Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Understanding 'historical science', Ancient forests reconstructed

In the course of catching up on my normal reading, I picked out a couple of pieces to share with you from the Naturalis Historia blog:

Origins Science and Misconceptions of Historical Science

This article offers a brief and practical discussion on the false dichotomy Answers in Genesis places between "origins science" and "operational science"—the latter of which is supposedly characterized by repeatable experimentation. The implications of AiG's dichotomy is that all scientific inquiries into past events are treated as suspect, and the conclusions of such studies become susceptible to arbitrary rejection. Although AiG and other creation ministries devote much to the study of Earth history as they imagine it, they escape the 'limitations' of historical science by claiming access to the words of an eyewitness observer—namely, God himself.

From a philosophical perspective, however, the methodological distinctions between these forms of scientific inquiry are not justified. Both involve repeatable, 'laboratory' experimentation, though in the case of historical inquiries, 'nature' is our laboratory and the trials have already been run. Hypotheses regarding historical (or geological) events are testable so long as new observations and analyses can falsify the prevalent interpretation. The currently accepted age of the Earth (4.54 Ga), for example, is potentially falsifiable by 1) observations that demonstrate a unique origin of Earth relative to the rest of the solar system; 2) geochemical models that better explain how a Rb/Sr isochron built from ~7 dozen meteorite samples could have resulted from a phenomenon other than the passage of 4.54 billion years, and 3) evidence for the non-uniformity of laws governing subatomic particle behavior in the past.

Answers in Genesis faces a hermeneutical problem as well: nowhere does the text of Genesis claim to be an eyewitness account of Earth's beginnings. The highly imaginative language of Genesis 1–11 conveys its message through alternating concrete narrative and highly structured, semi-poetic prose. Earth's beginnings are described through phenomenological language, consistent with ancient views of the structure of the cosmos. As such, the text may communicate much truth about the nature of the cosmos, humanity, and of history itself, but precludes any detailed reconstruction of that history in modern, scientific language.

The literary approach of Answers in Genesis is, therefore, both theologically shallow and hermeneutically na├»ve. Granted, they may want to defend against my accusation. But one should note: they cannot do so without appealing to the results of historical inquiry, such as linguistic analyses of ancient Hebrew grammar/vocabulary, comparative literature studies of the Ancient Near East, or the textual transmission of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, they must employ a method that their ministry deems suspect to defend the notion that only an 'eyewitness' account of Earth's origins can reliably guide the historical sciences.

Still interested in how scientists study historical phenomena? Not convinced that AiG's dichotomy is in error? I highly recommend that you pursue this discussion by reading the Natural Historian's latest post, which offers a novel and wholly different approach than in my comments above. Moreover, you will find a range of additional resources on the same topic, from personal commentaries to peer-reviewed literature.

An Ancient and Alien Forest Reconstructed: A challenge for young earth creationism – Part I

Follow this link for one of several posts at Naturalis Historia commenting on the implications of a recent paper by Wang et al. (2012, PNAS), in which scientists reconstructed an ancient (Permian) forest that was buried in situ. Rarely do paleontologists get the opportunity to see habitats as they actually existed, since most evidences of ancient plants/animals are washed into sedimentary basins some distance from their 'homes'. However, volcanoes have a way of taking some rather intrusive snapshots (much like the historical Pompeii). The linked blog article provides the full-color figures from the original study, portraying the methodology and results of the forest reconstruction. Whether or not you are interested in the implications of this find for Young-Earth Creationism, the pictures alone are 'just plain cool'. I highly recommend that you take a look!

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