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.
A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, Read the rest of this entry
How to learn from creationists
“The wise learn from everyone.”1 The freak success (half a million reads) of my recent piece How to slam dunk creationists, and the subsequent discussion, have again set me thinking about how to learn from creationists. It is not enough to say, as Dawkins notoriously said, “[I]f you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Conversation is a two-way street, I have certainly learnt from creationists’ attacks on evolution, and if I am learning from them it is at least possible that they are learning from me.
Types of comment
Comments I have had from creationists fall into three broad groups (and note that contrary to what Dawkins says, some of these are at least partly informed, highly intelligent, and completely rational):
1) Simple misstatements
2) Appeal to the Bible
3) Purportedly scientific arguments, some without merit, while others refer to important issues.
From simple misstatements, not very much can be learnt, except perhaps the source of the misinformation. Remember that if someone quotes wrong information, the burden of proof is not on you but on them. Leave it there, as in this actual exchange: Read the rest of this entry
Coral reefs are too old to be young!
I can add little to this excellent piece. however variable growth rate may be, total height divided by maximum growth rate gives a *lower limit* the age, which is enough to refute the Young Earth creationist. There was at one time hope that fine structure of coral growth bands would give information about the lengths of the day and the month in the Proterozoic, but because laboratory studies showed these structures to be sensitive to accidents of time and tide, their place has now been taken by rhythmites, variations in the fine structure of the annual banding of sediments (Proterozoic and Precambrian day and month lengths are now studied using rhythmites, fine structure in the annual banding of sediments; Williams, Reviews of Geophysics 38, 1, 2000). 234U-230Th dating is one of the best methods available for carbonate rocks in the 10,000 year range, and the creationist claim that decay rates could have been different in the past ignores the fact, known since 1928, that these rates are the inevitable consequence of time-dependent quantum mechanics and the fundamental constants of nature.
Corals are among the most valuable indicators of past climate conditions, due to their sensitivity to water depth, temperature, and acidity. We can infer from the age and depth of ancient reefs, for example, how global sea level has varied in response to past intervals of warming and cooling. Since reefs are formed by organisms secreting calcite, moreover, their isotopic and elemental chemistry is directly related to the temperature and salinity of the water in which they lived. But best of all, reefs form in the tropics (30°S – 30°N), which means that the researchers studying them do so while scuba diving in warm seas along pristine beaches. Perhaps it’s time for a career change?
Despite that corals can provide a wealth of information to geologists and climatologists studying the past, these data are useful only if we know the precise age of the sample! How then do we date…
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