Historical Science and Observational Science

The only thing you’ve ever said that I agree with


This is where I’m confused. “Historical science” is still empirical…


Methodological and Epistemic Differences between Historical Science and Experimental Science


No, it isn’t. Not even according to evolutionist philosopher of science Carol Cleland, though I disagree with her assessment of the situation.

YEC’s don’t deny the chemistry of radiocarbon dating: that parent isotopes decay into daughter isotopes. That is a given. What they disagree on is the interpretation that these ratios can be extrapolated back millions of hypothetical years in order to assign a date to something.

If you don’t understand principles of philosophy then you don’t understand critical thinking. If you don’t understand critical thinking then you won’t be able to formulate appropriate hypotheses, especially in the realm of historical science, and you won’t be able to make appropriate conclusions from your results. And you won’t even know which experiments you should be doing in the first place.

Not to mention ethics.

So your claim is that Carol Cleland believes historical science isn’t empirical. That’s interesting, because in the very link you posted (to her 2001 paper) she talks about how historical sciences would be without empirical grounding without what she calls “smoking guns”, which she defines as:

a trace that sets apart one hypothesis as providing a better causal explanation (for the observed traces) than do the others.

She even provides examples of such “smoking guns”, like the presence of iridium and shocked quartz at the KT boundary for the meteorite-impact hypothesis, and the cosmic background radiation for the big bang. Clearly, she believes these kinds of evidence give historical science “empirical grounding”.

In her 2002 paper that I posted, she makes this even more clear, with quotes like:

The empirical support currently enjoyed by the Alvarez hypothesis provides an excellent illustration of the evidential resources available to historical researchers.


Historical researchers investigating particular past events cannot test their hypotheses by performing controlled experiments. But this doesn’t mean that they cannot procure empirical evidence for them.


I have had an essay published dealing with all this in the Journal of Creation, so I definitely know what you’re talking about here. I said she uses the distinction, but I disagree with her assessment.

I’m not talking about the distinction between experimental and historical science in general here, I was specifically addressing your claim that Cleland doesn’t believe historical science is empirical.

Experimental methods are commonly held up as the paradigm for
testing hypotheses: the scientific method, widely disseminated in introductory science texts, is modeled upon them. But not all scientific
hypotheses can be tested in the laboratory. Historical hypotheses that
postulate particular past causes for currently observable phenomena
provide good examples. Although historical hypotheses are usually associated with fields such as paleontology and archaeology, they are
also common in geology, planetary science, astronomy, and astrophysics. Some familiar hypotheses are continental drift, the meteoriteimpact extinction of the dinosaurs, the big bang origin of the universe,
and, more recently, the hypothesis that there are planets orbiting distant
stars. What all of these hypotheses have in common is explaining observable phenomena (e.g., the complementary shapes of the east coast
of South America and the west coast of Africa, the iridium and shocked
quartz in the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, the isotropic threedegree background radiation, the wobbling reflex motion of certain
stars) in terms of their past causes. As discussed herein, the use of
computer simulations does not change their historical character

(Taken from above referenced paper by Cleland)

How is any of that relevant to anything I said?

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I see you have just changed the subject from observational science to experimental science. Is it your view that they’re synonymous? It doesn’t appear to be Cleland’s. Have you perhaps confused two quite different words?

And in fact Cleland holds up historical science as at least equally valid as experimental science, entirely contradicting your main thesis. You appear to have a poor understanding of the philosophy of science.

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I think that reply was aimed at Paul, rather than me.

There is a very significant overlap between the two. Of course, I would add to the experimental aspect the simple process of describing observations and cataloging them; that would be empirical, but not experimental.

My essay was aimed at refuting exactly that contention.

Can you support your contention that Cleland doesn’t believe historical sciences are empirical?

I think you’re trying to get into semantics here. As I already explained, in my view at least, empirical and experimental are nearly synonymous. Cleland may disagree, and that’s fine; but what I was trying to convey is that contra what some others here have claimed, the distinction of “historical vs. experimental/operational” science is entirely valid and is not limited to the YEC community.

It’s not semantics at all. You clearly said that Cleland doesn’t believe that historical sciences are empirical. Either retract that claim, or back it up. You don’t get to take Cleland’s position and twist it into something different by changing the definitions to what you prefer them to be.


Not good enough. They’re two different concepts. One can make observations by performing experiments; in fact, that’s what experiments are for: setting up conditions to facilitate making certain observations. One can also make observations without experiments, and historical sciences generally do that. But historical science is observational too. Cleland is not making the distinction you imagine here, and your attempt to change the subject, even if unconscious, is at best wrong. You should at the very least acknowledge your error.

Now, why is historical science not observational?

Great. How did you refute it?

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