Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Mangling Science Part 1: Ken’s Can of Worms

A can of worms makes good fish bait

I hardly need tell anyone that protestant fundamentalism has a problem with science, a problem on at least two counts; although these two counts are bound up with one another. The first count is probably connected with fideism. The second count is down to science delivering up many conclusions inconsistent with the protestant fundamentalist’s handling of the Bible. In society at large, however, science as an epistemological institution has great prestige, perhaps because it simply has produced undeniable results which have authenticated it as an epistemology. This has left the literal minded fundamentalist with the problem of how to repond. One response, I suppose, is for fundamentalists to disdain science as unsacred knowledge that a People of The Book should not profane themselves with. Ultra-separatism like this leads to the time-honored religious practice of disengaging with society altogether and the formation of exclusive holy remnants who stick to the traditions of the elders passed from one generation to the next.  (Perhaps the Amish fall into this category) Ultra-separatist communities conveniently bypass the hassle of attempting to engage science – they simply do not bother because it is considered to be the unclean domain of sinful man.

More interesting perhaps are the fundamentalists who have attempted to engage science rather than declaring it to be all for the burning. They can’t deny that science has produced results and those results have lead on to technology. Any working artifact of technology is a bit like an experiment endlessly repeating the same test thus confirming the physical principles on which it is based. The fundamentalists who populate organizations like Answers in Genesis feel that they cannot usefully disassociate themselves completely from the social kudos of science. Somehow they have to avoid looking like anti-science bigots and yet at same time undermine those results that contradict their teachings based on their reading of the Bible. So what to do?

These Fundamentalists need to explain why they only accept some of the conclusions of science and do all they can to undermine the conclusions which contradict the way they think about the Bible. In the case of AiG the answer is to attempt to redefine science in a way that gives them a criterion for rejecting the results they don’t like. They do this by distinguishing two types of science; you will hear them taking about “observational” or “operational” science which is in contradistinction to “historical” science. It is the latter that they have in their sites, because it so blatantly contradicts their handling of the scriptures.

So how do these fundamentalists distinguish operational/observational science from historical science?  In a blog post entitled “Darwin, Dinosaurs and the Devil (Part 1)” and dated 19th February 2013 Ken Ham just assumes this distinction:

In addition, these secularists never give up on their false accusation of our ministry’s supposed “science denial.” That’s because the secularists play around with definitions; they use the word “science” for both historical science (beliefs about the past) and operational science (based on observation that builds our technology). Actually, it is the secularists who teach a false understanding of the word science (and how it works) in their attempt to brainwash students and the public in their anti-Christian religion of evolution and millions of years. For more on the differences between historical and operational science, read Troy Lacey’s article Deceitful or Distinguishable Terms—Historical and Observational Science. * (My emphases added. See Footnote)

Reading this one might think that from its title alone the AiG article that Ken Ham links to looks promising. Looking through this article it does give us the expected examples of what isn’t observational science:
….we have stated that neither creationism nor cosmic evolution nor Darwinian biological evolution is observational science, and they are not observable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable events. Therefore, we would state that you cannot “empirically prove” them.

But as I look through the article I can see nothing that positively defines operational/observational science. Going back to Ken we recall:

….they use the word “science” for both historical science (beliefs about the past) and operational science (based on observation that builds our technology).

According to Ken then, the crucial concept that distinguishes historical science has to do with beliefs about the past. So presumably "operational" science is defined apophatically as not entailing beliefs about the past! At first sight this seems obvious; at least it is to our Ken, the man who matters as far as thousands of his followers are concerned!

This approach of not being very careful with terms is, I find, very typical of AiG; keep it all on a fairly superficial and poorly defined level; in fact pro-actively disparage good definitions as mere semantics! After all, AiG need ultimately only appeal to their less than critical followers who have lives to lead and don’t have time to do any serious thinking; as long as the argument looks superficially OK, that’s all that is needed to not only convince their following, but above all to convince themselves.

This is all very reminiscent of the issues I raised with AiG’s concept of “mature creation” which I probed in my “Beyond our Ken” series (See here). And just like the “mature creation” concept we find that once we start looking closely at AiG’s "operational science" verses "historical science" distinction we find it to be based on a false dichotomy and we open up a can of worms.

.....to be continued

* Footnote: Notice that in Ken's view it is the establishment that is trying to redefine science and not him!  As one might expect from a member of a marginalised "hell and damnation" religious community the motives for this claimed redefinition are considered to be intentionally malign; hence the use of  strong terms like  "anti-Christian religion" and "attempt to brainwash" from someone who sees his community getting all the stuff from the back-end of an anti-Christian conspiracy!

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