The Disjunctive Duality of Science Distinction

by Steven Schafersman
2008 July 28

The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) is using an idiosyncratic argument to convince the public that ICR teaches real science. ICR believes there are two types of science: experimental science and historical science. This is actually an old idea, but it used to be termed the distinction between operation and origin science. The distinction was used, for example, in the first Intelligent Design Creationism book, The Mystery of Life's Origin by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen in 1984, where I first encountered it. It is, of course, a false distinction that is not recognized by any legitimate scientist, scientific institution, or philosopher of science.

Here, briefly, is the distinction: ICR believes that there are two types of science: (1) physical science, including physics and chemistry, and descriptive and experimental biological disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, genetics, and cell biology that Creationists term normal, experimental, empirical, operation, or operational science because one can perform experiments (i.e. operations) on its subject matter and make direct empirical observations in present-day time, and (2) historical science, such as historical geology (including stratigraphy and geochronology), paleontology, astronomy (cosmology and galactic, stellar, and planetary astronomy), and systematic biology (including population genetics, biogenesis, and evolutionary biology--all disciplines with a historical element), that Creationists term historical, origins, or forensic science because they believe one can't perform experiments on its singular and episodic subject matter, but instead only make historical inferences by using an indirect method of observing contemporary evidence to understand the past (as would a forensic investigator, for example).

The Creationist claim is that, for historical or forensic science--since one can't do any real experiments with ancient causes, events, and processes--scientific conclusions about past events and processes are less rigorous, more prone to error, and thus more suspect than conclusions about modern or contemporary causes, events, and processes studied by an operational science such as chemistry and physics using direct experiments. Thus, scientific knowledge about evolution and the origin of life is not as reliable as, for example, information about matter, energy, forces, and heat. ICR claims it readily accepts and teaches "experimental science" in the same way that mainstream academic institutions do, but it feels justified in holding and teaching "a very different perspective when it comes to forensic science (origins, pre-history)," because of the inadequacies and indirect methods inherent in the study of historical events and processes.

As is the case with many Creationist arguments, the proposition of a disjunctive duality of science sounds plausible, but in reality it is nonsense. No legitimate scientist or philosopher of science accepts this argument. Organized Creationism is one of those pseudoscholarly pursuits that tries to convince its followers by using sophistry to fool them, and they are remarkably successful at it, due either to the sophistication of their sophistry or the foolishness of their followers. There are so many things wrong with the explanation above (which admittedly I wrote on behalf of ICR, but I tried to do it justice), that I hardly know where to begin to refute it.

First, there are no direct observations of nature in any science, experimental or historical. Every observation is indirect and every inference from every observation is indirect; this is as true for physics as it is for evolutionary biology. It is simply not true that some scientific disciplines provide greater reliability than others due to different subject matter. Many physical and chemical problems depend on statistical, probabilistic, and historical factors similar to biological evolution.

Second, there is no epistemological difference in science between a prediction and a postdiction (a prediction about the past). Both are hypotheses whose conjectures and consequences can be tested, and that's what matters. All scientific hypotheses make predictions or postdictions that can be tested and if they cannot, are not scientific hypotheses.

Third, there are several ways to test scientific hypotheses, not only by experiments. Most hypotheses in science are tested by making additional observations that refute or corroborate the hypothesis, or by constructing models of natural systems and comparing model-generated data to natural data. Such non-experimental testing is perfectly valid within an empirical and skeptical epistemological framework.

Fourth, any science can be an experimental science. Traditional experiments involve instruments and apparatus that measure physical properties, but experiments can also be virtual. Thought experiments were conducted before computers were available, and today virtual experiments modeled on computers are conducted on every ancient time, distance, and cosmic size scale, such as plate tectonic movements, biological evolution, the origin of life, stellar system formation, and the origin of galaxies and supergroups following the Big Bang. These are real scientific experiments that test hypotheses of very ancient events, their virtual nature notwithstanding.

Fifth, many historical processes and events are still occurring today on scales that can be investigated and tested using instruments and equipment, just as a physicist or chemist would. This includes biological evolution, which is rigorously tested in laboratory and field experiments. Similarly, experiments can be conducted that help explain the abiotic genesis of life 3.8 billion year ago (to the extent we understand it). Lab and field experiments have tested all modes, scales, and processes of biological evolution. The scientific principle of actualism says that natural processes operating today operated similarly in the past, so experiments on modern organisms today allow us to understand past evolutionary processes and events.

Sixth, Creationists have repeatedly shown that they don't really accept the scientific statements of so-called "operational sciences" physics and chemistry they claim to respect any more than those of "forensic sciences" biology, astronomy, geology, and paleontology. For example, most Creationists reject the concept of deep time: the ancient ages--in billions of years--of Earth, the geologic timescale, and meteorites and the solar system, all of which are determined by physical and chemical radiometric methods. They reject our knowledge of very ancient ages of galaxies and the universe determined by physical and astrophysical measurements of the speed of light, red shift measurements, and periodicity of variable stars. They reject our knowledge of plate tectonics, largely obtained by geophysical measurements. In spite of their claims to trust experimental or operational science, such as physics and chemistry, there are dozens of examples where the empirical findings of these sciences are rejected by Creationists in favor of Biblical interpretations.

Seventh, science is a method, not a set of disciplines or a set of knowledge from various disciplines. If a discipline uses the scientific method, than it is as scientific as another discipline that uses the same method. Thus, evolutionary biology is as scientific as quantum mechanics or plate tectonics or thermodynamics. The scientific method depends on using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and skepticism in honest and transparent ways, a method that Creationists disdain in favor of misrepresenting empirical data using illogical arguments to make credulous claims that justify their apriori beliefs.

The conclusion is simple: biological evolution and similar natural processes that have occurred for billions of years can be tested by observations, models, and even experiments to the same extent that contemporary matter and energy can in all their forms, and the resulting knowledge is just as accurate and reliable as any in physics and chemistry. In fact, many evolutionary hypotheses have received more corroboration than many physical and chemical hypotheses. For example, scientists know more about natural selection, the primary cause of evolution, than about the cause of gravity. But since gravity is not Biblically controversial, we don't have an anti-gravity problem in this country with surveys that show that 45% of American adults don't believe in gravity.