The "historical vs. operational science" distinction

The term “historical science” and “operational science” are not recognized as valid by the scientific community. It’s a distinction invented by Creationists as a rhetorical device to give them one more lame excuse to hand-wave away scientific evidence they don’t like. There is only science using the scientific method to test the physical evidence. It doesn’t matter if the evidence was produced one nanosecond ago or 4 billion years ago. The processes of hypothesis testing and for drawing conclusions from the tests is the same.


The distinction between “historical science” and “operational science” is something you made up (or perhaps you found it in the writings of another creationist who made it up; you folks recycle a lot). All science is observational and inferential. There is no fundamental distinction. You can’t observe living Tiktaalik, but you also can’t observe protons. You can observe the effects of past events and so infer those events. And all events are in the past, though some are farther than others.


Incorrect. Evolutionist philosopher of science Dr Carol Cleland also uses this terminology, as do many others. I defend the use of this terminology in my essay in the JoC I mentioned.

As an outsider, I have no comment on this terminology, but instinctively there seems to be a difference between what is repeatable & can be re-measured, and what is inferred about what has happened in the past.

What I can re-measure today, seems to have a higher level of certainty than what we infer/hypothesize about the past, even though there may well be an overwhelming set of evidence that leads us to a conclusion about what happened.

Is this not a fair difference?

By your understanding of science, it seems it should be in principle impossible to disprove anything in the past, including evolution and your earth creation. We can’t directly observe or repeat these events, after all. Is that seriously your contention?

Cite and quote, please. There seem to be no citations in your article, which is not the sort of thing we expect in a peer-reviewed journal. “Historical science” is a valid term; “operational science” is the creationist invention.

1 Like

Yes, that is correct. You cannot use science to prove or disprove anything about the past; the level of uncertainty increases with the amount of time you are speculating into the past. My confidence in my view of the past is based upon God’s revelation, not based upon historical science. Creation science is conducted from within a Scriptural framework, and evidentially I believe it does provide corroboration of the history we find in Scripture, but that corroboration does not prove the Scriptures. The Scriptures are self-attesting.

Do you see how that leads to a total post modern nihilism?


What are you talking about here? Do you have access to the Journal of Creation? Do you have my article?

No I don’t. Could you explain what you mean?

1 Like

Carol Cleland’s usage of “operational science”.

I looked it up online. No citations, at least none in the text. Did I somehow find a bad version?

Which is where you find alternative outcomes from the same or similar processes, so you can compare the results to see if they corroborate each other. Like multiple independent methods of radiometric dating sitting on different decay chains, dating on different types of rock, cross-referencing between tree-rings and radiometric dating, etc. etc.

You can also go and do the tests in many different locations on similar types of rocks.

Neither is the present. You can’t travel 3 minutes back in time and re-do the exact same measurement. The world has changed since you did it, and you’re not really going to be doing the exact same thing again, by the literal meaning of exact. All your results, all your observations are always going to be inferential in nature. You’re going to be comparing things that you know, unavoidably, did not occur under the exact same circumstances.

What if I don’t have that luxury, how long do I keep going? At some point I have to stop and actually use the pipette in an experiment, someone is paying me to get stuff done. In the real world I will always, and only ever be in some constrained circumstance where I’m forced to work with the results and instruments I have within the reasonably allotted time. So now I’ll have to do statistics, and put error bars on stuff.

But then we’re back at square one, with no serious distinction between “historical” and “observational” science. We have a limited set of measurements that we can compare to models, and do statistics on and interpret.

1 Like

This is worthy of being split @moderators

Well if you can’t in principle use evidence to test past events, evidence does not matter. It just comes down to what we each personally believe, independent of evidence. That doesn’t just apply to origins, but also the whole field of history and essentially the entire legal system. If there is no meaningful way to interrogate the past, we quickly reach major absurdities.

I used to agree with you about the distinction between historical and operational science. Then I found out how all science relies on past data, and historical science can produce new data.

What happened was that I was looking at the progress of knowledge from the wrong timeline. The key timeline to consider is the progress of our knowledge, not the ordering of events in the past. From that perspective, you see that historial science in fact has predicted new data, data that certainly existed before the prediction, but was only discovered after being predicted.


Here you go.

If you don’t have a subscription, you will not be able to view the full article online. The references are endnotes, not footnotes.

All of these different methods are leaky buckets. They are all built upon assumptions. Often they do not succeed in corroborating each other and are simply thrown out. You can put all the leaky buckets in the world together and they will not add up to a bucket that holds water. You are still not able to repeat the past.

This is the crucial difference between historical and operational science. Operational science works based upon the idea that nature has a predictable way that it operates (thus the name, operational). That is why we can do repeatable experiments. We work on that basis. It’s actually a philosophical assumption that is rooted in the Bible: God created the cosmos and upholds it in a predictable way from one moment to the next. It’s called the uniformity of nature. Without this fundamental assumption, operational science would be impossible in principle.

I agree, we don’t get certain knowledge from any kind of science. But for the reasons I outlined, we have much greater confidence in operational science because of repeatability, than we can ever have in historical science. Certain knowledge can only come from the revelation of God.

We aren’t at square one. We are at a place where we have only probabilistic ideas (not certain knowledge) coming to us by way of science. The degree of certainty is way, way less for historical science than for repeatable operational science.

I said you cannot use science to prove or disprove anything about the past. You cannot directly test the past because we don’t have time machines. But you can come up with theories and test whether you find the clues you would expect to find. That does not amount to proof, however.

You can ‘interrogate’, but as I said, the certainty level goes down as the amount of time into the past you go increases. By the time you’re talking about things that allegedly happened millions of years ago, I argue the level of certainty is essentially zero. There are far too many unknowns.

Science doesn’t give certain knowledge in the first place. It gives only probabilistic claims, and the level of certainty must decrease with the amount of time we go into the past. Repeatability is the main distinction between operational (ongoing) science and historical science, which deals with claims about what may have happened in the past.

1 Like

Some forms of mineralization can only take place within certain bands of oxygen concentration. That strikes me as an inference about the past which has significance much higher than zero. There are many other examples.


That is quite false. We don’t have to repeat a phenomenon to understand what happened in the past. We only have to have repeatable tests on the evidence the phenomenon left behind. If you claim was true detectives could never solve a murder from trace evidence. They’d actually have to murder another victim. Do you think science knows nothing about the Chicxulub impact 66 MYA because no one saw it in real time, or because we can’t repeat the collision?

Sorry but there is functionally no difference in the testing processes for “observational” vs. “historical”. It’s a useless Creationist distinction only offered as a cheap rhetorical ploy to ignore scientific evidence and the resulting conclusions they don’t like.

1 Like

When you say, “can only”, what you really mean is that within the scope of observations and conditions that we have had access to since the relatively recent dawn of modern science, this is what we have observed. You cannot rule out that in different circumstances we no longer have access to, the situation would have been different. This is a case in point for how people overstate their case constantly because they don’t understand the distinction between historical and operational science.