I have been surfing the internet just browsing some other blogs about the origin of life and have found that a vast majority of them (at least the ones I came across today…) are geared at the Evolution – Intelligent Design/Creation debate. My biggest problem with these are that the debates end up being solely semantics full of people with agendas who end up writing emotion-driven posts. The problem that I see with all of these discussions is that we have now gotten to the point where there is no longer any actual science being discussed in these debates. Instead, the proponents of each side just verbally attack each other, with each side making broad statements that have been bouncing around in the media for years. What happened to the science?? Ok, now on to some more semantics, but in my view essential to this whole debate.
One of the issues that nearly always comes up is the issue of origins research being “historical science” in comparison to “operational science”. These words are not usually used in the scientific world, but are often seen in Philosophy of Science discussions or by critics of current origins science in general (i.e. ID proponents). To the everyday practicing scientist, it doesn’t matter whether your research is geared toward historical or operational science – the methodologies are identical. Both observe phenomena directly in the lab and draw conclusions from these observations. The difference lies in the interpretation and dissemination stage – the types of conclusions which are drawn.
Take the composition of the atmosphere as an example. Today, atmospheric scientists can directly measure the composition of the atmosphere – from ground based measurements to planes carrying instruments which suck in some air and analyze it. They can then develop models which can tell us how air packets flow from one region of the Earth to another as well as track chemical changes in the atmosphere in general. This helps in understanding what happens to ash clouds which are ejected from volcanoes and even how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs (which were the major cause of the ozone hole) can impact the environment as a whole. This is operational science. A direct observation is made in well-defined conditions and then conclusions are drawn based on those specific conditions.
Making claims about the composition of the atmosphere on prebiotic Earth is much more difficult. We are unable to directly take measurements of the atmosphere at that point in history, and so instead, we must use secondary sources to help us make educated guesses at what the composition was like (i,e, looking at the composition of rocks in different layers or stages of history). Although the methods are still the same – we are still making observations (analyzing the rock layers) and then drawing conclusions from those observations, the conclusions that we draw have many more unknowns to them. No matter what the optimistic scientists claim, we can never truly know what the composition of early Earth was nor how life arose. Instead, we must just accept that although the historical science we are doing is good science, it will never give us an absolute answer.
It is interesting to me that so many people get so upset about choosing a camp and defending it to the death in regards to origins science. This is actually quite an ignorant thing to do, and I think that it is the nature of origins science (a nature which is primarily ignored) that prompts such a response. Origins science is not absolute – it can merely give clues as to plausible routes to life.