one thing, distinguishing between creation science and evolutionary science as merely a difference in starting presuppositions not only skirts the implication that creation science upholds biblical inerrancy (or the so-called “eyewitness account” of creation through Genesis) as superior to evolutionary science, but also ignores the fact that both scientific inquiry and biblical literalism are deeply human enterprises. They are both conjectural. As the Trollingers note in the introduction to Righting America, literalist readings of the Bible have developed over time. Similarly, the practice of science

…seeks to establish internally consistent systems of explanation (theories) that relate observed reality to natural laws and/or processes…we continually design new tests to probe the limits and range of applicability of any given theory or natural law. Occasionally, we adjust or replace widely respected theories in the light of new evidence…

What’s troubling about the Creation Museum’s representation of observational and historical science as merely a difference in “starting points” is that this representation presumes creationists understand the nature and function of scientific inquiry in the first place. Our scientist colleagues provide numerous examples that suggest this is not so. Whereas Ham claims that “observational science confirms the Bible’s historical science,” (The Lie, 59 – emphasis mine), our colleagues remind us that “Few scientists…claim to be investigating “the Truth” in their studies” and that “conclusion[s]…based on the concordance of data – [are] not ultimately definitive.”

Further, whereas Ham claims that “Evolutionists…say the way to understand the past is to observe the present,” (The Lie, 186), Bob Brecha reminds us that a crucial aspect of the scientific method is to “make predictions about what we would expect to happen with the system under certain conditions, and then use that prediction to check our theory against more observations” (emphasis in original).

Clearly, Ham’s characterization of scientific inquiry misconstrues the goals of scientific practice. While this characterization may have little impact on the work of some scientists, it renders other scientists’ work virtually impossible. Still, one cannot help but ask: Does it make sense to rely on Ham to tell us what science is and does? Is he a scientist? Is he actively engaged in scientific research? Indeed, what qualifies him to serve as the arbiter of acceptable and unacceptable scientific study?

Ham’s mischaracterization of the goals of scientific inquiry also leads to further problems in his claims about science. If scientific inquiry is aimed at confirming biblical creation, we are left, as our colleagues point out, in the unusual position of “surrender[ing] before the game has begun…if we start from the assumption that our observations are unreliable, then how can we rely on them?” Here, the differences between observational science and actual scientific inquiry come into greatest contrast.

To say, as Ham does, that the goal of scientific inquiry is to confirm biblical creation does take the guesswork out of scientific practice. If the goal of all scientific inquiry were to confirm biblical creation, science would be a much easier enterprise, as it is always easier to support a foregone conclusion than to wrestle with evidence that counters one’s claims. We appreciate how tempting it may be to reduce science to a matter of confirming this foregone conclusion. That is especially the case when we consider the very complex questions and problems scientists attempt to answer. But then we’re reminded by Mark Masthay of what is at stake in embracing rather than eliding the complexity of our natural world:

As a younger, non-professional scientist, I was captivated by the wonder at everything natural; as an older, professional scientist preoccupied with getting the next paper accepted and the next grant funded, it is easy to lose the wonder. Occasionally I step back from the details of my work and see the remarkable nature of the molecules I study, and the wonder returns. When I do, my professional self-preoccupation and defensiveness are immediately replaced by contentment and humility.

What do we lose by contorting science as an enterprise aimed at confirming biblical creation? We lose the joy of discovery, the fulfillment of contributing to human knowledge of creation, and the celebration of that discovery. For Ken Ham, the self-identified “science teacher” who “loves science” and “wants to see kids taught science,” scientific inquiry can be anything but joyful – if anything, it is quite passé, confirming what he already knows. While our scientists attest that much of their work reveals the importance of faith (in God and in human inquiry), for Ham, there is no such faith, and no such joy. Scientific knowledge is a pursuit primarily carried out for the sake of self-righteousness.

Indeed, we have learned much from our colleagues’ contributions about scientific inquiry and the limits of observational science. We are very interested in knowing what blog readers think of our science series. For this reason, we’ve updated our comments policy to allow readers to respond to posts without registering on the site.  We hope that this update will encourage more readers share their thoughts on topics we blog about, suggest topics they would like us to address, and ask questions about our work.

So, if you have some thoughts to share, we would very much like to hear from you!