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>Types of science

>In arguments over evolution it seems like many evolutionists (and often non-evolutionists) do not understand science. Bacon gave quite a good definition

observation → induction → hypothesis → test hypothesis by experiment → proof/disproof → knowledge

The basic tenet is that we can test ideas. We want to know how something works and we do repeated experiments and others can do the same experiments. This limits our tests to the present.

To get around this limitation the term science has been expanded. People make hypotheses about single events. Events that by their nature are not repeatable. The problem is that because the term “science” is used for this also people equivocate without being aware of it and in philosophical debates conflate the meanings. This leads to absurd accusations such as creationists investigate gravitation by reading the Bible whereas evolutionists drop bricks off buildings.

What is the difference?

  • Repeatable science is called operational or empirical science.
  • Investigating events is called inferential or historical science.

It is not that an event cannot occur repeatedly, it is that a specific event occurred once. There may be many wet days but did it rain in Rome on March 15?

Proving that an event can occur does not prove that it did occur (though it may add evidence to the proposal). Showing that cats can be killed by drowning does not prove that the dead wet cat found in the rubbish bin was drowned. Proving that an event cannot occur does however counter wrong theories. Showing that jelly cannot cut skin proves the man was not stabbed to death with a giant pudding.

Inferential science in forensics is presented as circumstantial evidence. This however is not the only evidence. Witness is the other type of evidence. And a trustworthy witness is worth more than inference (though the 2 can be compatible in ways that are not immediately obvious).

There is very little difference between creationists and evolutionists about operational science. It is repeatable by anyone and the results can be seen and rechecked. The theory that best explains the data (eg. classical versus relativistic physics) and the significance of a particular experiment may differ, but the difference is still minor.

The major differences in worldview are in inferential science; the grand theories that are invoked to explain history. As we cannot observe this event due to its singular nature (that is, it occurred once) we are left with inferring the likelihood of various scenarios. Data is either consistent with these theories or not, but even showing that a fish can evolve into an amphibian now does not guarantee it has previously; it would be strong evidence that the theory is correct though. Other good evidence for the veracity of a theory is predictive evidence. Because much of a theory is modelled on observations it cannot be said to be predictive; the data is known first and the theory is derivative. Further, credence of the explanatory power of a particular paradigm is overrated, there is no end of sub theories that can be thought up after the event. Coming up with predictions that are different (therefore discriminatory) for several competing theories that can subsequently be tested can add credibility to the correctly predicting theory.

Categories: knowledge, philosophy, science
  1. farmer Tom
    2007 July 15 at 03:23

    >Just wanted you to know I read every new post. You have very good insights.

  2. Starwind
    2007 July 15 at 12:38

    >The major differences in worldview are in inferential science; the grand theories that are invoked to explain history.You’ve touched on what I suspect is an even more profound difference.There is also “theoretical science” which is neither empirical nor historical. Theoretical science seeks to explain the theory of theories. String theory is an example of a theory of everything or a grand unified theory. Evolution (the “macro” variety) purports to explain how evolution evolves. Both are meta science to a degree in that they have divorced themselves from the reality of repeatibility, but also from history in that the phenomena they seek to explain (unity of parts and processes) may not ever have existed.Superstring theory assumes ‘a priori’ more dimensions and parameters of space-time than are ‘theoretically’ necessary by theories it seeks to unify. It also assumes a unified explanation (that at some sufficiently high temperature and density all forces – weak, strong, electromagnetic, and gravitational – become one force) reflects reality, that there is a single natural “explanation” for all natural phenomena, as opposed to say two non-unifiable natural explanations or say one natural and one supernatural explanation.Macro evolution similarly assumes a primordial life-originating process to explain the starting point and diversity of phenotypes after which micro and molecular evolution takes over to explain a diversity of species and genotypes.Both are grand “meta” theories that assume a priori not only the validity of the theories they subsume, but that a single unified explanation in fact reflects reality. It is this a priori presumption of “unifiability” that further distinguishes these worldviews. Reality may require multiple non-unifiable natural explanations, let alone the occasional supernatural.

  3. Dave
    2007 July 16 at 17:05

    >Recently I had a discussion on this topic with some evolutionists. I was willing to call their position a “highly probable inference,” and they kept insisting on the necessity of my accepting their inferential conclusions as “fact.” That kind of evasion is what disturbs me about evolutionist arguments.

  4. Scott Hatfield . . .
    2007 August 14 at 00:51

    >This post seems to me recycle the argument made by Bradley and Thaxton in 1984, an age-appropriate version of which informs the creationist ‘textbook’ Of Pandas and People.The existence of macroevolutionary processes seems to be an inference drawn from a very large number of data points, such as radioactive dating, paleomagnetism, stratigraphic observations, etc. along with the fossil record.These data points are manifestly not inferences, but empirical. But if radioisotopes were unknown, the fossil record still cries out for an explanation as to why we find trilobites in the Cambrian, rather than racoons. This would be true if the entire geological column is but 6,000 years old, and we would still be forced to infer that raccoons came into existence after trilobites.So, I conclude that inference is permitted in science, especially when the inference is synthetic reasoning supported by convergent observations from many fields. Your mileage may vary, but the car runs.

  5. jc_freak
    2008 October 17 at 05:52

    Excellent post. Very well articulated. Are these your categories, or did you inherit them from some where?
    It is also true that all fields of science engage in both empirical and inferential sciences, though certain fields rely on one more so than on the other. Cosmology, for instance, is primarily inferential, but there are particular emirical methods that are utitilized. Thus, they seem to be two ways of doing science, more so than branches of the sciences.

  6. 2008 October 18 at 04:43

    No, this categorisation comes from creationist writings. The point being that people need to understand the nature of science. Scientists (let alone the public) don’t always have the best understanding of the philosophy of science. There is nothing wrong with historical science, but it is important people don’t conflate them:
    Eg. Evolution is the same science that invented lasers and computers.
    This (if “evolution” is meaning the grand theory of life) is not true. It is a historical claim not a repeatable observational claim.
    There is very little disagreement on observational science, anyone can theoretically repeat the experiment.
    There are major differences on historical science as everyone prefers his own philosophy. And much of historical is merely assertion anyway.

  7. Ken
    2009 July 24 at 00:19

    As you admit – you get this characterisation from proponents of creationism. That is probably the only place you will come across such a characterisation. And it is a dishonest (on the part of people like Dembski, Meyer, Johnson, etc.) attempt to inject non-tested ideas into science. I would like you to provide any reference from non-creationist sources for such characterisations.
    We do often have to acquire knowledge about events from the past. We may be able to repeat aspects of the events in the laboratory but the whole event itself may well be a one-off (or at least in our won environment). This may sometimes present difficulties but we do have ways of getting around this. In effect – nature does the experiment for us. We can test our ideas by the predictions they make and validate those ideas in today’s real world.
    In some ways all science is “historical” in that sense. I may investigate a chemical mechanism in the laboratory (and this investigation is helped by my ability to control the environment) but I still rely on determining that mechanism (which occurred historically during the experiment) by the results I measure later.
    As you say “Scientists (let alone the public) don’t always have the best understanding of the philosophy of science.” This is even more true of creationists and proponents of intelligent design who have an ideological axe to grind.
    A simple homily like this should not blind you to the fact that scientists, by the very fact of their involvement in the practical work of obtaining knowledge, often have an excellent intuitive understanding of how this works, its advantages and its limitations. The ideologically motivated often have no experience or intuitive understanding and of course are all pushing barrows.

  8. 2009 July 24 at 21:24

    Hi Ken. I think the source of a proposition is irrelevant if we can understand the proposition and it makes sense. You don’t dispute many broader propositions from creationists such as heliocentrism, electromagnetic propagation, Mendelian inheritance.
    A sound logical argument is sound, even if made by an opponent.
    The issue here is not so much whether we do experiments over time, ie in history as you propose. The issue is repeatability. One controls for most variables and varies a few or a single one. Others can do the same experiment.
    Historical (or if you prefer forensic) science is about reconstructing an event that was not witnessed. It therefore happened once and is not testable in the same way. This is purely a result of what is trying to be established. Sure we can do repeatable experiments on what we have, eg run DNA extraction several times, or count rings from several parts of a single tree. But the actual information we are trying to infer has already occurred, it is not ongoing.
    Limitations of various knowledge disciplines are not error, but we are allowed to recognise where disciplines end. Mathematics is a wonderful field, but it is intrinsically limited in investigating the world. We need data to model. So maths is a very useful tool, but not the only one. (This is not to deny that disciplines can overlap each other).
    As you say “Scientists (let alone the public) don’t always have the best understanding of the philosophy of science.” This is even more true of creationists and proponents of intelligent design who have an ideological axe to grind.
    I would dispute this. Because creationism isn’t the dominant view, creationist scientists are generally well read in both creationism and evolutionism and can identify the ideological differences.
    And all people have an ideology. You have an atheist one, I have a Christian one.

  9. Ken
    2009 July 25 at 04:07

    Well, obviously the source is not irrelevant to you as you appear to have more confidence in creationist “scientists” – which reveals you bias because you were unable, or unwilling, to provide a non-creationist source. My experience has been that you probably won’t find one – and might I suggest (again from experience) that creationist sources are notoriously unreliable about science. In fact, I would say dishonest.
    The point I am making is that this distinction is not recognised by scientists in general. We will often be investigating things that happened in the past (last few minutes, last year, or many years ago, and alongside this (and as part of the same investigation) carrying out experiments in the laboratory. Some of these things may be exactly repeatable, parts may be repeatable and/or evidence is gathered from numerous sources which enable us to hone in with our inferences. And, we always test and validate against reality anyway.
    The fact is that we do have reliable information about events from the past and we keep on confirming things. When we find evidence which disagrees we look again and modify the ideas. And very often the checking, validation etc., occurs in laboratory experiments. We can develop an extremely effective theory of the evolution of the universe back to fractions of a second – and we can validate many of the parts of these theories in the laboratory. The LHC represents a huge investment which we wouldn’t be making if we didn’t think it would contribute knowledge in that way.
    In my research career I have worked with scientists of all sorts of religious beliefs – Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, etc (only the ones I know). None of them have recognised the differentiation you make. All of them have worked on “non-repeatable” things from the past and most have also worked with controlled laboratory experiments. Our concept of science has never had the limitation you wish to impose – and really I don’t think you will find a working scientist who accepts your limitation.
    So it’s got nothing to do with religious affiliation – provided one is genuinely scientific. Creationists represent only a minor section of Christianity – and they are well know for their dishonesty in justifying their beliefs. Their position is not supported by most Christians.
    If you supported creationism, and this particularly distortion of science, it’s not just because you are a Christian.

  10. 2009 July 25 at 21:51

    Ken, I am not trying to enforce anything, and again the source does not matter. You can evaluate the claim being completely unaware of the source. The claim isn’t imposing, it is trying to reveal the underlying suppositions.
    If someone were to claim he wants to work with square roots of negative numbers only using real numbers, it is not an imposed limitation to mention he needs to use imaginary numbers; it is merely a statement of how this particular maths works.
    The idea that there is something intrinsically different between recreating a what a specific event of the past was and understanding how things work currently is one that I think is present. But this is not of me or of anyone. It either is there or it is not. You are fully able to assess this based on what I have written without recourse to an evolutionary authority.

  11. Ken
    2009 July 26 at 00:29

    I’m not after an “evolutionary authority” (don’t know what that means). I want a scientific authority – some actually doing science, a working scientists, who discusses methodology, etc.
    Actually – could you provide me with your source. A reference I can actually quote to make sure that I have got the argument correct as it is advanced. I understand Meyer is one person promoting this classification but don’t have a reference at hand.
    I will try to get around to doing my own article on this “historical science” because it has come up before and needs to be discussed properly.

  12. 2009 July 26 at 05:49

    Here is a sample article from a brief search, though the concept is discussed frequently on that site. A search for “operational science” will bring several articles. And I think it is discussed in their introductory book (free to download as pdf).
    By “evolutionary authority” I meant an (scientist) authority who happens to be an evolutionist. I said that because I didn’t think you accepted creationist authorities. If you want a scientist who does science, but you don’t mind if they hold creationist ideas then several authors on the linked site work in scientific fields as their main job, many of those who work there full time come from a scientific background.

  13. Ken
    2009 July 26 at 23:46

    Thanks for the link. I look forward to writing a post on this.
    I still don’t accept the term “evolutionist.” A scientist is a scientist because of the work she does and how she does it – the methodology. “-Isms” play no part in science (that’s religion and politics) because they are based on dogma – which is the opposite of the scientific approach.

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