AiG’s “operation” vs “origin” science

I realize this is probably the wrong forum, but I feel like I’m likely to get a reasonable response here. I had a question about the dividing line between what the AiG group calls “operation”/“operational” (they use both terms) versus “origin” science.

I’ve never heard that distinction made by an actual scientist before of course, so I was curious what their criteria were for classifying a given scientific activity as one or the other. Their site gives some examples like pottery and fossils for “origin science,” “operation science” being observable and repeatable (using the “so-called ‘scientific method’” …why is it “so-called“?), but they don’t really get into specifics.

I’m mostly curious how they would classify something like forensics and crime scene investigations. Take, for example, a domestic murder-suicide by firearm. No (living) eyewitnesses, but plenty of blood splatter on the walls to indicate how and from where each shot was fired. Since no one is alive to report what happened, what can the forensic experts do to qualify their work as “operation science”? They can’t repeat the experiment by killing the people again, so they’d have to rely on “circumstantial” evidence which apparently makes it “origin science.” Or would AiG think “origin science” was good enough in this case?

Back when they called it “historical science” it seemed like they used that distinction to arbitrarily dismiss whatever evidence contradicted their claims. Ham did this a lot during his debate with Bill Nye, for example. Now they call it “origin science” and it seems limited to archeology and geology for some reason. It’s all very confusing.

Also, when did they change it from “observational vs. historical” to “operation vs. origin”? Was there a corresponding adjustment in their positions or was it just a nomenclature update?

(And does anyone else read everything on that site in Ken Ham’s voice? I think the accent is probably a large part of his appeal! At least he doesn’t sound like the Shane Co. guy.)

I don’t know when they changed it, but I do remember Ham really pushing the historical/observational “distinction” in the Nye debate. But as far as arbitrarily dismissing anything that contradicts their views, this change of terms seems to make their ultimate intentions even more clear – that “origin” science is simply not valid to them (unless it can be selectively used to point to a 6,000-year-old universe, of course).

That’s a good point, and that is partly why the use of the term “historical science” confused me even when I held YEC views. Science can be very useful in making determinations about past events. So maybe that’s one of the reasons they changed the terms.

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It’s not a real scientific distinction, Creationists made it up to dismiss the findings they don’t like. Whether investigations are happening in a lab, or in a field setting, or in a galaxy far far away, scientists use the scientific method to gather empirical evidence, test hypothesis, make predictions, and confirm results. Origin science is new to me, I usually hear “historical science.” Probably they got called on their obfuscation so often they had to come up with a new term.

This comes up so much from people with Creationist backgrounds, BioLogos wrote a common question article about it.

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The AiG distinction misses the mark completely. Science is not just a collection of factoids, some about the present, others concerning the past. The object is to understand the principles of the natural world. That understanding transcends time.

Take, for instance, the boiling point of water, an example often trotted out as an example of observational science. Measure it - now you have a data point, a fact if you will. For much of the public, job done, that is the beginning and end of science. But you do not yet have a principle, any sort of fundamental understanding. There is nothing there to generalize, nor consilience with other lines of scientific investigation.

Now you find water boils at different temperatures at different locations, and eliminate alternatives until pressure remains. Returning to the lab, hundreds of data points for temperature vs pressure are analyzed and regressed to a smooth curve. Progress. We have a generalization - a boiling point which has never been directly tested can be predicted if on the domain of the curve. Then a 3D relationship between temperature, pressure, and density is established. But what are the limits of the domain? The critical points are found, the triple point is determined. Viscosity, surface tension, speed of sound, and heat capacity are added. A full equation of state emerges, which can be analyzed by thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. It is found that the equation of state can be violated, that water can be driven into unstable zones which then exhibit nearly explosive transitions. Shock waves propagate faster than the speed of sound. Now we have a much, much deeper understanding of the underlying principles surrounding the boiling point of water.

Then the understanding we have now gained can be generalized further, to places we could never hope to access. Equations of state which describe commonplace gas laws, follow to the extreme conditions of stellar interior plasmas to yield the containment required for fusion (remember those “missing neutrinos”, where YEC did not like the historical implications of fusion?). Without generalizations of equations of state, we could not analyze earthquake waves to determine inaccessible features of the earth’s deep interior, supernovae dynamics, or neutron star structure.

All of that is possible because science is ultimately not just about data points such as the boiling point of water, but rather understanding and generalizing universal principles of nature. It is not about a static snapshot in time, it is about the unfolding process. We see the principles driving that process, happening in all all stages. The processes we observe are of a continuity, and the principles which drive them are what are constant.

To live on the earth is to live in that continuity. The geological features we see are just a point in time in the ongoing unfolding of these processes. That age is inferred is just an implication due that process happens over time. So while, in some trivial way, you can reference historical science as a category, it is derivative to, and dependent upon, an understanding of these basic timeless principles. The description of these we just call science.

YEC is in denial of these general principles, but they are also wildly inconsistent in that they constantly deny observational science. Speeded up radioactive decay under terrestrial conditions has never been observed, yet that forms a central idea in their model. The science of radiometric dating, on the other hand, is consistent with observed rates of decay. YEC proposed fast tectonic movement has never been anywhere near observed, but mainstream geological history is consistent with the scale of currently measured movement. Examples can be multiplied where YEC prefer rates pulled out of the thin air instead of observed phenomena. Given that, how can they claim to honor observational science?

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Great article! Thanks, @Christy. I should have known BioLogos had already addressed the topic.

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Answers in Genesis’s “operational science” versus “historical science” overlooks one very important fact.

Science – both operational and historical – has rules.

The rules in question are the basic rules and principles of measurement and mathematics. These rules place strict constraints on which interpretations of the evidence are legitimate and which are not, and these rules place strict constraints on which assumptions can be challenged and to what extent. And it is these constraints that allow us to figure out things about the past without having been there to see them happen.

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Some things which qualify as observable and repeatable: varves, tree rings, growth ages of shells in stacked layers that do not overlap in fauna, radiometric decay rates, magnetic field patterns, deposition rates, c, plate tectonic speeds, etc.

Some things which do not: global catastrophic floods, miracles, changes in fundamental constants, etc.

That distinction commits a proving-too-much fallacy, by claiming that no reliable claims about unreplicable past events are valid. Which implies that, among other things, none of the bible, or any other statements about history, can be valid.

That still applies perfectly well to the new terms.

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As I suspected, and like @jammycakes and @Paraleptopecten have both indicated, AiG really doesn’t have any strict criteria for the distinction because they don’t follow any formal set of rules. Everything is ultimately arbitrary.

FWIW, I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to track the change history of their “Two Kinds of Science” page, and found that the text of the page actually hasn’t changed at all since 2014 (including a misspelling of “straightforward” as “straightfoward” – missing the second ‘r’). The only real difference between the 2014 version and the latest version is the addition of a cute little embedded video that attempts to explain the difference. (Of course the video twists definitions, misrepresents “secular” science, and contradicts itself, but that’s all to be expected.)

I guess Ham’s use of “observational” and “historical” while speaking has always conflicted somewhat with the published terms, “operational” and “origin.” The video I mentioned above only uses “observational”/“historical” while the accompanying text uses a mix of all the terms (appearing to prefer “operational” over “observational”). Going forward I’ll assume they use the two pairs of terms interchangeably.

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AiG and other creationist organizations have a tough time understanding the difference between hypotheses and observations. Hypotheses are ideas of what is happening in places that we can’t directly observe. We don’t observe hypotheses, nor do we repeat hypotheses. We use what we can objectively measure, which are repeatable observations, to test our hypotheses.

It doesn’t matter if our hypotheses apply to the past which we can’t directly observe, or to the very small which we can’t can’t directly observe (e.g. quarks). Events in the past leave evidence in the present, and we can use that evidence to test our hypotheses. Atoms produce measurable effects when they decay, and we can use those measurements to test our hypotheses of what is going on in atoms.

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The distinction between “historical/origin” and “operation/experimental” is not confined to young-earth sources, but claims that one is inherently inferior are associated with similar errors to the YEC misuse.
Specifically, I have encountered a similar distinction in the context of “my field is superior to your field”-type claims from more conventional scientists. Similar bias can exist against the more descriptive fields of science.

As already pointed out, the claim that “that’s just history, not science, so it’s no good” is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity because it implies that we should dismiss the historical evidence of the Bible.

The reality is that more experimental and more historical approaches intergrade. The labs that I ought to be grading instead of writing this post record direct observations and tests on a variety of rock and mineral specimens. But the lab reports are now a part of the historical record. Although I can get the same specimen and do the same test, I cannot go back in time to see if the student was doing everything correctly. The vast majority of experiments are inspired by historical data that suggested the idea of trying the experiment. Conversely, many aspects of historical scientific ideas can be tested through experiments to re-create the process. Computer modeling provides another way to test historical science. A hypothesis about the past may also make predictions about something that I did not notice in my first set of observations. I can go back to the evidence and see if I find what I now think should be there if my hypothesis is correct.

It is true that historical sciences tend to have somewhat different approaches than the more experimental fields; a distinction is not useless, but it is merely one of degree and does not indicate inferiority.

Of course, all the claims that historical/origins science is unreliable, or that uniformitarianism is inherently atheistic, or that we should hold extreme burdens of proof only apply to claims being rejected.

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It’s a modern classic.

xkcd

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What I want to know is who does the “poor” sociologist get to look down their nose at? The mobs, I guess.

Engineers, of course.

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Hey! I resemble that remark.

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But engineers have an advantage over mathematicians getting to the hundred dollar bill taped on the far wall if you can only advance in increments of one half the distance remaining. The mathematician knows he will never get there and gives up before he starts. Of course, you know the engineer’s response. “Close enough!”

I’d say politicians.

sociology of mathematics

Death, taxes, and a relevant xkcd. (I’m a software developer so xkcd is my jam. Thanks for that one!)

I guess my biggest problem with AiG’s lack of clear criteria, and @paleomalacologist alluded to it as well, is that there’s no specific duration of time that allows us to define the border between “present” and “past.” Like, it does take some amount of time for light to travel from this sentence on your screen to your eyes. So, you’re definitely reading it in the present, but when your brain processes the words that make up the last sentence, you’re experiencing the consequences of something that was only necessarily true in the past (the words being on the screen). That’s obviously an extreme example and I wouldn’t expect AiG to actually classify that as “historical” versus “observational,” but it raises the question of where do you draw the line? If an instant is not long enough, is a second? Five minutes? Around 4,000 years? Whatever it takes to get beyond the horizon of actual, reliable, historical accounts?

Ultimately, they make the answer to all questions about their arbitrary deviations from scientific consensus quite clear in their Statement of Faith:

No apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field of study, including science, history, and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture obtained by historical-grammatical interpretation. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information (Numbers 23:19; 2 Samuel 22:31; Psalm 18:30; Isaiah 46:9–10, 55:9; Romans 3:4; 2 Timothy 3:16).

In other words, “all human interpretation is fallible (except ours).” Got it.

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And they have all the information because they are infallible people who can infallibly interpret the evidence in scripture. :crazy_face:

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I think it is slapping a new coat of paint on a failed argument, because all data are historical an instant after the observation. This change may better define what they would like science to mean, but in the end they are painting themselves into an ever smaller corner.

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