For most of my life I’ve never been a big science person. I’ve always struggled with science, and ever since I can remember I’ve never had good grades in the subject. This state of affairs is largely my fault because of my attitude towards the subject and my narrow, tunnel-vision argument that usually went along the lines of “I’m a history student, I don’t like numbers, science isn’t relevant to my studies.” In sum, I did bad not because I was unintelligent; I did bad because I was a numbskull. Fortunately, a light went off in my head around the time I turned 25 in 2012, and now I realize that science is awesome, not to mention extremely relevant to how I practice my own craft as a historian. This semester I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on a class that covers the History of Science and Technology Since 1750. Partly a history course and partly a science course, the first three weeks of invigorating and challenging reads have already exposed me to amazing scientific thinkers like David Hume and Karl Popper and have challenged me to consider what we mean when we talk about “doing science.”
On Tuesday, February 4, a well-publicized debate took place between Scientist Bill Nye and Creation Museum Founder Ken Ham over the following question: “is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” The history of science and technology class I’m taking meets on Tuesday nights, but by pure coincidence (or providence, depending on how you see things), inclement weather in the Indianapolis area led to the cancellation of class. So I tuned in to watch what I believed to be an interesting and entertaining debate, helped in large part because there was a lot of lively discussion on Twitter via the #creationdebate hashtag.
A lot of people on Twitter and Facebook, however, questioned the need for a debate, and a lot of post-debate essays I’ve read seem to be rather negative in tone. Nye and Ham talked past each other, Bill Nye wasn’t entertaining enough, and so on. So it goes. While I understand those who say that Nye shouldn’t have even acknowledged Ham’s creationist ideas by agreeing to debate him, I believe it’s always important to reinforce to society what it is scientists do, why they practice science, and why we should encourage people to utilize scientific thinking in their daily lives, even if they don’t make their living in a scientific field.
The debate was nearly three hours long and covered a lot of ground. I just want to focus on a rather curious argument that Ken Ham continually referred to throughout the debate. That argument, according to Ham, is that there are two distinct “types” of science that scientists practice: “observational” and “historical” science.
“Observational” science, Ham argues, refers to science that takes place in the present. It can be observed, tested, hypothesized, and repeated. “Historical” science, on the other hand, refers to science that lacks “evidence,” cannot be observed, and is essentially unknown. Ham asserts, for example, that we can’t deal with something like the formation and existence of the Grand Canyon because we weren’t there to observe it.
The problem with this distinction is that all science is observational, and all science is historical. What happened thousands and millions of years ago is observational, and we have the evidence and technology to observe, hypothesize, and test this type of science. Science that happened last week, yesterday, and twenty minutes ago is historical, observable, and testable. I’ve never heard scientists refer to two “types” of science before, and the reality appears to suggest that this observational/historical dichotomy is figment of Ham’s imagination, not something readily embraced by the science community.
Even if we were to accept the idea of a difference between “historical” and “observational” science, at what point would we agree on a paradigm shift from historical to observational science? When do we cross into observable territory with regards to scientific inquiry? Noah’s Ark? What observable evidence exists to support that claim? If the answer is the Bible, then we need to ask whether or not the Bible can be used as scientific evidence.
I see two crucial factors for understanding why we analyze paradigm shifts and changes over time. For one, we want to outline precise moments in history in which a change–politically, socially, culturally, scientifically, etc.–took place; a moment in time in which something changed. Second and equally important, we want to “think historically” in the sense that we need to understand and appreciate the fact that we today are merely observers of the past, not participants in it. By doing this exercise, we are able to better place our lives in time. “The past is a foreign country,” as David Lowenthal argues, and we must work to learn the “language” of what life was like in the past. Of course, at what point a modern-day society is created is a bone of contention among historians today. For our purposes here, however, it will suffice to point out that people thousands of years ago did not act like us or think like us, and part of thinking historically involves an effort to use historical evidence to uncover how these people made sense of and created their own realities. Ken Ham’s model, in my opinion, doesn’t help us analyze the observational or historical aspects of science or even history itself.