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Feedback archiveFeedback 2013

Same data, different interpretations?

Published: 9 February 2013 (GMT+10)

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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Readers’ comments

Guy G.
I find it curious that Mat H. makes the statement "The terms “operational science” and “origins science” are only used in the creationist literature..." The reason they are found 'only' in creationist literature is that only creationists--Christians--can truly see both sides of science without blindness. The evolutionist worldview refuses to look at science and the scientific method honestly. If they did, they would have to face a very living, and real Creator...
Guy Giacopuzzi DDS
Lake Arrowhead, CA, USA
Dr Barry N.
As I concluded in my master's dissertation, scientists tend to apply personal interpretations to their data, and this is what causes the problems. What this means is that, often, interpretation reveals not the summation of data, but the inner beliefs of the one interpreting. And when it comes to evolution, these interpretations are applied in advance of any data summation, thus rejecting any true evaluation of the data.!
Rose R.
Even before I became a christian and a creationist I would get very annoyed when scientists and/or presenters on TV or books etc would make sweeping statements about so called facts, about things that neither they nor anyone else had observed. Even as an atheist I asked the question "how could they KNOW that?" My eldest son was until recently convinced that evolution was true and that the universe and the earth are millions of years old. If he has been around when this type of statement has been made,(about something no one has seen)for instance in a TV programme, I have asked the question, "how could they KNOW that", out loud and often this has prompted a discussion. Last week he told me about a TV programme he had watched presented by a scientist he admires, Prof Brian Cox. He told me he had found himself asking the same question during the programme and also noticing the amount of supposition involved in some of the statements made, which he had not noticed before. He then asked me various questions about creation versus evolution, most of which I was able to answer or find the answer, because of your website. He has not become a creationist (yet) but he is starting to question instead of blindly accepting everything he's told and in fact said he thought that maybe evolution isn't true.
People like to think they are open minded and objective but usually they are not.(I include myself).The worst thing is when they don't even realise it. We have been so indoctrinated by the scientific establishment and the media since childhood that it can be very difficult to think for ourselves and question things that deep down inside we know are illogical or impossible to be certain about. But with God all things are possible!
God Bless you all and keep up the good work.
Andrew W.
I think that scientists do interpret data, not just analyze it. Look at the "Lucy" skeleton. The thing did not come complete. They got the skeleton and put a bone this way. Or it could be that way. Or another way. It is a jigsaw puzzle with some puzzle pieces missing: how does it fit? If a scientist believes in God, he is going to think that the skeleton is most likely an ape, monkey or a malformed human or a human with a disease and he might put the "hip" bone this way. Or if a scientist does not believe in God--is looking for how all of this came about WITHOUT any creator--he is going to believe that it is some transitional bipedal hominid that "proves" Darwinism/evolution/gradualism and he is going to put the "hip bone" another way. It seems that science is very subjective, but somehow, the secular scientists got everyone believing that they are totally objective when it is just their "theory". May it please the court: assuming facts not in evidence.
J. L. [first name withheld by request]
I would argue that geologists are trained to distinguish between operational and historical science from the very beginning of their career. The first course a geology student takes is Physical Geology, which is the analysis of rocks and observable earth processes, and is equivalent to "operational science." The second course they take is Historical Geology, the interpretation of observable rocks and processes in order to make inferences about what has occurred in the past.

The problem is that much geological data is equivocal with regard to origins, and may be interpreted in different ways, depending upon the preconceptions of the researcher. Thus, for example, the fossil record may be interpreted as the appearance and disappearance of different life forms through time, or as the record of catastrophic burial and ecological zonation. In this case, what Mat H. calls "non-unique conclusions" result not from the poor quality or small size of the data set, but from the fundamental assumptions of the workers interpreting the data.
Joseph Allen K.
Dr. Wieland, a SCIENCE, by definition, is a body of knowledge that has been established by means of, and only by means of, the SCIENTIFIC METHOD.

When applied to Biology, the Scientific Method requires that a Hypothesis be established by means of precise, independent, designed experiments, before this Hypothesis can be accepted and promoted to the status of Scientific Knowledge.

Now consider the two basic Hypotheses of Darwinian Evolution:

HYPOTHESIS #1: Life-less matter with NO Genome, was somehow TRANSFORMED into a living single-cell organism with a Genome.

HYPOTHESIS #2: A living single-cell organism with a Genome, somehow EVOLVED into a living multi-celled organism with an expanded Genome.

Neither of these Hypotheses has yet been empirically established; therefore, Darwinian Evolution must NOT be taught as established Science in the classroom.
Errol B.
There are so many examples of ‘interpretation of the facts’ that have been shown later to be unjustified. Pakicetus, Nebraska man, coelacanth... I also found it worth researching Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba (Ardi), Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), Tiktaalik, Sediba & Archaeopteryx... all in the arena of ‘historical’ science. It’s an interesting exercise to research the raw evidence, compared to how the text books & museums display them; then note the difference between actual scientific data & interpretation. NB, these subjective methods are accepted, even encouraged by secular ‘peer review’ in relation to origins, other fields of science seem to have less protection. Note also Lindy Chamberlains defence team, unlike the prosecution, had eye witnesses + access to the same forensics data but the prosecution interpreted the data differently, science isn’t biased, people are. Agree with previous comments.
Peter N.
I think there's a typo or omission somewhere and can't fill the gap.

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 certain [????] from the former observational approaches and outcomes where no experiments as such are carried out, or in the second case limit it to ‘crime scene investigation’.
Carl Wieland
You're right Peter. The 'certain' was supposed to be before the word 'observational'. Fixed now. Thanks.
Alan J.
Mar says "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."

This is my argument against gazillions of years for the age of the earth, stated as variable (!) fact through various radiometric analyses - since radioactivity was discovered, even if a reading was taken on every single day since, it would be a tiny, miniscule percentage of all "available" readings that might have been available had it been monitored from Day 1. The data set simply is not big enough for a reliable trend to be drawn - and yet the evolutionist quite happily states as "fact" that they can accurately date things as being umpteen millions years old. IF the recent trend held true for the whole period, IF conditions remained the same throughout, the projection MIGHT be true, but who is to say that that "level" was the starting point anyway? After all, Adam was created as an adult. There is simply no observed data to verify it.

I would just dare to question the statement "There is no such thing as past data". If something was observed and recorded in the past, surely that is "past data"?
Carl Wieland
Interesting comment about past data. In one sense all data that is recorded is 'past', even if it was recorded 10 seconds ago. The observation itself also becomes a 'past' observation. But to be fair, and trying not to nitpick, that is not how one normally means it in a discussion like this. The observation at the time it was made was made in the present, i.e. in the observer's present. It then becomes data 'from the past', but not data based on observation of or experiment on past objects or events themselves--and the usual caveats about reliability of preservation, trustworthiness, etc. apply. Which is why we talk in normal operational science about repeatability. So that observers can repeatedly make the same observations, hopefully confirming the original one. But each observation is in the present--i.e. the observer's present. An observer cannot observe (or repeat) something which allegedly took place in the observer's past--e.g. the transformation of a group of reptiles into birds, allegedly. Or the creation of groups of birds ex nihilo. Both are one-off past events. I say one-off, but even if someone could watch a reptile become a bird today, strictly speaking it would only show that such a thing was possible, not that it actually happened in the past.

Curtis C.
Mat has made a classic error in trying to argue semantics instead of just the ideas, something Paul warned about in 1 Tim 6:4. Whether intentional or not, this is only a distraction and to those of us who are well trained in how to think clearly, it only weakens his case further. If every fully qualified scientist, including all the biblical scientists, did not use the terms origins and historical science, that would not logically derail the fact that those terms are appropriate according to normal English, and more importantly the distinction they're being used to point out is real and important.

The point is that evolutionists are usually not honest that conclusions about the distant past require some basic assumptions. Creationists honestly believe ours are right, so we have no need to fear that fact. That contrast speaks volumes -- it shows we want the truth -- but most evolutionists seemingly do not, for misguided emotional reasons.

Those I've questioned don't realize Jesus' salvation is worth it -- they think eternal life would be boring, missing that God will make it perfect -- and don't realize God's moral revelations are motivated out of perfect love and perfect knowledge; that sin is poison, even if it tastes good going down. They don't seem to realize that the fact that objective logic debunks evolution and backs up the Bible is the ultimate good news in every way! Then there's peer pressure -- maybe the biggest reason, but I would gladly be the lone voice on anything if it's the truth, especially for the sake of Jesus. :)

There is no reason to resort to illogic to defend evolution "past its expiration date" like that. It's time to let it die as the Greek myths did.
robert B.
This is just to confirm that the objective interpretation of data is an ideal rather than a reality in the geosciences)

An experienced geologist, and writer of over 100 geological papers, WB Hamilton, wrote these words in 2002.
“Most geoscience is done by interpreting the parts in terms of the assumed whole.
Basic assumptions often are so entrenched that practitioners are unaware that there might be little or no evidence behind them.
Data, narrowly sought and interpreted, fill the space between starting assumptions and conclusions required by them. ..
Grant-giving agencies require this method in proposals, and peer reviewers of proposals and manuscripts commonly enforce it, thereby ensuring that most advances are small.
The method is no stronger than the premises at issue and hence impedes major advances, for adaptation to incompatible data is made by increasing complexity of assumptions rather than by seeking alternatives.”

WB Hamilton as of 2010 still accepts the premise of a 4 Gyr old earth but does not accept the notion of mantle convection plumes driving plate tectonics, which is commonly found in school textbooks.
Hans G.
Beautiful interaction between originator and critics.

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