Historical science is a concept at the heart of the recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye over whether Biblical creation can be considered a viable model in today's world. Ken spent around ten minutes of his time on the topic because it is so fundamental to the debate. Nye incorrectly dismissed Ham's arguments, and Steve Horstmeyer does the same in his recent opinion piece on the debate.
Steve's editorial on the debate is replete with error and innuendo, and is misleading on numerous points. His subtle assertion that "I am a scientist" for example, is yet another attempt to cast the debate in terms of a false dichotomy between science and faith. His later assertion that "faith requires no proof" is just as false. But it's Horstmeyer's argument against historical science that I focus on now.
Historical Science is Forensic Science
Historical science is real, and most of the world knows it as forensic science. Indeed, I rather wish the creation movement would use that more common term. Following is the first sentence of the Wikipedia definition:
"Forensic science is the scientific method of gathering and examining information about the past."
"...about the past." See those words? They are at the heart of Ham's argument.
We commonly think of forensic science in connection with criminal investigations, but the scope is broader than that. Wikipedia goes on to say:
"...but forensics are also carried out in other fields, such as astronomy, archaeology, biology and geology to investigate ancient times."
Keep reading and you'll learn that forensic science has roots in the idea of two sides presenting a story, an interpretation of the facts, and then an audience decides which interpretation is the best fit. Quoting Wikipedia one more time:
"In Roman times, a criminal charge meant presenting the case before a group of public individuals in the forum. Both the person accused of the crime and the accuser would give speeches based on their sides of the story. The individual with the best argument and delivery would determine the outcome of the case."
The creation versus evolution debate is in some aspects like a criminal trial. Both sides are presenting their case. You are the jury. It's up to you to decide who makes the better case.
Forensic Science Rests on Assumptions
Forensic science is a force for great good. We apply it after structural collapses to identify failure modes that can be avoided in future work. We apply it in auto accident investigations and use the results to build safer cars and highways.
Forensic scientists work to apply sound reasoning and the results of repeatable testing to look at the facts on the ground and put together an explanation for what we see. Horstmeyer gives the example of looking at skid marks after an automobile wreck. Knowledge of coefficient of friction and operational research into rubber compounds and their interactions with different road surfaces provide the basis for an investigator to reason backward from skid marks on the pavement to identify the vehicle at fault.
What if the auto wreck being observed isn't real? What if it were from a movie set? Is it possible that observing with the wrong set of assumptions can lead to trouble? It would seem so, as some movie actors in Winnipeg found out the hard way.
Forensic Science has Limits
There is no getting around the reality of interpretation. When we look at past events we are reasoning backward, or inferring, what must have happened based upon our current level of knowledge. We could be wrong, and frequently are. Here are just a few examples to consider:
- Nature Magazine just last week published Faulty forensic science under fire. The article highlights the problem of faulty interpretations of evidence from assumptions that do not bear up under scrutiny. (The article also notes an assumption the FBI makes that a DNA match on "13 specific base-pair locations" is sufficient for an identification).
- Do you consider DNA evidence to be reliable? Not so fast. In DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, the New York Times reports on Israeli research showing how evidence can be fabricated by creating "blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor of the blood and saliva." Perhaps those 13 base-pairs the FBI uses aren't really enough after all.
- Problems extend to drug-testing as well. That pseudoephedrine you take for nasal congestion can lead to false-positives. And "the cut-off for opiates was raised [in 1998] from 300 ng/mL to 2000 ng/mL to avoid false positives from poppy seed ingestion." Drug testing involves interpretation applied to repeatable test results. While the test results are repeatable, their interpretation rests upon assumptions.
These are just three examples. It is trivial to find more with just a few minutes using a good search engine.
Horstmeyer makes a point earlier in his article about our ability to infer distant planets, called exoplanets, from gravitational evidence. Yet an ABC Science article published just this past July highlights a case in which an assumption underlying some exoplanet research was found not to be true. Quoting from that article:
'"They see something that they can't explain, and then they blame it on the gravity of something that they don't see."
"We've found another way to generate these patterns," says Lyra.'
"We've found another way." Those are telling words that are at the heart of the point Ham made during the debate. Forensic science is not as reliable as an eye-witness. I have seen Saturn with my own eyes through a telescope. I do not expect Saturn to suddenly be found to not be real. With exoplanets though, the evidence suggests caution. Some might be real, and others might be found later to be misinterpretations.
Update: Gliese 581g provides another example of a planet that isn't.
God is our Eyewitness
Ham freely admitted during the debate that he takes scripture as his starting point. I freely admit the same. I trust God who created us, who has promised never to lie to us. I trust that as creator he is able to communicate effectively with his creation. And I trust that the books of the Bible represent that communication. Where is the evidence? The evidence is in the result. Reasoning forward from scripture provides an explanation that fits the facts on the ground in the world today. Faith is not blind. Faith is supported by facts.
Secularists all too often deny their starting assumption. Or if they don't deny it outright, they cloak their denial by co-opting the term "science" and insisting that "science" cannot accept the creator who made science possible. The argument is made that it is invalid to reason backward to a creator, that one should only ever be allowed to reason backward to self-creation. We have never seen matter create itself. We have never seen life create itself. Yet secularists would have us accept that which has never been observed to happen. Secularism is based on faith too.
Why do secularists stonewall on this issue of historical science? Why did Nye reject Ham's assertion of historical science only to moments later mention forensic science, which is precisely what historical science is? Why does Horstmeyer present forensic science as being rock-solid reliable in the face of so much easily-findable evidence that forensic science is subject to interpretation depending upon one's assumptions?
It is because to admit the assumptions is to begin to lose the debate.
Understanding the Debate
The debate is really a debate over world views. It is a debate between two religions. The belief that the universe and life are self-created is at the heart of a religion of naturalism that has co-opted the term "science" in order to close off the path to knowledge. The belief that God is creator is also at the heart of a religion. The difference is that one religion is honest about its roots, whereas the other is not.
To admit that self-creation of the universe and life rests upon an assumption of naturalism is to admit that another assumption is possible. If that's the case, then both assumptions can and should be explored to see which is a better fit to the world as we see it today, and for many people that "better fit" is creation followed by original sin as described in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
The religion of naturalism suppresses truth and worships the creation just as described in Romans 1:18-22. Those who suppress truth don't want you to hear it, and that's the reason they stubbornly stonewall on the issue of historical science. The other religion is all about finding the truth, and through the truth finding life. Which religion are you? As for me and my house, we choose truth.