Why historical science is the best kind of science

This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.

There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.

Rocks exposed at Grand Canyon, from Proterozoic to Permian. Click to enlarge

A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, must be at least many tens of millions of years old. Lord Kelvin, the leading physicist of his time, argued that this was impossible, because using all sources of energy then known, the Sun could not have kept going for more than some twenty million years. There was nothing wrong with Kelvin’s reasoning, apart from the small fact that there was a massive source of energy (nuclear fusion) of which he had no inkling.

The fossil record shows catastrophic discontinuities, most famously the sudden disappearance of the dinosaurs, for which there was no physical explanation at the time when they were discovered.

How today’s separate continents were once connected, and how we know it. Click to enlarge

The close similarities in geology and in the kinds of fossils found on both sides of the South Atlantic, and even (as Francis Bacon observed 400 years ago) the way their coastlines fit together like jigsaw pieces, show that South America and Africa were formerly joined together. Yet geologists long resisted this conclusion, because they could not see how the continents could have moved through the solid ocean floor, and had not realised that the ocean floor itself is capable of moving.

The Ice Ages were well established from the historical record, because of such clear physical traces as scratches on rocks, transported boulders, and the ways that vanished glaciers had reshaped valleys, long before they were explained in terms of subtle shifts in the Earth’s rotational axis.

What about reproducibility, prediction-making, and testing against observation, traditional hallmarks of good science?

All we need to be able to reproduce is our observations, not necessarily the event that caused them. We cannot duplicate the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, but we can duplicate the observations from which we infer that it occurred. We cannot duplicate the formation of the Cretaceous limestones of Europe and North America, but we can repeatedly confirm that they contain similar microfossils, showing them to be of the same age. And when we speak of prediction-making in science, we are using the word “prediction” rather loosely, to include relevant information about the past. Thus when William Halley used Newton’s physics to work out the trajectory of the comet that bears his name, he “predicted” that the comet would have appeared previously around 1531 and 1607, in accord with recorded observation. As for observational testing, it is as true for historical science as for any other kind of science that when our ideas are contradicted by new results, we need to modify them. For example, there were sceptical palaeontologists who maintained, on the basis of radiometric dating, that some dinosaurs had survived the asteroid impact, but more accurate dating of the relevant strata showed that this was not so.

The hadrosaurs were doing fine until the impact (note scale)

Historical science also draws together different kinds of observations, linked by their common cause. It is interesting that we have found shattered rocks, and evidence of tsunamis and wildfires, all occurring in the same layer of sediment laid down some 66 million years ago. It is even more interesting that this layer carries excess iridium (the calling card of an impacting asteroid), and matches the death date of the dinosaurs.

Rule-making science can seem impersonal and remote, because it excludes the contingent, the way things just happened to be, and it is just such contingencies that dominate our own lives. Historical sciences, on the other hand, explore the sometimes dramatic implications of contingencies, such as the fact that the asteroid discussed above happened to land in a shallow coastal sea, rather than the deep ocean where it would have done far less harm.

All of which stands on its head the common presumption that deep time geology is inferior because it is merely a historical science. Not only is it in many ways more interesting; it is also more certain.

1] Descriptive sciences such as geography can be thought of as historical sciences for my purposes. There are also the social sciences, but I do not know enough about these to say anything of interest.

2] More correctly, non-avian dinosaurs. Birds are dinosaurs.

I thank Carol Cleland and Craig Jones (both U. Colorado, Boulder), Maarten Boudry (Ghent), Michael Fugate (UC Riverside) and Tom Scharle for useful discussions. Grand Canyon image via lovetheseptics [sic]. Pangaea map from UK coolgeography A-level materials. Hadrosaur image(Creative commons), by Debivort via Wikimedia

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on May 10, 2018, in Education, Evolution, Fossil record, History of Science, Science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. Hmm… In the endless search for things to quibble with, I found the following assertion…

    The best kind of science would be science that is focused on ensuring the future of science. The value of all the sciences depends upon there being future scientists who can build upon what is being learned today.

    Until the future of science is ensured, it’s not that rational to be developing all kinds of information which really has little practical use beyond being interesting. It’s not that rational to be looking back while the future hangs by a thread.

    There is a way out of this problem though. Scientists could simply declare that science, and not reason, is their priority. The religious clergy has long done the same thing in regards to their enterprise and it seems to work pretty well for them.

    In order to be credible scientists of all fields need to decide what their relationship with reason really is. If reason is declared the priority, this will inevitably entail some decisions which are inconvenient to science. If science is declared the priority, this will inevitably entail some decisions which are inconvenient to reason.

    What’s happening now is that science culture is falling prey to that most human frailty, wanting one’s cake and eat it too. Science culture wants to present itself as a master of reason, while ignoring reason whenever it becomes inconvenient. The best kind of science would get to the bottom of that dangerous phenomena and straighten it out.

    The dinosaurs can wait, they’ll still be there in the fossil record once we overcome the threat to our own extinction. Putting a hold on such research for now would be reason, but of course it wouldn’t be science. Continuing such historical research while our own extinction looms near would be science, but not reason.


    • I sympathize with your point but remember not all scientists think we stand on the brink of destruction. Mr Pinker believes we are making progress in his book Enlightenment Now. Others believe science can overcome our problems providing we can get political action.
      There seems to be two quite serious stumbling blocks ; climate change and the loss of antibiotics . The second can be overcome if we can get the big drug companies to apply themselves to research they may need public money to do this.
      Climate means a drastic change in lifestyle and the rich section of the globe ( which includes scientists) will resist this with all their might.
      China now has a middle class of 300 million and it’s growing; they will not want to loose their new found wealth.
      So at the moment it looks as if climate will be ignored until it’s very serious and that may well destabilise civilisation or fragment it.


    • From the Oxford Dictionary embedded in my computer hard drive:

      reason | ˈrēzən |
      1 a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event

      Pray tell, why is anyone trying to differentiate between reason and science? The very foundation of science is reason. In fact, science IS reason using the definition quoted above.

      I believe this discussion is tangential to Paul’s original post. If a person does not understand that the core of all science is the seeking of “a cause, explanation, or justification” for observed natural phenomena, then one has wandered far off the trail of what science really is.

      I do not mean to offend, but it appears fairly clear that many still do not really understand what practicing scientists know both by training and viscerally over time (most scientists, one should say). Science is reason as applied to cause seeking. The above comments appear to be based on a deep misunderstanding of what science really is rather than a noble and philosophical discussion of the subtleties of science.


  2. Paul writes, “…it is as true for historical science as for any other kind of science that when our ideas are contradicted by new results, we need to modify them.”

    Does this principle…

    1) apply only to data developed by science, or…

    2) does it also apply to the ideas which form the foundation of science?

    If we choose #1 we are making science a priority over reason.

    If we choose #2 we are making reason a priority over science.

    My impression is that there sincere confusion in science culture on this subject. It’s certainly true that when data is contradicted by new results, science culture changes it’s conclusions. What’s less clear is whether the assumptions that science itself is built upon will also be edited in response to new information.

    If we are to reject the kind of thinking that generates creationism challenging our own core assumptions would seem to be even more important than challenging the creationists core assumptions. If we fail to do so we are really little different than the creationists, and thus not qualified to be their critics.

    My argument is that a stubborn blind faith in the “more is better” relationship with knowledge irregardless of emerging evidence to the contrary is really little different than the processes of religion.


  3. John Wiltshire

    “Hmmm… continuing Phil’s endless search, I see some potential problems with this that the Creationists could exploit.

    Firstly, saying, in effect, that there was nothing wrong with Kelvin’s reasoning apart from the fact that there was something wrong with it and implying that typically arrogant scientists don’t bother with such trivia is, perhaps, leading with your chin.

    Secondly, the distinction between rule-seeking science and historical science seems artificial to me. Science is about observing nature, attempting to understand it and model how it works. We can perform experiments and observe effects or simply observe effects that are already in evidence. So the distinction is in devising and performing experiments and not the rule-seeking analysis that follows careful observation. It follows that historical science is really a sub-set of the full range of scientific endeavour. So it is not “better than”, it is a “part of”.

    Then, for example, consider the Milankovitck cycles, the rule-seeking came first and the historical science “experiment” of examining ice cores etc. came second to complete the package of some very good science:

    “After Milanković’s death, most of the scientific community came to dispute his “astronomical theory” and no longer recognized the results of his research. But ten years after his death and fifty years from the first publication, Milanković’s theory was again taken under consideration. His “book” was translated into English under the title “Canon of Insolation of the Ice-Age Problem” in 1969 by the Israel Program for Scientific Translations, and was published by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

    In the beginning, recognition came slowly, but later, the theory was proven to be accurate. Project CLIMAP (Climate: Long Range Investigation, Mapping and Production) finally resolved the dispute and proved the theory of Milankovitch cycles. In 1972, scientists compiled a time scale of climatic events in the past 700,000 years from deep-sea cores. They performed the analysis of the cores and four years later, came to the conclusion that in the past 500,000 years, climate has changed depending on the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation and its precession.[22] In 1988, a new major project COHMAP (Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project) reconstructed the patterns of global climate change over the last 18,000 years, again demonstrating the key role of astronomical factors.[23] In 1989, the project SPECMAP (Spectral Mapping Project), showed that the climate changes are responses to changes in solar radiation of each of the three astronomical cycles.”


    • I agree that there is no distinct boundary, any more than there is between blue and green, but still maintain that there is an important difference, not so much in the nature of what we are studying, as in what we are trying to establish.

      I wasn’t aware of the very interesting hostory of Milankovic”s theory. One could either regard his theory as an attempt, ultimately vindincated by its detailed predictions, to explain the ice ages (historical science), or regard the ice core studies as an observational test of his rule-seeking dynamics. The logic of discovery is the same, and the only difference is in which aspect we find most interesting


  4. Michael Fugate

    Contingency is important in all science which is why we have a replication problem when using experimental scientific methods.


    • Indeed; but in rule-seeking science we aim to eliminate, or neutralise, the effects of contingency, whereas for historical science the contingent is an integral part of the narrative


      • [Please forgive the excessive use of quotation marks, but it is the only way other than all caps to place emphasis on certain words. I generally do not like all caps. That seems like yelling rather than emphasizing.]

        Contingency is an integral part of the narrative because of the uncertainty involved when speaking of deep time events in geology, not because it is fundamentally different than the science (physics/chemistry) that describes the how of it. It is hard to piece together deep time geology observations, because so much has happened that adds “uncertainty” to the casually derived explanation of “how” the observed events (layering, different structures, changing compositions, and so on) came to be.

        Ultimately, at all intersections of physics and geology become equal in terms of their methods and outcomes. When reading the K-T extinction part of the discussion, it is the physics that says where to look for the impact, not geological observation by themselves. In fact, a key part of the verification came from Dr. Mark Boslough’s modeling using physics as the basis.

        The same applies to astronomy which for modern purposes blends into physics. Radiation transport theory explains much about what to look for in how stars compare and age and appear. Physics, as pointed out, explains their energy source. Gravitational lensing is an observation of things from the deep past, yet it is used in the verification of the general theory of relativity (or at least it is evidentiary). Gravitational waves, the experiment – it is not a “kick this and see what happens,” rather it is building an instrument (think magnifying glass or telescope, only much more complex) to observe something predicted by physics that happened many years ago in the deep past.

        All experiments are performed to observe something, whether it is something that will happen or something that happened in deep time. Those instruments include eyes – human eyes, picks, cameras, drilling equipment, and so on, all are part of the experiment that leads to observations, be they of something that just happened or something that happened in deep time.

        Isotopic aging of “geologically” observed layers is a process derived from physics understanding that shows how intertwined observation of things past and understanding of how things current combine for understanding of “how.” No-“historical” science works as does modern physics. The observations begin the quest for understanding and can be thought of as the beginning of a grand experiment.

        Einstein’s theory of special relativity came about based on a quest to understand an observation, just as did the discovery of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics was hypothesized based on observations. But the juncture of the blending of the physics and geology make the separation of rule-based (a term I am not sure I believe appropriate as used herein) and historical science so fuzzy that I would hesitate to make the distinction, at least as far as the two being different forms of science. Rather, I would simply say that the understanding of deep time observations and the quest to see how these observations can be explained merge with each other.

        They are both science demanding the same foundation approaches.

        Now, as to using this argument to address the creationists, why not try it? But I would not count on all scientists going along with it unless they were first read into what it is you are trying to do 😉

        PS – I do know enough about psychology and sociology and the other related similar “ologies” to call them soft sciences. The reason is not to be taken as derogatory, rather descriptive, as you are trying to do. It is another topic I am willing to discuss off-line. Kim


      • “The reason is not to be taken as derogatory, rather descriptive, as you are trying to do. ” I did not intend to be derogatory. I just do not know enough about them to say anything useful about where they fit into the schema I am proposing.


    • “The reason is not to be taken as derogatory, rather descriptive, as you are trying to do. It is another topic I am willing to discuss off-line. Kim


      Paul Braterman | May 10, 2018 at 9:09 pm
      “The reason is not to be taken as derogatory, rather descriptive, as you are trying to do. ” I did not intend to be derogatory. I just do not know enough about them to say anything useful about where they fit into the schema I am proposing.”

      I think one of us is misinterpreting what the other is saying. I said “descriptive, as you are trying to do.” I did not mean you were being derogatory in the least, and apologies if it came out that way. Though, when I re-read it, I am a bit confused still. Perhaps I misunderstand?


  5. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Another useful blog on “historical science” Paul counters the silly creationist arguments against historical science as with Ken Ham’s hysterical “were you there?”


  6. Prehistory is the obvious place to look for faults in the scientific conclusions . Many laymen regard this area as speculation since there are no written records their reasoning runs thus : who can be certain what happened millions of even billions of years ago ? How do we know the records we claim to tell us are not themselves subject to debate , after all our record of what took place millions of years ago is changing all the time . It’s very difficult to debate wireless waves when you switch on the radio or television there is the proof. When you see microbes through the microscope they are known to be real. It’s the old nut of doubting Thomas ‘ show me the nail marks ‘ and most of us want that sort of evidence.
    Creationists also have a very useful trick up their sleeve an all powerful all knowing creator who is quite capable of fooling us all , after all the creator made the laws of physics and chemistry , laid down the rocks and if you are an old earth believer set everything in motion. All we did was unravel it with our limited minds which the creator gave us.
    Recent scientific advances and speculations have not helped the atheists case to quote a few : the big bang or everything from nothing , the late Steven Hawking’s hologram theory and the computer simulation suggestion. To the average layman these seem like scientific fantasies.
    The obvious progress of science is accepted by nearly everyone but when it comes to the why , how and deep explanation of things many are still in limbo.


  7. Hi Paul,

    First, I agree entirely with your emphasis on the historical in science and the role for historical contingency, and would agree with you in rejecting naive accounts of science that say that science deals only with the rules.

    But, I disagree that we can divide science into “historical” and “rule-seeking” sciences. All sciences use both and synthesize the two (though the emphasis will of course be different in different sciences).

    Taking my field as an example, you say that planetary motion and astronomy in general are “rule-seeking” sciences. And yes, laws of planetary motion by Kepler and the explanation of them in Newton’s gravity and then Einstein’s is amoung the triumphs of science.

    But, even there, historical contingency plays a huge rule. How about the distance at which a planet is orbiting, and the eccentricity of the orbit? The mass of the planet and its size? Why is Venus tilted over? Why does Uranus rotate backwards? The answer to all these involve historical contingency.

    Even in particle physics, the most “rule seeking” of the sciences of all, it may be (may be!) that historical contingency is the explanation for things like the relative masses of the electron and proton (we can’t dismiss the possibility a priori).

    “Rule-making science can seem impersonal and remote, because it excludes the contingent, …”

    But does any science ever do that? It is not in the nature of any science to say a priori “we have to exclude …” certain possibilities.

    Turning to geology, a “historical” science, well geology would be uninteresting if all it did was list historical facts and made no attempt to synthesize them into explanations — where “explanations” and “rules” are pretty much the same thing (though they can differ in their generality).

    “All we need to be able to reproduce is our observations, not necessarily the event that caused them.”

    Not even that! Science is always a matter of doing ones best, and if there is no way of repeating the observations then it’s still science to do ones best with what one has.

    Examples, again from astronomy, are the observations of the nearest supernova in 1987, or the 2017 gravitational-wave observation of colliding neutron stars. We will never observe those particular events again and can never repeat our observations of them. Granted might be able to observe other, similar events, but that’s not the same thing.


    • Much here (and in Kimber’s comment) of interest. Immediate response; regarding trhe planets, we can distinguish between Kepler/Newton/Laplace/Einstein (a treatment that we confidently expect to generalise to exoplanet systems) and the rule “rocky inner planets then gas giants then ice giants”. The former is an example of rule-seeking science. The latter was a candidate for rule-seeking, and if it were generally true of planetary systems we would be asking why, but right now it looks as if such systems, like the planets themselves, are highly diverse.

      Your point about not necessarily being able to repeat an observation is well taken. Near enough repetition is the goal, in all kinds of science, but as you say we can’t always achieve even that.


    • A further reply to you and Kim: you have convinced me that for my present purposes, I should avoid talking about different kinds of science, and instead to talk about science answering different kinds of question. There are questions about how the planets move, where we can use repeated observations and formulate general laws. At the other extreme, there are historical questions about what, specifically, happened in the past, and how. Calculating the limiting speed of an asteroid striking Earth is a question of the first kind. Detecting evidence that such a thing happened, and is responsible for the K/Pg mass extinction, is a question of the second kind.

      Deeper understanding of specific events can lead to the discovery of general rules. Thus Copernicus and Kepler were able to replace the apparatus of individual epicycles with Kepler’s laws of motion, which were then shown to be consequences of Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. And while I had thought of the formation and breakup of Pangaea is a clear example of an isolated historical question, I have read about speculation that there is a deep cycle of formation and disruption of supercontinents, based on the long term consequences of mantle convection. And the application of general rules to actual situations always involves statement of the specific boundary conditions, and can lead to the production of spectacular individual events, such as the probable expulsion of Mercury from the solar system in about two billion years time. But all of this goes far beyond my limited pedagogical purpose.


  8. Hi Kertsen,

    Pinker is right, we are making progress. We are making progress in producing wondrous miracles, and we are also making progress in developing tools which can efficiently erase those miracles. Before we go blindly assuming that more and more science is the obvious way forward we need to better understand the relationship between the constructive forms of progress and the threatening forms of progress. There is no need for sophisticated reasoning or futuristic speculation in pursuing this investigation because the situation I’ve been attempting to describe already exists and can be easily observed…

    If one is willing to observe it. That’s the catch.

    What is required to objectively observe where are today and will be continuing to go at an ever faster pace is liberation from all true believer “one true ways”, whether such one true ways arise in either science or religious culture.

    Until that liberation and objective observation takes place, there’s really little point

    Read more

    in discussing how to do more and better science, because we don’t even know if, or to what degree, that is the solution to the threats aimed at science and the civilization it depends upon.

    That’s why I’m routinely off topic in such discussions. The topics presented on science blogs are almost always built upon an unexamined “more is better” assumption which needs to be investigated before further discussions of how to do more and better science makes rational sense.

    The same thing happens on religious blogs, the very same thing. It’s considered on topic to debate various scripture interpretations, but it’s considered off topic to question whether scripture has a divine source. That is, on both science and religious blogs we are required to first accept as an act of faith the foundational assumptions these enterprises are built upon, and only then are we considered on topic and relevant to the discussion.

    Science blogs, religious blogs, the same process in both cases. Which is why I am a bit skeptical of attempts by scientists to debunk creationism, as I see them both as standing upon a foundation of faith. One can do that and still be a good scientist, but one can not do that and be a person of reason.


  9. Kertsen:
    “To the average layman these seem like scientific fantasies.”
    Maybe, but not so long ago the idea that solid objects are mostly empty space, and are made of particles that have some of the properties of waves, also seemed like scientific fantasies. It’s hard to imagine any cosmology that would fit the evidence and not have fantastic elements.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Science does seem like magic and many of its conclusions seem to conflict with common sense but what is the average person to do about these strange ideas ? Since we cannot understand them must we accept them and if so which ones should we pick ? The average layman declares if it works believe it , if it’s pie in the sky take it with a pinch of salt.


      • I am less pessimistic. I think that the essentials of old earth geology, the fossil record, and evolution are interesting, and relate to common observation in ways that are easy to understand. Much of the apparent difficulty arises directly out of our own bad teaching (eg waffling about “theory” and “scientific method”), and there are additional difficulties caused by creationist misrepresentation.

        Fundamental physics is much more counter-intuitive than these, but fortunately no one in the 6th century BCE felt moved to write about it so in that area we don’t need to deal with biblicalist obscurantism.


      • On the whole I think scientists do a pretty good job with difficult concepts and I have no problem with evolution or old earth geology. The problem with creationists is they have already made up their minds and evolution is a very suitable area to attack scientific conclusions. They are unlikely to get into particle physics it’s a slippery beast. Evolution also attacks the uniqueness of humanity a very sensitive spot for the religious mind. The interesting thing is that in some ways we do seem to be unique with our self – consciousness and use of language.
        In his difficult but fascinating book ‘ The Selfish Gene ‘ Richard Dawkins suggests we are survival machines built but our genes to give them immortality. Later he comes up with the term meme which is the gene that lives in the soup of human progress and steers our technology.


      • For an examination of our claims to uniqueness, I’d refer you to Frans de Waal’s wonderful “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”


      • Thank you for the suggestion I will chase it up.


  10. A brilliant exposition. I love historical sciences. Perversely the rule-seeking sciences are dealing with the simplest phenomena. The brightest brains go into physics and make great progress. Physics is incredibly hard but epistemologically its stuff is relevant simple – billiards on a grand scale. One day we will have real social sciences, perhaps even a real predictive science if history (but probably not).


  11. I see historical geology somewhat as detective work. That is true of all science in general, but I think the tools of the trade are especially important in historical analysis because there are only a few limited ways to test the examples.

    It is a little less problematical compare than detective work because the witnesses and suspects don’t lie. However, having to overcome one’s own prejudices and having a good imagination is a common asset to all these methods.

    Admittedly, a criminal can still say after conviction that “it wasn’t me!”, but certainly a sincere detective will have built a cage around his man that he cannot get out of. I don’t know if there are any statistics, but I would suspect that false convictions are the result of great ambitions on the part of the prosecutor. One might calculate that their sloppiness will not show up for a long time — and that is probably true. I bring that up because another poster above commented about creationist seizing on the “false convictions” plea to dismiss everything — though they wouldn’t think twice about how many prosecutors really do their job.


    • Sorry, I was not clear. I mean that the commenter mentioned that creationist will tend to exploit any weakness. Certainly, false conviction is a weakness in the detective analogy too. But I still think it is valid.


  12. I’m not at all well versed in science literature or even the portion of that literature geared toward a popular audience. I’m also, I admit, a kind of knee-jerk critic against what I see as the claims of some scientists, and I also tend to be knee-jerk sympathetic to young earth creationists even though I believe they are mistaken. (I tend to find it easy to conflate “science” and “scientism.”)

    That out of the way, I really liked this post. This is the first time I’ve seen someone actually acknowledge there is a distinction between the “standard” type of science of “hypothesis + experiment + revised hyptothesis = TRUTH” that I learned in high school and other ways, especially historical ways, of understanding science. (Again, this might be because I’m unfamiliar with much of the literature. Maybe these distinctions are discussed all the time.)

    I don’t have the chops to critique any factual claim you make, but your presentation and argument seem sound, at least to me. I’ll add a suggestion of what you can say, in addition to what you’ve already said: “A ‘historical” scientific claim could in principle be verified (or refuted) if we had a time machine to go back and witness events. We obviously don’t have a time machine, but if we did, we could.”


  13. Hi Paul,

    I should avoid talking about different kinds of science, and instead to talk about science answering different kinds of question.

    Or, perhaps, more about the answers being different, forced to be because that’s how nature is. In all of science we will try for the simplest, most general and most explanatory accounts we can, but how well we can do that in a partiuclar case is determined by nature.

    Take planetary orbits. They are a very simple case to deal with since there is only one of the four forces of physics acting (namely gravity; we can ignore electromagentism etc) and, further, the separations of the objects are in general vast compared to the size of the objects (hence, zero pressure, zero contact, ignore tides, etc).

    Thus the behaviour can be described in ways (e.g. Kepler’s laws) that are (1) simple, (2) very accurate, and (3) very general. Such descriptions of how things work get called “laws”.

    For comparison, the topic of Earth’s climate is way more complex, with more things interacting in more complex ways, and a large role for historically contingent factors Thus, inevitably, while one can still produce descriptions of how things work (e.g. Milankovitch cycles; relation between CO2 and temperature) these are not so simple, and are less accurate and less general. So these things don’t tend to get called “laws” (we only call a description a “law” if it is simple enough to state in one sentence or equation, and is at least pretty general).

    Then, at the opposite end of the complexity spectrum to planetary orbits is something like “the causes of the First World War”, where any description of that would be hugely complex, would involve huge amounts of historical contingency, and the answer would be at best very approximate and only partially correct.


    • We are converging. The kind of question that it is sensible to try to answer depends on the complexity of the situation. So it makes no sense to try to explain the particular course of the trajectory of the much-mentioned asteroid, since exactitude is critical if it was to strike a gypsum-rich location. In this case, the problem is intractable, for reasons Poincare worked out way back when, even though we are dealig with a single force on a body moving in effective vacuum. But it does make sense to consider the effect of the impact on the specific impact site, and the fate imposed by the facts of chemistry and of atmospherics on the resulting stratospheric SO2. An application, as you say of general laws in a specific situation. Compare the use of ballistics in a murder investigation.


  14. Hi Paul – Just found you and your blog – via human and molecular evolution Twitter feeds I think!

    I’ve agreed with your view on “rule making science” versus “historical sciences” since 2012 when I covered this in my book, and in the dozen or two years leading up to it 🙂 . Interesting that you mention Carol Cleland. I thought I’d seen that name somewhere, then I remembered – I gave her a chapter. No-one else got a whole chapter!

    The two types of science seek “what happened” or “what happens” respectively; they are joined by the commonality of making models. Because it is too easy to talk around the nature of science I’ve tried to nail the subject’s guy-ropes down in a page of 14 points:


    The first gives a definition to include both halves of science:

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    “1) Science is the generation, judging and honing of theories which model (i.e. explain or predict) the best. Only this counts so distinctions between theory, hypothesis, conjecture etc. are artificial.

    “2) The worth of a theory depends on such aspects as accuracy, generality, simplicity, and the degree to which its implications are genuine predictions (and the more surprising the better).”

    Much there for you to agree with. However, those stating our widely quoted scientific cultural norms weren’t by any means always good philosophers, but they were over-influenced by the hard sciences. In the last point in the list I distinguish between the two halves, but please do note that the whole repeatability and replication business comes ONLY from the inductive, law-making side. Because they are laws, they HAVE to predict – that’s why they stand and fall on their generality and powers of prediction. Historical science doesn’t need to replicate, except in their prediction-capable modelling bits 🙂 . Astronomy for example is both halves together. This final paragraph 14 gets a bit stodgy since a lot needs to be cramed in:

    “14) Historical disciplines (e.g. palaeontology and archaeology) often test by future discovery, not experiment. In such disciplines, evidence and demonstration may be probabilistic or qualitative, and rely on complex variously valid world models left in individual minds by diverse experiences. Typically, historical sciences theorise past events given present evidence (abduction). Inductive sciences invent laws, or describe/model structures or processes; ‘applied sciences’ deduce futures or achieve goals. Despite differences, many principles apply to all sciences, though the importance of repeatability for inductive sciences does not make it a basic principle of historical disciplines.”

    You say:
    “Much of the apparent difficulty arises directly out of our own bad teaching (eg waffling about “theory” and “scientific method”),…”

    Yes, there is much bad teaching and much imperfect thinking but the principles of good science MUST be taught and they aren’t. But they are pretty simple

    I’ve explained the approach to the 14 points in chapter 2 of the book, which is freely accessible via the Amazon page.


    Do note that I don’t seem to get plagues of creationists; instead I get plagues of cladists, and of the “sciencish” who often have no science skills or achievements, but hate their science-murdering heroes to be criticised, and love to lie. Amazon book criticism is as good a place to find them as Youtube comments 🙂 .

    Incidentally, palaeontolgy IS of course a science – one of the historical ones, predominantly. However those conducting it have not been well-versed in scientific skills, and treat it as a social game. As a result, there is no reason to believe the link between dinosaurs and birds goes from the former to the latter, as you imply in your footnote – there is no good theory or theorist supporting it!


  15. There seem to be two threads intertwined here. One is that observation trumps theory, the other the difference between historical and experimental sciences. The first has loads of examples of scientists dismissing inconvenient observations for not fitting their theory (part of my own parochial collection is at https://grumpygeophysicist.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/the-geoscientists-blind-spot/). This can happen in both kinds of science.
    The second has more subtle intonations. For a long time, geology was dismissed as merely stamp collecting (and more recently in a popular TV show); this was always a bit harsh, but there was something to the criticism–geological efforts to explain observations often were more just-so stories than testable hypotheses and paleontology for a long time was very much collecting stamps. But stamp collecting has its value: plate tectonics only emerged because of the collection of seafloor magnetic profiles, paleomagnetic measurements, paleontological collections, geothermal measurements, and seismological observations, many of which really were not focused on developing or testing hypotheses but which, in sum, made testing and accepting a basic kinematic theory of planetary evolution possible. But the field does indeed generate testable hypotheses–the trick is figuring out ways to control for other phenomena affecting observations. And even in examining information about events millions of years in the past, we take advantage of modern experiments. For instance, part of the final acceptance of Barringer Meteor Crater (aka Coon Butte) in Arizona as an impact structure came from comparing the deformation of the crater rim with results from above-ground nuclear test explosions. What historical science brings to the table is the ability to examine processes too slow or too large or too rare to examine experimentally. We would like to understand, for instance, exactly how super volcanoes go about erupting so we might be able to anticipate such a disaster, but waiting for one to erupt is a pretty unsatisfactory approach. Thus we look at deposits and exposures of ancient eruptions for clues. From initial observations, theories develop that can be tested by examining other fossil eruptions or by acquiring new observations.
    Finally, I’m not entirely sure but that a third dimension is necessary, something that separates study of complex systems from simpler systems. Obviously this is a spectrum, but atmospheric science is an example of an experimental science (in the sense that you are watching things happening rather than looking at the results) that doesn’t easily lend itself to reproduction in a lab. Leave out Coriolis forces, surface topography or water vapor and you aren’t really doing much to understand how the atmosphere works. Scale experiments generally cannot control all the variables (indeed, often cannot even measure them all), so not like being in a lab, but you can posit something that you could then design an experiment to go see (e.g., some of the campaigns for atmospheric rivers in the past few years). Certainly there are components of how the atmosphere works that do come from lab experiments, but (for instance) hurricane development is not a simple lab experiment.
    Anyways, I am not sure that asserting that historical science is best is the way to combat creation science or its brethren. Deep in the logic of making experiments of earth history is where science peels away from faith-based explanations of the same phenomena, and it isn’t trivially explained. Anyways, interesting thoughts here and in the comments, so thanks for the post.


    • Partly as a result of such thoughtful comments as this, I am coming to think that the difference is not between historical and rule-seeking sciences, but between historical and rule-seeking questions. When was this or that crater formed? A historical question. What determines the size and shape of a crater? Here we can look for rules, and do model experiments (as Hooke did, in order to understand the Moon).

      I also take your point about complexity. Such is the complexity of the dynamics of the asteroid belt, that it may well be futile to ask what set the K/Pg impator on a collision course with Earth. This even though celestial mechanics is a paradigm of rule-seeking science.

      Finally, is everything either physics [or other rule-seeking science] or stamp-collecting, as Rutherford supposedly said? If he did say it, he didn’t mean it, since he was, famously, interested in the age of the Earth. When examining complex phenomena, there is no way of saying in advance what significance the data may come to acquire


  16. This is a test of an editing tool,

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    Testing testing testing testing testing testing


  17. #cjonescu & Paul:

    Yes, I suppose it is more historical vs rule based Questions rather than overall Sciences. Most sciences always were a mix.

    #cjonescu: “observation trumps theory”

    They go together. One without the other is the sound of one hand clapping. Even to make an observation one needs a concept – to count the number of things, one has to define the thing, and a definition implies a theory or at least a belief that such a concept is meaningful. To measure the size of a thing one has to have a theory about the edges of it. There are much better examples. The end point about being a living thing and also about thinking, is the use and production of rules for what to do when. Higher cognition also involves the production of concepts from other concepts and ultimately from direct sensation (these concepts are the nails on which the rules are hung). But to know what to do, when, you need both sensations and perceptual structures (observations, though a perceptual structure is is theory of what makes up what) and action plan structures (theory). An action plan is a theory of what will work for some circumstance.


    • Certainly both are good, but an observation without a theory is work to be done. A theory without observations is work needlessly done.
      Of course there are lots of specific observations not worth the time to build a theory for (for instance, figuring out the full history of a grain of sand on a beach) and some theories where the absence of observation is a spur to make observations. All I was saying was that when a theory says one thing and observations disagree, best to pay attention to observations.


      • “[W]hen a theory says one thing and observations disagree, best to pay attention to observations”; here we completely agree. “A theory without observations is work needlessly done.” Not so sure. Perhaps a theory might be very useful if it points to observations not yet possible, or not yet contemplated. Some people, I believe, have such hopes for string theory


  18. Oh yes, when a theory says one thing and observations disagree, there is work to be done.
    But a theory without observations is how interesting new observations get discovered.


  19. This is how some religious science deniers operate: https://answersingenesis.org/what-is-science/feedback-you-can-question-science/ When considering the unseen past they impose their understanding of the Bible upon the evidence for ‘worldview’ reasons, whilst pretending that real scientists with no obvious reason to be ‘biased’ are doing the same as them because of their ‘worldview’. It’s not true. But, as this article once again reveals, Answers in Genesis hate scientists (and their findings about the past). Read moreThe article contain several deliberate lies. Such as: “But unobservable molecules-to-man evolution and ancient ages for earth and the universe do not come from the evidence. They originally came from philosophical beliefs about the nature of God and the truth of his Word. And these beliefs still do not come from the evidence. They are assumed and then used to interpret the evidence.” It is young earth creationism that does not come from the evidence. What does it come from? From the assumption that “The Bible is not a science textbook, but it is the history book of the universe. When it touches on fields such as astronomy, biology, geology, cosmology, and anthropology, it is always accurate and trustworthy, since it was written by the Creator of the universe who also maintains it (Colossians 1:16–17).”


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