Reflections on Historical vs Operational Science & the Court Testimony of Dr. John Sanford

Reflections on Historical vs Operational Science & the Court Testimony of Dr. John Sanford

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Many creationists speak of the importance of distinguishing between operational and historical science, and claim that failing to draw this distinction has allowed naturalists to falsely claim that we are against science, just because we don’t adopt their mainstream views on earth and cosmic history. I believe this is a critical point we must stand upon, and below, we will see an excellent defense of this view by one of my favorite creationists, Dr. John Sanford. The following interview took place at the Kansas Board of Education trial in 2005, during the interview of Dr. John Sanford. It is auch an enlightening and enjoyable discussion that I believe it needs called attention to. Before that though, on the other hand, I do believe our side has sometimes misused this distinction, a point which I would like to clarify first below.

Basic definition

“Operational science” can be thought of simply as “raw science.” It’s more or less the basic laws and principles of science, and it encapsulates the scientific method in general. While there will always be individuals in society who are skeptical (or worse) of science, no “creation scientist” I know of is in disagreement that the scientific method is the basis upon which we do research. Light can be split with a prism into many spectra of colors. We can precisely and repeatedly measured these things. In this we are talking about precise, consistent, and repeatable measurements.

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-science 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, a major point I want to highlight here. But it does give the lie to the oft repeated claim that our side simply represents a stand on faith against science. It should rather be said that:

  1. both sides use operational as well as historical science to bolster their views.

  2. virtually no distinctions exist between the main communities on matters of operational science

  3. regarding the historical conclusions of earth and cosmic history, the naturalists are no less biased

One might argue at this point that creationists, unlike naturalists, have a faith commitment, and that this undermines the supposedly “scientific” basis of their claims. Right, but don’t naturalists have just as strong of a commitment to not allow God, or god, or gods, or anything supernatural, to be the answer to our origins? And besides all that, most importantly, The Truth does not believe in the separation of church and state, or any other such political nonsense. It’s just true, or not, that’s all. Truth is simply and merely true. If you were in court yesterday … or in a church, or not, those are historical questions that don’t care about whether it’s pro faith or not, they are simply and merely true, or false.

“Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” ~ C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

So those who want to claim that people with a faith perspective must be wrong because they have, well, a faith perspective, are using circular logic contrary to the very nature of truth. What if creationists are correct, that God, or a god(s), actually made DNA and the human genome, etc.? What hubris and anti-logic to expel the possibility of their views because of an anti-religious bias.

So in fact, both sides have biases. And yet, does this mean that all views and models are equal then, as a typical post-modern individual might claim? No! This leads me to the following clarification:

But is historical science never sufficient to be definitive?

Do creationists misuse this distinction? In my opinion, I believe we sometimes have. The mistake is the errant stance that simply alluding to this distinction is somehow adequate, in and of itself, to show that one’s side is in the right, or else to clearing their side of a posed difficulty to their position. More specifically, the error is in acting like 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. The fact is: We use historical / investigative / forensic type science all of the time in ways that are extremely sound and that give definitive answers. If this were not true, then no criminals would ever be caught by police detective or forensic work.

So I plead with our side to give at least a brief caveat when using this distinction, along the lines of: “… sometimes historical / forensic science is strong enough to settle a matter, I don’t deny that. Even so, I think our side does have the better historical evidence, and here’s why…”

With those caveats stated, here is Dr. Sanford’s enlightening and enjoyable discussion on this matter. The first few paragraphs are given for initial context. All emphases are mine:

Dr. 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.