Is there a difference between “observational” and “historical” science as Young Earth Creationists (YECs) say? As you can read in any number of Answers in Genesis articles, YECs claim that there are two kinds of science: “Operational Science” where we are making observations about the present, and “Historical Science” where we try to come to conclusions about past events. The argument is that we can be sure about “Operational Science” because we are eye witnesses of it, but we can’t be sure about “Historical Science” without an eye witness. YECs are convinced that Genesis is such an eye witness account, so it must trump any scientific conclusions about Earth’s history.
The whole point can be summed up as saying, “were you there? If not then you don’t know.”
However, this is a deeply mistaken idea of how science works and what its goals are.
What is Science?
Science can be explained in more or less complicated ways. In philosophy jargon it’s a marriage of Empiricism and Rationalism. More simply it’s a process of collecting facts and using logic to tell us useful things.
Note: those useful things are never the present. The reason science is useful is because it can tell us things we can’t or have not yet observed.
Simply making observations is not science, and that’s the first thing YECs get wrong. Have a look at this example of “Operational science” given by the AiG article linked in the top paragraph:
“You climb to the top and drop down your measuring tape to find that the building is exactly 1,453 feet and 8 9/16 inches from the ground to the tip of the broadcast tower—that includes over 100 floors and an observatory. You put the building on your scales and find it to be 365,000 tons.”
This is not an example of doing science at all, it’s simply making observations. By itself this information is completely useless. Only by applying logic to these facts do we start to do science and learn useful things.
Consider a simple real science example: We can observe the stars and planets following their paths in the sky year after year. If all we were doing is collecting observations, we would have a tidy pile of notes and nothing more. But since we’re doing science we will also apply logic and do something useful — predict the future!
When does science tell us about?
The whole reason science is useful is that it tells us things without an eye witness, and we can be sure of those things! You can look up the exact minute that the sun will come up where you live a year from now. You can be sure the prediction will come true despite having never witnessed the future yet.
YECs are mistaken to think that science is about knowing facts about the present. When we are designing cell phones, or GPS systems, or trying to land robots on Mars, we are using science to tell us about future events. When I am in the lab looking at immune cells, I am only interested in my present observations because they can tell me how future immune cells will work.
So whether they realize it or not, YECs already know they can be confident about scientific conclusions without any eye witnesses. No science is “observational science.”
How about the past?
So if evidence can let us know the future can it let us know the past? Yes, in fact, figuring out the past is far easier than predicting the future.
Consider a volcano. I can confidently tell you that a volcano erupted within the last 10,000 years within range to deposit ash in Edmonton, Alberta because I have evidence. All the evidence needed is a layer of volcanic ash and material under it to carbon date. That is not a lot of evidence!
Now consider how much evidence I would need to accurately predict the same will happen in the next 10,000 years. I would need many more facts about movements of magma, pressure, and seismic activity than we have available. I just couldn’t do it.
There is no reason we can’t be equally confident about scientific conclusions about the future or past (“Historical Science”) if we have strong evidence.
“Observational Science” doesn’t exist. All science tries to tell us things we can’t or have not yet seen. Simply making observations is not science.
We can be confident in scientific conclusions about the future or past. All it takes is evidence. In fact, it takes far less evidence to figure out what happened in the past than to predict the future.