Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Stephen Jay Gould Would Say Bill Nye is Wrong in His Debate with Ken Ham

Bill Nye, in his debate last night, claimed that there is no difference in the methodology of operational sciences and historical sciences, and that Ken Ham is the only one who makes this distinction.  But he is dead wrong on that.  Stephen Jay Gould recognizes many of the same distinctions:

Beyond a platitudinous appeal to open-mindedness, the “scientific method” involves a set of concepts and procedures tailored to the image of a man in a white coat twirling dials in a laboratory–experiment, quantification, repetition, prediction, and restriction of complexity to a few variables that can be controlled and manipulated.  These procedures are powerful, but they do not encompass all of nature’s variety.  How should scientists operate when they must try to explain the results of history, those inordinately complex events that can occur but once in detailed glory?  Many large domains of nature–cosmology, geology, and evolution among them–must be studied with the tools of history.  The appropriate methods focus on narrative, not experiment as usually conceived.

The stereotype of the “scientific method” has no place for irreducible history.  Nature’s laws are defined by their invariance in space and time.  The techniques of controlled experiment, and reduction of natural complexity to a minimal set of general causes, presuppose that all times can be treated alike and adequately simulated in a laboratory.

. . .

Historical explanations are distinct from conventional experimental results in many ways.  The issue of verification by repetition does not arise because we are trying to account for uniqueness of detail that cannot, both by laws of probability and time’s arrow of irreversibility, occur together again. . . .  And the issue of prediction, a central ingredient in the stereotype, does not enter into a historical narrative. . . .

I am only a few minutes into the recorded debate, and am not sure I will make it to the end. From what I have read, it was not the most enlightening debate on the relevant science, from either side.  I just had to point out how little time it took for Nye to be dead wrong on a scientific point.

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