The Difference between Historical and Operational Science & Dr. John Sanford’s Testimony

Many creationists talk at length about the difference between operational science and historical science. Is there any merit to this view? There was an informative discussion of this distinction at the Kansas Board of Education trial in 2005, with the interview of Dr. John Sanford. Below I have included the pertinent part of that transcript for your consideration.

Basic definition

While Dr. Sanford will discuss this in his own terms below, let me give my own brief distinction between these two categories of science: I like to think of “operational science” as simply “raw science,” namely, as the basic laws and principles of science that we all agree upon. All sane and respectable evolutionists and creationists agree upon the validity of Galileo’s and Newton’s laws of motion, upon the validity of the periodic table in chemistry, and upon the basic nature of light, and on the fact that it can be split with a prism into many colors. We also agree that all of these areas of science can be repeatably tested with very precise and consistent measurements. I want to emphasize this: operational science must be repeatable for it to be valid. Historical science, on the other hand, has to do with using operational science to ascertain what happened in history, when we were not there to directly observe an event.

The reason this distinction is so important, is because biblical creationists, who are a minority amongst scientists today, are made out to be anti-scientific because of our biblical origins beliefs (about what happened in earth and cosmic history), when in reality, the only “science” they disagree with is of the historical or forensic sort. That consideration alone doesn’t mean we are right (see below), but it does give the lie to the oft repeated claim that our side simply represents a stand on faith against science. Rather:

  1. both sides stand on faith (the faith of naturalism against the faith of biblical theistic foundations), and
  2. both sides use operational as well as historical science to bolster their views.

Creationist misuse of the argument?

Do creationists misuse this distinction? In my own humble opinion, I believe we sometimes have, not withstanding the critical importance of this distinction nonetheless. What is this mistake? The mistake is the errant belief that simply alluding to this distinction is somehow adequate, in and of itself, to showing one’s side is in the right, or else to clearing their side of a posed difficulty to their position. In shorter terms, the error is in claiming that historical science can’t ever be definitive enough to establish the truth of a matter. I’ve listened with anxiety as this has been done in the past, as I realize how easily the other side could knock down this errant position. The fact is: We use historical / investigative / forensic type science all of the time in ways that are extremely sound.  (Remember though, historical science still uses and depends on the principles and practices of operational science.) The key example I often think of is of a police detective taking fingerprints on the day after a crime, following the dirty footprints of the criminal through that broken in building, observing the broken glass where the criminal clearly broke in, and etc. Such evidence can be conclusive in establishing some of the key events that occurred. This is why many criminals who were not videotaped or personally observed breaking an entering still get rightfully convicted of those crimes. 

Of course, the problem still exists: Historical science is very different from operational science, and the key is, we can still be totally lead astray by the evidence, or in many, many other cases, the evidence is actually quite ambiguous. In the example above, it might actually have been the case that one of our friends, who didn’t talk to the investigator, actually was chasing down the criminal, and that the footprints and the fingerprints were actually his, not the criminal’s! This is where we must humbly appreciate the differences between operational (raw) and forensic / historical science, where we are using scientific data to reconstruct a past event. Even so, I feel it is disingenuous for creationists to speak of historical science as if it is never in any sense conclusive, or on some sliding scale close to conclusive. Indeed, if we were to take that claim too far, we would have to claim that evidence doesn’t matter at all anyways. Why else would we even be referring to the evidence in support of our own views, if there was never anything conclusive to it? 

But what about motivation?

A second major problem I have with how creationists have sometimes used this argument, is simply this: It’s not actually the source of our problems anyways, and yet this distinction is often made to be the primary consideration. But this distinction doesn’t actually explain why people got on such opposite ends of this origins debate in the first place! The source of this conflict goes far deeper than this. Richard Dawkins didn’t oppose creationism so stridently because one morning he woke up accidentally confused about the distinction between historical science and observational science! Neither does a committed creationist work as hard as he does because of this distinction. Rather, he or she feels strongly about these issues for faith reasons. This is a faith conflict at its core (the faith of atheism is just as real of a faith as the other, to be clear). I believe the true source of this conflict is explained best in an entire book of the Bible, namely in 2 Peter, the entire letter is dedicated, in my view, to these kinds of issues.

The irony in this discussion is that the major inventors of science, who laid down the scientific method that we are all building on today, were mostly young-earth creationists in their day(!). So creationists hardly need to be running in defense on this issue, as if we can’t be good scientists, what an irony! What happened is that the Enlightenment religion of humanism, and of man-based reason set against God, took over the Western academy and the positions of authority in society. So we are indeed in the minority  today, but that doesn’t mean we are anti-scientific, nor does it mean we are necessarily wrong. Nor, on the other hand, do these considerations automatically mean we are right, either. For that, we need to look at the evidence still.

With those very important caveats stated, here then is Dr. Sanford’s enlightening discussion on this distinction. The first few paragraphs are given to give a little context first (all emphases below are mine):

Dr. John Sanford’s testimony on this distinction

A. Okay. In terms of methodological naturalism, methodological materialism, I do believe that methodological implies science and naturalism implies philosophy. So we– one can, in fact, use the methodology of science to study things without a materialistic or a naturalistic philosophy behind it.

Q. Do you believe that the definition in the minority report, which limits explanation to just natural phenomena, describes the science too narrowly? And does that impact, in your view, the issue of religion?

A. I think that in– in the case that we’re discussing, which is the issue of origins, it isn’t a reasonable pre-assumption that everything occurred strictly by natural law. In fact, that is the very question, is– was– in the beginning did everything arise from natural law or was there a designer. That’s– that isn’t– shouldn’t be a premise, it should be the question. In other words, we will use science to ask– to examine evidence for or against a design versus a randomly-occurring universe.

Q. You’ve mentioned operational science and historical science in your testimony. And I want to direct your attention to one proposed change in the standards that relates to the issue of historical science. In this particular indicator, the minority– this is relating to earth and space science. And the proposed indicator would have students understand how to test an historical hypothesis about the cause of a remote past event by formulating competing hypotheses and then describing the kind of data that would support one and refute the other.

A. Uh-huh.

Q. I think we had a discussion a while back and you made the comment that you did not realize that there was a distinction about– between historical and experimental science until a few years ago. And so I would like you to comment upon that, as well as this indicator, and the importance for students to understand the distinction.

A. Okay. I think that what’s proposed is excellent because developing alternative hypotheses and then defining experiments to discriminate between which hypotheses are stronger than others is critical to scientific method and critical to critical thinking. So I think that’s an excellent addition to the curriculum. I entirely support it. And I also support the idea of getting students to recognize the distinction between operational science and historical science.

And for myself, as you point out, I often fail to make that distinction even as a Cornell scientist. And I know that many of my colleagues have often failed to make that distinction. If you pick up the General Science and go through it, you’ll see that there are some publications which are easily verifiable by any laboratory in the world. That’s operational science.

There are other publications which are speaking about non-reproducible events in the distant past which really is historical science. And it is very important to distinguish them for this reason: Operational science must be reproducible. It’s incredibly important. It’s not science if you can’t– if someone else on the other side of the world can’t reproduce your experiment. But historical science is not reproducible.

Let me give you a quick illustration. It’s often said that Josephine poisoned Bonaparte, Napoleon, okay? That’s historical science. And they say, look, we have scientific proof that she did it because we found arsenic in the bones of the person who’s buried in Napoleon’s grave.

But I would like to distinguish for you what part of that is operational science and what part is historical science. If we test for arsenic in those bones, you can send it out to twenty different laboratories around the world and they’ll all give you roughly an agreement about how much arsenic is in those bones. That’s operational science and it’s reproducible. Everybody can agree to it.

But there’s also historical science. Given the importance and political intrigue associated with Napoleon, was it Napoleon buried in Napoleon’s grave? That’s an inference. Was he exposed to arsenic by accident or on purpose? That’s an inference. If he was exposed to Napoleon (sic) on purpose, was it his wife or someone else or himself? So there’s a great deal of inference.

So although it’s a science to say we found bones– we found arsenic in the bones in the grave of Napoleon, that’s operational science. Historical science was Napoleon– (reporter interruption). I’m sorry. Historical science says that Josephine poisoned her husband. It’s incredibly important to distinguish these two things.

I’m seeing a lot of novels being published today by evolutionary scientists where they take the next step. If you are a novelist and you wrote about the story of how Josephine poisoned her husband, that’s called historic fiction. The problem is historical science can easily blur into historical fiction because there’s no accountability, it’s largely speculation.

Q. Would you describe evolutionary biology as– in large part an historical science?

A. It is entirely a historical science. This is– this is why the distinction is so important. A lot of people say if you don’t agree with the current form of historical science in terms of evolution, you are a threat to science at large. But you’re not. Operational science is not being challenged.

The space shuttle, modern medicine, modern agriculture, telecommunications, that’s all operational science. It is not influenced by this discussion of human origins. It is– everyone is supportive of that type of science. Historical science becomes more and more uncertain and increasingly subject to error the further back you go and the more inferences that are made. And so very quickly, when you talk about very remote or very ancient events, you’re talking speculation instead of science.

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