The Next Breakthrough

One of the more famous young Earth creationist escape hatches, to be used when there is no other way to dismiss evidence contrary to their position, is to invoke the spectre of “historical science”. Historical science is a legitimate term for observational, i.e. non-experimental science, which deals with things that cannot be directly tinkered with. Creationists, however, try to spin this as meaning that such science is less reliable or useful than experimental science, though this is far from the truth.

Brian’s latest use of the term, however, in What Will the Next Biological Breakthrough Be? is rather different. He comments on another freely available Nature feature, Life-changing experiments: The biological Higgs. This one asks “what fundamental discoveries in biology might inspire the same thrill [as the search for the Higgs]?

The discovery of life on Europa would probably do it, yes, but what else?

According to Brian, however, this comparison cannot be made:

In a similar way, the evolutionary model of life’s origin predicts that some combination of nonliving elements could somehow come to life, and numerous theories have been offered regarding how that could have happened. Intense interest has backed both the biological and physics research questions, but the Nature article comparing the two ignored the fact that the questions involve inherently different types of investigation.

Physicists are asking a science question, but the biologists are asking a history question.

Here we have Brian outright dismissing the biological topics under discussion as being non-science. Biologists may well be “asking a history question,” but it is still science. But what does the article actually talk about?

  • First, it talks about exobiology. This is hardly a ‘historical science’ question, in less you count the fact that it will take some time for the data to reach you from Enceladus or wherever it is that your probe has been ambushed/smothered with seaweed/hit with a rock. And if you count that, then you’re sliding into trouble (and probably postmodernism, which I note the ICR doesn’t like at all).
    The article does touch in what could be much more reasonably called “historical science” in this section in one way, however: the potential for the discovery of fossils on Mars.

    Searching rocks on other planets for fossils is another popular proposition, says Jeffrey Bada, a planetary geochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. “That’s easy enough,” he says. “But if you don’t find them, does that tell you that life never existed there?” McKay argues that fossil evidence or living proof of life may be required to convince a field. “Ultimately, you’ll have to have a body,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be alive, but you’ll have to have a body.”

    The problem here is that it shows the problem in arguing that historical science is any way inferior to any other kind. A fossil found on Mars would be solid evidence of the “historical” kind, answering a question in the present. So what’s Brian’s problem?

  • Next comes the possibility of a “shadow biosphere” on Earth itself. Once upon a time we did not know that bacteria and other micro-organisms existed – now we do. What other class of life, whether like ours or not, could be out there that we are yet to discover? This topic, while very interesting, is in no way “historical” or relevant, so lets move on.
  • Third comes abiogenesis, the part we are most interested in, but it is more focused on the prospect of artificial life. All of the things talked about here are fundamentally experiments, opposite to the fossils in that they are in the now helping answer questions about the past. We’ll get back to this, obviously.
  • To finish off comes the prospect of delaying aging, and/or outright immortality. Again, interesting but irrelevant.

We return to Brian:

Repeatable experiments are appropriate tools to discern whether or not a Higgs boson exists in the present. But discerning “where and how life started” is a question answered by historical methods of investigation. Since no experiment can be performed on a past event, the historical clues can always be reorganized. Why spend so much on historical research with so little promise?

It may be true that “no experiment can be performed on a past event,” but that doesn’t justify anything else he said in that paragraph. We can preform experiments in the present, to see, say, what was possible and why. We can analyse data and make predictions, and those predictions can come true. How does Brian justify his claim that “historical clues can always be reorganized”?

This brings us back to the idea that the dismissal of aspects of science as “historical” tends to be a last resort. If you will remember back a few days to B.T.’s Monday post, which we saw in Archean Raindrops, we were talking about what was practically a textbook example of how to do such science… and Brian was perfectly happy with it (though he did try to spin it as evidence for a young Earth, of course). What happened there is that a scientist was trying to determine the atmospheric pressure several billion years ago – hardly the most ‘experimental’ of endeavours even at the present, I might add. His method took the roundabout, though still solid, route of working out the physics of raindrops and comparing what different densities would do to their splash craters. Using a 2.7 billion year old slab containing fossilised raindrop impressions he worked out the range of pressure that would have been in the atmosphere at the time when they were formed. All perfectly sound science.

And Brian had no problem with this, using the fact that the results showed that a certain set of conditions that would have been helpful when it came to resolving the Faint Young Sun paradox did not occur to try to claim a young Earth. He did not, so far as I saw, instead dismiss the results as unreliable due to being historical science, and yet he now denigrates the practise. Similarly, creationists often claim that evolution cannot be falsified, while at the same time claiming to have done exactly that.

However, Brian does not seem to be taking such a hard line against historical science, continuing:

To reasonably test historical models, one could compare how each fits the available clues. The best model should accommodate the most clues with the fewest caveats. Based on the assumption that raw chemicals constructed the first life on earth, the historical model of astrobiology predicts that the same process ought to have occurred elsewhere many times in a universe this vast. But how well do the data fit this model’s prediction?

The first two sentences are correct, at least. I’m not so sure about the rest, however. The ‘historical model of astrobiology’? And as for ‘raw chemicals’, what’s a non-raw chemical exactly?

So far, there is no evidence for life anywhere but on earth, and there is no evidence out there for even the general conditions required for life.

I would dispute the second half of that statement, at least. The universe seems much more favourable for our kind of life, at least in the sense of containing rocky planets of the right size at the right distance from their stars, than it was only a few years ago. There was a time when you could deny the existence of extrasolar planets in the goldilocks zone, even deny extrasolar planets outright. Not any more, however.

This is the essence of the Fermi Paradox, named for the physicist Enrico Fermi. He hypothesized that if life evolves naturally from chemicals to intelligent thinkers, then “why haven’t we seen any traces of extraterrestrial life such as probes or transmissions?”

No, Fermi was talking about intelligent life, not life in general. The source for that exact quote, btw, is the creationist book Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection from 2010, and is the only place I can find on the web, aside from the ICR and people quoting the ICR, of those exact words existing. Which is odd, given that it is presented in the book (search for the quote in google books) as if it was exact, and not a paraphrase, being introduced as so:

In 1950, Nobel Prize winner and pioneer of atomic energy, Enrico Fermi, while working at Los Alamos nuclear facility in New Mexico, raised this straightforward question:

Are we the only technologically advanced civilisation in the universe, and if we are not, then where are they? Why haven’t we we seen any traces of extraterrestrial life such as probes or transmissions?

It’s an odd line to go through the creationist quote mutatorTM, but there it is. The discussion actually happened, you understand, but we don’t know the exact words use. And again, he was only talking about civilisations, and not life in general – and theNature column is not talking about civilisations.

In contrast, the biblical model of life’s origins straightforwardly accommodates the fact that life has only been found on earth. Nor does the search for the origin of life require billions of dollars. That discovery is made simply by following the historical clues back to Genesis.

Yeah, yeah – if we keep our heads stuck in the Bible, we’ll never find out if you’re wrong. So lets look.

4 thoughts on “The Next Breakthrough

  1. “So far, there is no evidence for life anywhere but on earth, and there is no evidence out there for even the general conditions required for life.”

    Brian Thomas might want to mention this to his fellow creationists who are claiming that the universe is fine-tuned for life. It seems to have escaped their notice.

  2. A thought about “historical geology” and the YEC complaints.

    They complain that, because of the motivation to disprove god that exists among the atheist scientific community, these scientists are predisposed to interpret the evidence so that it corresponds to an old earth.

    But, why then, do all the scientific estimates converge on around 4 billion? According to the YEC, 20,000 years would be “impossibly old”. Why not just stop there, if you’re trying to shoehorn evidence for a young earth into and old earth bias?

  3. I do recall reading somewhere that Fermi didn’t doubt it was likely a lot of extra-terrestrial life existed, just that it was unlikely to be intelligent enough to send out probles/signals etc.


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