Is historical science reliable?


I didn’t see a direct comment section for the article and I thought it might be a good topic for this forum. You can find the original article here:

Is historical science reliable?

One of the common misconceptions that I see on this topic is the confusion between observations and hypotheses. Critics of historical science claim that it isn’t scientific because the past isn’t observable or repeatable. The mistake they make is that our explanations for what happened in the past are hypotheses, not observations. In the scientific method you don’t observe the hypothesis. The hypothesis and observations are two different things.

Let’s use the recent discovery of the Higg’s Boson as an example. You might say that they observed the Higg’s Boson, but you would be wrong. Instead, they saw an excess of photons that were created during collisions of a certain energy. Not only that, but these photons were measured after the decay of the Higg’s Boson, so it is really historic evidence, even if it is only going back a few nanoseconds. On top of that, scientists did their initial analyses on computer recordings that were created in the past. A vast majority of evidence and observations in science are either indirect or from the past.

For evolution, it is no different. Our hypothesis is that species share a common ancestor. The observations are of fossils and DNA, items that are in the present and can be verified through repeated observation. These are like the excess photons at CERN which told us that a Higg’s boson decayed in the past. These are just like the computer recordings of the particles spewing out of the LHC.

In science, you test a hypothesis by predicting what you should see if the hypothesis is true AND what you shouldn’t see if the hypothesis is false. There is no inherent time limit on how long the evidence can sit around before it is no longer considered an observation. If you can accurately and repeatedly measure something then it is a valid scientific observation. If your hypothesis makes predictions about future observations, then it is scientific. The theory of evolution and the evidence that supports it fills all of those requirements.


They forget that when we observe the sun and the stars we are seeing the past.

(Jon) #3

I think some of them just don’t even realize it. They don’t understand basic physics.

(James McKay) #4

I always find attempts such as this one to address this question a little bit disappointing.

The reason is that they often take too long to get to the point. The whole point of the “historical sciences” argument is the supposedly armour-piercing question, “were you there?” As such, they need to get to the answer to this question straight away, without beating around the bush.

This means a clear, crisp explanation of how historical assumptions can be tested without having “been there” by either (a) cross-checking different measurements whose assumptions are independent of each other, or (b) making testable predictions about what we would expect to see if the assumptions were or were not valid.

(James Stump) #5

As a philosopher, I have to quibble with this a bit. It seems that on these criteria, Old Testament prophecy would qualify as science: it makes predictions about what you’ll observe in the future, and you can repeatedly check (i.e., observe, measure?) whether those things have happened. There just is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as science–at least that everyone would agree to. And there is no governing body that can determine definitively who is right and wrong in their attributions of “science” to any particular activity.

That’s a big part of the problem with this question. We allude to it in the paragraph about language, but there is obviously much more to be said about that. Anyone is free to use words however they want, and hope that their usage catches on. The YEC folks started using “historical science” in a particular way, and it has caught on among many of their devotees. This is our attempt to push back and say with our best Inigo Montoya accent, “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”


The first problem is that your hypothesis needs a null hypothesis, the conditions under which a prophecy is false. You also need a statistical model to determine if random chance would fulfill prophecy as well as the observations (e.g. Student t test). From what I have seen, prophecies are retroactively interpreted to fit an event that has already happened.[quote=“jstump, post:5, topic:37369”]
And there is no governing body that can determine definitively who is right and wrong in their attributions of “science” to any particular activity.

That is true. Scientists tend to dislike authority. At the end of the day, scientists accept a theory if it works. That is, if a theory continues to make new, independent, and accurate predictions they continue to use it. It is much more about pragmatism than a need for authoritative statements.

As a whole, I tend to agree with Weinberg on this subject.
"The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nationstates was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers. I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of philosophy. Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers. This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find…"–Steven Weinberg, “Dreams of a Final Theory”

(Chris) #7

The same applies when you read the words on this post. The light takes a finite time to reach your eyes.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #8

Or a finite amount of time for the stimulated retinal nerves to send the signal to your brain and for your brain to process the signal. What’s your point exactly?