Origin Science, Historical Science, and Operation Science

The Origin of Origin Science and Operation Science

Young Earth Creationists and ID proponents will often complain that theories such as The Big Bang and Evolution do not qualify as rigorous science because they pertain to non-repeatable events that happened in the distant past.   They consider such theories as belonging to a poor cousin of science they call Origin Science (or Historical Science).   And they draw a distinction between this category and what they call Operation Science.   In this article I would like to explain why this distinction is unnecessary and deceptive.   Singular events in the past can be studied through science with the same integrity and rigor as recurring events and phenemona.

The distinction was first made by Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson in their book published in the popular press called Origin Science[1].  Kerby  Anderson, explains the premise of the book on a Christian website called Probe Ministries[2],

The foundational concept in the book was that there is a fundamental difference between operation science and origin science. Operation science is what most of us think of when we talk about science. It deals with regularities. In other words, there are regular recurring patterns that we can observe, and we can do experiments on those patterns. Observation and repeatability are two foundational tools of operation science.

Origin science differs from operation science because it does not deal with present regularities. Instead it focuses on a singular action in the past. As we say in the book, “The great events of origin were singularities. The origin of the universe is not recurring. Nor is the origin of life, or the origin of major new forms of life.

We argued that “a science which deals with origin events does not fall within the category of empirical science, which deals with observed regularities in the present. Rather, it is more like forensic science.” In many ways, origin science is more like the scientific investigations done by crime scene investigators. The crime was a singular event and often there was no observer. But CSI investigators can use the available evidence to reconstruct the crime.”[2]

In Origin Science, Geisler and Andersen explain how they think that origin science must be conducted:

“In origin science it is necessary to find analogies in the present to these events in the past. Thus, for example, if evidence is forthcoming that life can now be synthesized from chemicals (without intelligent manipulation) under conditions similar to those reasonably assumed to have once existed on the primitive earth, then a naturalistic (secondary-cause) explanation of the origin of life is plausible. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that the kind of complex information found in a living cell is similar to that which can be regularly produced by an intelligent (primary) cause, then it can be plausibly argued that there was an intelligent cause of the first living organism.[emphasis mine]”[3]

Origin Science: Science by Analogy

In the above quotation from Origin Science, Geisler and Andersen insist that science for past events can only be done by finding a plausible present day analog and applying it by an inductive leap as an explanation for an event in the past.   The logical form would be, “That looks similar and it works right here, perhaps it worked like this everywhere.”   The leap from “here” to “everywhere” is the inductive leap.

Induction is a good way to speculate on an explanation.  It gives you a likely place to start further research and testing.   But if it ended there, all you have is an interesting untested speculation.   It is reasonable to say that a lot of science starts with an inductive leap, but to go from speculation to established science one must be able to do what the authors claim happens in Operation Science which is to be able to do repeated experiments to observe and confirm the explanation.

The Intelligent Design proponents use the inductive application of an analogy to justify inferring design in biological systems, as you can see by the boldfaced section of the above quotation.   The logic of that section would look like this:

  • Biological cells contain complex information.
  • We observe intelligent humans creating complex information..
  • Therefore, we can infer that the complex information in cells came from an intelligent cause.

As you can see, this is a very weak inference, since it relies on the weak analogy of what humans make being applied to biological cells simply because they both contain information.  And it takes the inductive (but unsupported) leap from noticing what humans do and applying that observation to all biological cells.  The proponents would suggest that since no one was around to observe the singular events that led up to present day biological cells, then Origin Science, using this weak form of analogy, is our only recourse.  In this is all we can do for events in the past, they are correct in saying that Origin science under this definition is an inferior form of scientific reasoning.

Operation Science:  Observation of Repeatable Patterns and Regularities

The authors are also correct in identifying that what they call Operation Science is a far more robust form of inquiry and explanation formation.  As they explain,

“Operation science is what most of us think of when we talk about science. It deals with regularities. In other words, there are regular recurring patterns that we can observe, and we can do experiments on those patterns. Observation and repeatability are two foundational tools of operation science.”

So it is safe to say that the authors feel that what prevents us from doing Operation Science on singular events in the past is their inaccessibility for repeated experiment and direct observation.

An example that demonstrates good Operation Science would be Isaac Newton developing his theories of motion and gravity.   Consider Newton’s law of motion, F = MA.    This law predicts the acceleration of a given mass when subject to a given force.    One can easily develop and test this law by directly experimenting with masses and forces on a lab bench and observing the acelleration of the masses..  We can do this on all kinds of things that are accessible to us such that we can make direct observations on the repeated results.

However, consider that Newton went further to claim that his laws of motion are universal in that they apply to all masses and forces in the universe.  And his law of gravity is also universal in that he claims that it applies to all masses in the universe.   So Newton makes the inductive leap that if masses and forces behave like this on things we can experiment with on Earth, then perhaps masses all over the universe behave this way.

Long Range Science?

This universal claim about masses and forces would seem to present a problem to Operation Science because such things as planets and moons and galaxies are outside of our reach.  The planet Jupiter, for example, is not accessible to us so that we can apply forces to it repeatedly and directly observe its acceleration.   While it is true that we can observe the motion of Jupiter with a telescope all that does is create a list of positions in the night sky were we observed Jupiter.

So it would seem that we have another impediment to Operation Science in that Jupiter and other celestial objects are not accessible to us to perform repeated experiments.   If this problem is not soluable, then do we now need a new science?   This is not the “long ago” problem that Origin Science describes, but rather a “far away” problem.   Perhaps it needs something called Long Range Science.

Tiny Science, Invisible Science?

Then consider that since the turn of the 20th century, most of our science has been in regard to things that are too small to observe, such as atomic physics that deals with atomic and sub-atomic particles, and electromagnetic theory that deals with invisible things that we can make no direct observations on.    It would seem that we now need Tiny Science and Invisible Science to go along with Origin Science.

Fortunately for us there is a solution to all of this that was devised hundreds of years ago and it has allowed us to be as certain of our scientific theories about things in the deep past, things that are far away, things that are too small to see, and thing that are invisible as we are for things that are in our immediate reach and can be observed directly.   In fact, direct observation is somewhat overrated, since almost everything we study in science for the last few hundred years has not been accessible in the way the authors are requiring for Operation Science.

Real Science

While it might be true that we might need to study historical events differently than we study recurring events in the present,  it is not true that we must study all natural processes that occured in the past differently than present day recurring processes.   Additionally, most natural processes that occured in the past are still ocurring in the present.

The problem of creating testable hypotheses for natural phenomena that occured in the past is similar to creating them for phenomena that are too small to observe directly or too far away to experiment on directly. As it turns out, we test theories for things that are accessible to us and things that are not accessible to us in exactly the same way.   Science has been conducted for hundreds of years in a way that allow us to convert what we have been calling Origin Science, Long Range Science and so forth to what the authors call Operation Science.

That is why we are as certain that the planets obey Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity as we are that billiard balls in front of us do.  We can do that when we can create a causal relationship between the explanation we are proposing for a phenomenon and the consequences of that explanation.

As for F = MA and Jupiter, all we need to do is create a causal relationship between something we can observe about the motion of Jupiter from afar that comes as a logical consequence of F = MA working on Jupiter.  If we do our job right, we should be able to show how F = MA is essential in predicting the motion of Jupiter.  Thus we can turn our Long Range Science problem into an Operation Science problem.

Converting Long Range Science to Operation Science

So how do we get a long range F = MA signal from far off Jupiter so we can confirm that it applies to Jupiter with the same certainty that it applies to billiard balls on a pool table?  In this case, we do it by combining the laws of motion and gravity into a larger theory in a way that causes them to produce further predictions abut the motion of Jupiter that each one alone could not accomplish.   Our tool is the relentless capacity for logic to propagate truth claims from premises to conclusions.

Summarized, the larger hypothesis looks like this:

  • P1: Given the three laws of motion (including F = MA).
  • P2: Give the law of universal gravitation.
  • P3: Given lots of math [4]
  • C1: Therefore, bodies in orbit will follow an elliptical path.

Since math is really compact packaged up logic that is verifiable the way logic is, we can demonstrate that conclusion C1 follows by logical necessity from the premises P1 through P4.    (See footnote [5] for a simple example of a conclusion about gravity using the laws of motion, the law of gravity, and simple algebra).

As you can see, conclusion C1 makes a precise and testable prediction about planetary motion that each premise was unable to make on its own.   And being a logical conclusion that is inescapable, if the prediction does not turn out to be accurate, one has to assume that one or more of the premises are wrong for planets (assuming we didn’t make a math error).    For example, if planetary orbits do not turn out to be elliptical, one cannot conclude that all of Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity apply to bodies in orbit around other bodies.   And without knowing which law doesn’t apply we cannot insist that F = MA applies to Jupiter.    However, if the orbits do turn out to be elliptical, we are justified in saying that Newton’s Laws of Motion and gravity are a reasonable explanation for the precise motion of Jupiter.

So now that the prediction of an elliptical orbit is an inescapable consequence  of the laws of motion and gravity, we have converted our Long Range Science problem into an Operation Science problem.   This is because this long range “elliptical signal” from Jupiter’s orbit is directly observable and repeatable, and so it is for all the other planets and moons.   Now all we have to do is examine the hundreds of years worth of positional data from observations of Jupiter and find that Jupiter indeed traces out an elliptical path.

At this point, it is important to highlight that these predictions are not just opinions of the proponent of the theory.   It doesn’t matter if Newton himself predicted elliptical orbits or not (he did, of course).  What matters is that the elliptical orbit prediction is traceable back to the premises of the explanation in a way that is inescapable from the logic itself.

Justifying the Final Inductive Leap

So now we have a way of testing if F = MA applies to Jupiter, but notice that we still haven’t completely justified the inductive leap from something that works for billiard balls and Jupiter to working for all masses in the universe.  Since it is impossible to test a theory on everything in the universe, we don’t ever say that a scientific theory is proven in the same comprehensive way a logic or mathematical proof is proven.   What makes this different than what the authors were describing as Origin Science is that our inductive leap comes with the safety net of testability.   Science requires that any prediction that a hypothesis makes must be testable.   And the testability comes from the demands of the predictions.   In science we call this the requirement of “falsifiability”.  It means that if we find that the predictions are not accurate, then they are falsified.  And since the predictions are necessary conclusions from the premises, then one or more of the premises are falsified.

Each different kind of prediction that comes from a set of premises shines a bright light of scrutiny from a different angle, building up more and more risk of failure for any of the premises if they are wrong.   In that way, the boldness of an inductive leap is balanced by the increased risk of failure it takes on through these testable predictions   And the more your predictions turn out to be accurate and the more they “fail to fail”, the higher your certainty of the truth of the underlying premises.

All Real Science is Operational Science

As it turns out, science has been conducted as I demonstrated above for the last 500 years or so.   This is the method by which we have probed the far reaches of deep space, the properties of subatomic particles, harnessed invisible electromagnetic waves, determined how the universe was formed and the mechanisms for how life became so diverse on the planet over the billions of years of deep time.

We can forgive the authors of Origin Science for not understanding how science is actually conducted being that they are not practicing scientists themselves.   Geisler and Anderson are Christian apologeticists who publish to a lay audience on matters of theology and Christian faith.   What the authors are trying to articulate is what the well known philosopher of science, Karl Popper, calls “the demarcation problem”, which is his attempt to define what it is that separates empirical science from other ways of knowing things and from pseudoscience.    From Popper’s point of view, it is the criteria of falsification that separates a scientific theory from other kinds of theories and it is the main thing that allows us to build confidence in a theory.[6]

Just like we use our long range predictions to confirm hypotheses for things that are far away, we also use them for things that are too small to see, or simply invisible, such as electromagnetic waves.   And most importantly, we can use long range predictions to confirm hypotheses about how things happened in the deep time.

The same principle applies to the Modern Theory of Evolution (ToE).     The complaint that we cannot directly observe the evolutionary pathway of an organism  over millions of years is directly related to this artifical notion of Origin Science.    However, ToE manages to make some 25 testable predictions about what we should find and what we should not find in organisms, and how they will relate to each other and how they wil not.   These predictions from ToE come as a logical consequence of the basic darwinian process of mutation, selection, and inheritance.     And with the advent of the fields of molecular biology and genetics, and the advent of inexpensive gene sequencing machines, we can confirm many of those predictions to a mathematical precision.

So as it turns out, the origin theories of The Big Bang Theory[7], and the Theory of Evolution have been confirmed in the same way and to the same degree of certainty as Newtonian Physics, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and other what Geisler and Anderson might call “experimental” or “operational” theories.

For an explanation of how we turn The Theory of Evolution into an Operation Science theory see my article called Evolution: From Origin Science to Operation Science. (coming soon).


Related Articles and Books on Origin Science and the Philosophy of Science

[i] In fact Newton himself anticipated this hundreds of years ago, that the only hypotheses that are allowed in science are testable ones.

As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the Investigation of difficult Things by the Method of Analysis, ought ever to precede the Method of Composition. This Analysis consists in making Experiments and Observations, and in drawing general Conclusions from them by Induction, and admitting of no Objections against the Conclusions, but such as are taken from Experiments, or other certain Truths. For Hypotheses are not to be regarded in experimental Philosophy.
— Sir Isaac Newton Opticks, 2nd edition (1718), Book 3, Query 31, 380
 [ii]  A larger excerpt from Karl Popper’s paper on falsification. http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/popper_falsification.html
[iii] Readings in the Philosophy of Science: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767402774/nationalcenter02/
[iv]  Good blog article on Origin Science vs Operation Science. http://reformedacademic.blogspot.com/2012/03/more-about-origin-and-operation-science.html
[v] An NCSE article on Origin Science vs Experimental Science:
[vi] Excellent paper on the false notion of Origin or Historical Science:
[viii] Paper on the Nature of Science and the Scientific Method. http://www.geosociety.org/educate/NatureScience.pdf
[ix] Wikipedia article on Philosopher of Science, Karl Popper http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper
[x] PDF of Karl Popper’s landmark book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery http://www.cosmopolitanuniversity.ac/library/LogicofScientificDiscoveryPopper1959.pdf


Notes and Sources

[1] Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson, Origin Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987).

[2] http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.4218237/k.937F/Origin_Science.htm

[3] Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson, Origin Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), pg 16.

[4] For a derivation of the testable prediction of elliptical orbits from the laws of motion and gravity, see http://www.physnet.org/modules/pdf_modules/m106.pdf

[5] A simple example of creating a prediction in the form of a logically necessary conclusion from one of Newton’s Law of Motion and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

1) F = M x A   (a law of motion, where M is the mass of an object, F is a force applied to an object, and A is the acelleration of the object.

2) F = (Me x M) / (R x R)   (law of gravity, where F is the force between the earth with mass Me, and a given mass M, and R is the distance between the center of mass of M and the center of mass of the earth.

M x A = (Me x M) / (R x R)     (by sustitution of equation 1 for F in equation 2)

A = Me / (R x R)   (divide both sides by M, causing M to cancel out).

You now have an expression that predicts the acceleration of an object of mass M due to the force of gravity.  But notice that the actual mass M of the object is no longer a factor in the equation.   This creates the prediction

P1) Any two objects when dropped from a height above the earth will accelerate at the same rate regardless of their mass.

A couple of additional simple math steps will yield the prediction:

P2) Any two objects dropped from the same height will reach the ground at the same time regardless of their masses.

Notice that these two predicions P1 and P2 have to be true if expressions 1 and 2 are true.    Therefore, each time you test P1 and P2, on different objects and find that they are accurate, you build confidence in the theory that expressons 1 and 2 goven the motion of falling bodies on earth.     Since they are readily testable on any masses, it is easy to see why they are considered falsifiable, not because they are false, but because they could easily be found to be false by simple tests if they were indeed false.

And since P1 and P2 are logically linked to expressions 1 and 2, one can test 1 and 2 as an explanation for the motion of falling bodies by testing P1 and P2.  This makes  expressions 1 and 2 also falsifiable.

[6] On the demarcation critieria Popper writes,

“These considerations led me in the winter of 1919-20 to conclusions which I may now reformulate as follows.

  • It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.
  • Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.
  • Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
  • A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
  • Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
  • Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)
  • Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a “conventionalist twist” or a “conventionalist stratagem.”)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.”

( Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39; from Theodore Schick, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Science, Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 9-13. )

[7] For example, we have a lot of confidence in The Big Bang  Theory because besides explaining how energy, particles, atoms, and stars formed, it also predicts such things as the temperature of the still cooling afterglow of interstallar gases which we should be able to observe today among other important predictions.    These measurable properties represent a number of long range signals from the origin of the universe that confirm the hypothesis of The Big Bang.