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Same data, different interpretations?

Published: 9 February 2013 (GMT+10)
sxc.hu/tam_oliver

We often emphasize two important points about science and the origins debate: (1) there is a fundamental difference between the science of present processes (operational science) and the science of past events (historical science), and (2) historical science in particular is governed by the biases we bring to the data so that people with different worldviews can look at the same data and come to completely different conclusions on what happened. Today’s feedback features a skeptic who calls both of those points into question, with a response from CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland.

Mat H. from the United Kingdom writes in response to Being prepared facing the tough questions

Most philosophers, even philosophers of science have little if any experience in the construction of mathematical models and/or data analysis of experimental or observational results. Therefore they are unaware of the “nitty-gritty” of science which is important when trying to understand the nature of science and how it is performed.

[Your article stated]: “This is especially so when it comes to science of the past, especially origins, which is value-laden, interpretation-dependent and assumption-based to an even greater idea than ‘everyday’ (operational, or experimental) science”

This statement concerned me a great deal. I have often heard from creationists; Same data different interpretation. This couldn’t be more further from the truth, data is analysed, not interpreted. The analysis of data is used to obtain general trends from the data set from which unique conclusions can then be made. It may be the case however that the data set is of particularly poor quality or that it isn’t big enough to do decent data analysis which can lead to non-unique conclusions, however in that case, more experiments/observations are required to get decent data sets.

The terms “operational science” and “origins science” are only used in the creationist literature, you won’t find them in any science textbook of any worth, so it seems that this is a rather unnatural partition of science in general. I will add that science is all about finding out how the underlying processes that don’t change and using these processes to explain past and present data.

Carl Wieland responds:

Mat, one truly wishes that there were more emphasis on philosophy of science in undergraduate studies, perhaps even high school. The analysis vs interpretation distinction you wish to draw is both fluid and variable. By your own opening statements, you show how you yourself are referring to operational science (aka experimental science). You’re right that creationists are the main users of terms like origins science and operational science, but that is largely because if we used experimental and forensic science, people would mistakenly narrow it down to e.g. exclude from the former certain observational approaches and outcomes where no experiments as such are carried out, or in the second case limit it to ‘crime scene investigation’. Let me see if I can spell it out clearly: operational science is all about how the world operates (hence the name) in the present: e.g. what is matter made of, what are the observed regularities in the way the world works (laws of science, etc.). Examples of disciplines utilizing this approach: physics, chemistry, molecular biology. The other methodology is all about establishing what happened in the past, and clearly the same approach does not easily transpose between the two. Examples of disciplines utilizing historical science (I personally try not to use ‘origins science’, as it narrows it too much): archaeology, paleontology, and yes, CSI.

Clearly the world, and human reasoning, are far too complex to fit things too neatly into such boxes; but they are extremely useful and important ways to keep the issues of interpretation, and the role of assumption and bias in such interpretation, at the forefront of the discussion. Even Nobel Laureates, according to US arch-skeptic Michael Shermer, with whom I agree on this point, would have difficulty defining the scientific method more rigorously than ultimately, ‘that which scientists do’.

Consider historical geology and your closing attempt to show that interpretation is not involved, which actually does the opposite. Our knowledge of present processes that you mention (gleaned through operational science) merely acts as a set of constraints on our interpretation of the data, it does not force the interpretation into an inevitable outcome. Were it otherwise, there would be no decades-long controversies in historical geology, with people passionately defending alternative scenarios—even within the overall secular, naturalistic, antibiblical paradigm.

Finally, your last four words, i.e. ‘past and present data’. There is no such thing as past data. All the data exists in the present (even the light we see in our telescopes that originated from a star in the past exists in the present), though it can be very pertinent to any understanding of what likely happened in the past. (E.g. a chunk of pottery in an archaeological dig, the hundreds of bird and mammal fossils found in dinosaur rock that fail to make it into ‘dinosaur-era’ exhibits, etc. etc.)

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