Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mangling Science Part 2: Opening up Ken’s Can

My advice to religious novices is "Stay away; we're not talking spaghetti here"

In the first part of this series I introduced the protestant fundamentalist’s conflict with science and their attempts to solve this problem. One solution is separatism –  that is, start a sect or cult so cut off from society that it circumvents the need to engage with profane knowledge. A second response is to purge one’s science of results that contradict sacred knowledge. It is this second class of response which is the focus of this series and in particular Answers in Genesis’ attempt to arrive at a criterion whereby some scientific results can be retained and some rejected. To this end Ken Ham, in a bog-post dated 19th February and entitled Darwin, Dinosaurs and The Devil, directs us toward an AiG article by Troy Lacey entitled Deceitful or Distinguishable Terms—Historical and Observational Science. Ham and Lacey’s articles make use of what they think of as a distinction between observational science and historical science. For obvious reasons this dichotomy is crucial to AiG’s way of thinking; for it is science’s insights into the past that so obviously contradict AiG’s version of history, a version which compacts billions of years’ worth of events into a mere 6000 years. Their aim, of course, is to rubbish historical science as an epistemic house of cards. In its place they make their own proposals which they claim are at least as well founded. At the same time they think they can hang on to so-called “observational” science in the hope that some of science’s kudos rubs off on them, enough to prevent them looking what they actually are; namely, fundamentally anti-science.

As I said in my last post Ham and Lacey’s articles leave us with a problem.  Ham refers us to Lacey, but combing Lacey’s article we find nothing that defines what they purport to be “observational” science. In fact we have to return to Ham to get a hint of an answer:

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

Here Ham identifies “observational” science with the science used to construct artifacts. The science of artifacts, (which is essentially applied physics and chemistry) concerns itself with the present tense continuous physical laws which govern things everywhere and everywhen. Certainly, we do have an ontological distinction here. History, need I say, is about event particularity whereas the physical sciences concern themselves with generality; that is, the general functions and algorithms which constrain happenings everywhere and everywhen. Particular events and the rules which constrain these events are two very different, albeit related, objects. There is a deep ontological distinction between what’s actually happened and what rules we think those happenings are subject to

But this ontological distinction is of little help to Ham in his attempt to secure a natural distinction in science that allows him to reject historical science as somehow epistemologically second class: Successful experimental testing in the physical sciences depends on the interpretation of experimental texts of previous tests, texts, needless to say, which refer to historical events. These texts must be correctly interpreted in order to at least attempt a duplication of the conditions needed for satisfactory testing. Ergo, history is very important in the testing of the physical sciences. Moreover, even when do feel we have grasped a physical principle with sufficient confidence to use it to build an artifact, that artifact is effectively an experimental apparatus that repeatedly tests those principles. Just how reliably the artifact operates can only be assessed from a knowledge of its history. So if Ken is using the term “operational science” to identify the physical sciences then it is clear that they cannot be separated from our grasp of history. They are so seamlessly integrated with history as to be inseparable from it.

Ham and Lacey, however, don’t base their distinction on the ontological difference between history and the physical laws that generate history. Instead they attempt to prise apart the physical sciences from the historical sciences using an epistemic distinction. Accordingly Lacey writes:

….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.

That statement is actually more of less correct in my opinion. But the catch is that in an absolute sense it characterizes all our theoretical constructions right across the board, historical and otherwise! The ontological distinction between the general functions of physics and “happened” events doesn’t make those general functions in principle any more observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable. In particular it would be entirely wrong to claim that very abstract universal functions, like say various quantum equations, can ever be “observed”; in fact we never observe our theoretical objects, we only sample some of their consequences. 

It is perhaps no surprise that given fundamentalism’s taste for dichotomy Lacey appears not to understand that observability, repeatability, testability, and falsifiability are not “on or off” properties, but properties that come in degrees, depending on how deeply embedded an object is in the logical nexus of our theoretical structures. Atoms and fundamental particles, for example, are relatively logically remote from observation and can hardly be classified as “observable”.  Nevertheless they are part of a theoretical narrative that successfully embeds much of our experience. The centre of the Sun is not “observable” but once again the subject of theoretical constructions which explain much about star behavior. Moreover, given the limit on the speed of light then the Sun is clearly an historical object, as in fact are all physical objects whose evidential signals, to a lesser or greater degree,  arrive at our doorstep with a time delay. Repeatability is a big issue in the physical sciences; physical systems are a complex of variables that conceivably could change erratically in ways which compromises the rigor of experimental repeatability. No experiment can ever be considered repeatable without making the reasonable assumption that a rational uniformity pervades our cosmos that could otherwise change in quite irrational and cussed ways. The existence of Dark Matter events (if it exists) cannot be tested at will but instead we have to sit it out until they happen. As Popper himself admitted, no theory is absolutely falsifiable: The reason being is that our theoretical narratives form a logical structure that is complex enough to contain many adjustable variables which can conceivably be varied to insulate a theory from unequivocal falsification.

As I was saying observability, repeatability, testability, and falsifiability are not “on or off” properties, but graded properties. For example our narratives about giraffes are more observable, repeatable, testable, and falsifiable than are narratives about brachiosauri and our narratives about brachiosauri are more observable, repeatable, testable, and falsifiable than narratives about big foot. So the problem for Ham and Lacey is where do they draw the line? At what point do they tell us that an object is not observable? What they don’t understand is that distance in time is not the only variable that impacts an object’s epistemic accessibility. Galaxies are millions of light years away and yet their behaviour is more epistemically accessible than some complex social objects, like say the relation of economics to cultural attitudes. The abstract problem in science is the same across the board, namely that of attempting to embed accepted data points into a theoretical structure whether that structure is historical or is everywhere and everywhen. The theoretical narratives of science are in this sense timeless; they are quasi-platonic objects that attempt to explain the agreed data samples; the epistemic accessibility of those explanatory objects is not just a function of time. If one attacks the epistemic status of historical science on the basis that Lacey attacks evolution  then because the essential epistemic method  across science is uniform a precedent is set for the subversion of the whole of science.

Fundamentalists are particularly bad at detecting graded phenomenon perhaps because they habitually live in a world of black and white. Their very tribal concept of the social world is the key to much fundamentalist thinking and attitude. Their sectarianism demands clear cut social demarcations; in such a context there is need to distinguish the saints from the heretics, the sheep from the goats, the divine from the demonic, the devout from the godless, the heroes from the evil conspirators, the goodies from the baddies. Therefore in fundamentalist circles there is a call for shibboleths, faith tests and above all an epistemic arrogance that gives them certainty in the discernment of truth and error. In fact one can see hints of this phenomenon in the heading of Lacey’s article where it is clear that any who think differently are going to be accused of using deceitful terms, thus casting a moral light on an intellectual issue. Lacey and Ham are out to get convictions for heresy and blasphemy on non-tribe members and they will use their incompetent grasp of science to assist them. They therefore badly need what they fancy to be a fundamental distinction between observational and historical science to help them sort out the sheep from the goats.

To be continued…. The Diet of Worms. Pathological science: Same data but different interpretations?  Mature creation theory? Geocentricity? The pathological coordinate transformations of John Byl and Jason Lisle.

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