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Q&A: Is Historical Science Supported by Direct Observation?

From Jim in South Point, Ohio

I was watching a “debate” on TBN featuring Hugh and Ken Ham among others; and Mr. Ham used an argument that seems to have become extremely popular with young-earth creationists (YEC) concerning what they perceive as a dichotomy between “operational” science and “historical” science. I know that Hugh on multiple occasions has tried to point out that astronomy is a discipline that circumvents this supposed issue, but it seems that Ken Ham and other YECs simply wave this off with claims that our understanding of astrophysics is too weak to be sure of what we view in space, naturalistic assumptions tainting our methods, etc. Are there any other ways of addressing this supposed dichotomy that would convince someone to perhaps not dismiss evidences that fall into the “historical” category?


Young-earth creationists define “operational science” as experiments and observations of natural phenomena that are performed in real time—that is, in the present. They consider the outcomes from operational science as trustworthy and reliable. Young-earth creationists define “historical or origins science” as observations of and experiments on the presently existing natural realm so as to infer what occurred in the past. Such inferences, they argue, are based on questionable assumptions, such as the presumption that the laws of physics do not change over the history of the universe, Earth, and life. Consequently, they conclude that the findings of historical or origins science are not trustworthy and reliable. This explains why Ken Ham and other leaders of young-earth creationist organizations insist that the Bible, and the Bible alone, provides reliable information about what happened in the past. 

But this dichotomy that young-earth creationists present is a false one. They are correct in stating that only phenomena we scientists observe directly can be considered to be assumption-free. They are wrong, however, in concluding that all historical sciences depend on indirect observations.

Astronomy is a discipline where we observe the past directly. In fact, because of light’s finite velocity and the great distances over which astronomers observe, they are unable to see what is happening in the present—but they are directly observing what occurred in the past. For example, when astronomers view sunspots, they are not seeing those spots as they are now, but rather as they were 8.3 minutes ago (the Sun is 8.3 light-minutes away). When astronomers look at the Andromeda Galaxy through their telescopes, they are not seeing the Andromeda Galaxy as it is now, rather as it was 2.5 million years ago (the Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light-years away). Today, astronomers have access to such powerful telescopes that they can directly observe the state of the universe as it was 13.79 billion years ago, when the cosmos was just a ten billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old (10-34 seconds).

Young-earth creationists frequently respond to astronomers’ claim of direct observation of events that occurred millions of years ago by pointing out that researchers lack direct distance measures to astronomical bodies more distant than about 500 light-years. This retort was valid 40 years ago. Today, thanks to a technique known as very long baseline interferometry—where radio astronomers link antennae separated by thousands of miles to construct an instrument with the resolving power of a telescope thousands of miles in diameter—researchers have made direct distance measurements to galaxies as far away as 470 million light-years.

Another ubiquitous young-earth creationist claim is that the laws and constants of physics (such as the velocity of light) were not constant over the history of Earth and the universe. This assertion, however, contradicts both the Bible and the record of nature. In Jeremiah 33, God declares that He is immutable (changeless). In that context (specifically Jeremiah 33:25) God says that in the same manner that the laws of physics do not change, so He does not change. Passages in Genesis 1–2, Ecclesiastes, Romans 8, and Revelation 21 buttress this implication of constant physics. The book of nature also sustains this conclusion. Measurements made by astronomers and physicists establish that certain fundamental constants undergirding the laws of physics have changed by no more than 1 part in 50,000,000,000,000,000 per year over the past 10 billion years.   

Ken Ham is not only wrong in his insistence that scientists possess no direct access to what occurred in the past, he also is mistaken in claiming no overlap exists between operational and historical sciences. In reality, what scientists conclude from their research in the operational sciences impacts their conclusions about the historical sciences and vice versa. For a more in-depth treatment of this subject with citations to the scientific and theological research literature, see my books Navigating Genesis and A Matter of Days (a new and much expanded edition will be released in 2015).