Historical vs. Operational Science

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.

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4 thoughts on “Historical vs. Operational Science

  1. I’m going into this from an astrobiology perspective (which I study on and off depending on time) so I’m not really interested in the term “origins” with its individual perspective and religious baggage as much as the process from chemical to biological evolution. And I would say that the distinction between historical, concurrent or future science is unusable.

    Consider astronomy where the historical information reaches us in the local and astronomically used “now” from nearly as old ages as the universe. (The CMB originated ~ 400 000 year after the universe, and it contains observations of the earlier inflationary era.) Its observations can often be repeated by finding more examples out of a distributions.

    What we have is differences in observability and resolution that comes out of low observability. Say phylogenies, where the existence of a UCA is the best observation of all of science, ~ 10^2000 (!) against multiple ancestors, due to the combinatorics as Theobald showed (Nature 2010 IIRC). But at the same time we can’t resolve much about the properties of the 3 domain ancestors that diverged right after that, because we have a spotty record.

    (“Future science” would then be when we can predict and test well what is going to happen. Say, the next day due to the orbital motions of Earth vs Sun.)

    This is the same principle problem that an untestable definition of “direct” observation would have. We can’t observe the wavefunction as is. All our observations are in the past lightcone and by ever more convoluted hypotheses on interactions by particles such as photons. What is useful is constraining observations so they are uniquely testing a hypothesis on them. Say, the observations underlying the test of an UCA are uniquely observations on DNA machinery protein sequences.

    In summary then, I agree that the area of “historical vs other” science is a theologico-philosophical distinction and that there are often uncertainties when you can’t use lab experiments due to the scales involved. Nevertheless we can do testing in cases, that is why we have a standard cosmology and a more or less “standard phylogeny”.

    • Thanks for the great, and well supported in science, response!

      Ultimately, however, I think we are talking past each other a bit. I think that in cosmology, observing events today which have happened in the past (due to the time it takes for the information to get here) is fundamentally different than studying the origin of life (and specifically chemical origins, which is my field). The difference is that in cosmology, we are actually observing and recording this direct, primary data today. The case is nearly the same in phylogeny (at least in the limited amount of knowledge I have of it). From my understanding (and please do correct me if I am mistaken), much of the data leading toward the LCA is founded in fossils and observed, again, in today’s laboratories. I do realize there is some extrapolation involved – especially the closer you get to the LCA – but there is still a record leading to this conclusion.

      In the origin of life however, and by this I mean the events leading up to the production of the LCA, unfortunately there is no direct samples remaining for us to study. Rather, we (scientists) are required to take knowledge we have of the workings of “simple” life today, make educated guesses at the conditions existing on early Earth, and finally simulate those conditions to some degree in the laboratory to entice prebiotically plausible processes to occur. Whenever there is extensive extrapolation involved (and I think even the LCA comes close to this), there arises a fundamental difference between this science (which I have deemed “historical”) and “operational science”. All forms of operational science involve direct observation of events. Cosmological observations are a special case in this sense, in that although the observations being made are occurring “now”, the events themselves happened well into the past. Although I do believe this is a so-called “borderline” example, going with my description of historical and operational science, this would still classify as operational science.

      Also, I do agree (and wrote to this end in the original post) that such a distinction between historical and operational science is unhelpful for the scientists actually performing the research. It is nearly entirely a philosophical issue, but when scientists or others start to talk about the studies performed in a philosophical vein (which happens often, whether consciously or not), this is an important distinction to at least acknowledge.

      Anyways, thanks again for the great comment! I look forward to conversing with you more, should you have the interest.

  2. Pingback: Great new SciAm blog post on Stanley Miller and the origin of life | OriginsSkeptic

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