In the practice of science, people ask very specific questions, then determine the answer. The determination of the answer can be done in a variety of ways as long as the they are robust and suited to the question.
When most people hear “science”, they think of a guy in a white lab coat with thick glasses pouring chemicals into complex glass tubing and watching in change colors. This is what we might consider “Experimental Science”. That is, the practice of creating a specific situation in a very tightly controlled environment. These experiments can run in microseconds or for decades. They might explore the nature of things smaller than electrons or how forces that hold galaxies together work.
They all share a common thread though. A scientist (or team) manipulates one aspect while keeping all the other aspects constant, then records what happens. The average Mythbusters episode contains some very good experimental science.
There is another kind of science that some people might think about. But popular thinking is usually restricted to fields like anthropology, archeology, and ecology. These scientists are often pictured as being dressed in khaki short pants, wearing a kepi or pith helmet, and carrying a years worth of food on their elephant.
This is the “Field Study”. In this case, the thing being studied is so complex that trying to condense it down into just a few component pieces will make the system non-functional. We can’t bring the entire African plains into the Cleveland zoo to study the migration patterns of million strong herds of Musk Ox. Instead, we go to them. We may tag some of the animals and track them with radio and satellite. We may take samples of a variety of conditions all across the seasons of many years. But we are out, in the field, doing something.
Instead of determining how one change affects one other aspect, we’re studying the whole thing at once. Usually to try and understand the general patterns that appear from many day-to-day studies.
Of course, there are situations where scientists just can’t study something in a lab… or in the outside world. Things like a tornado or the core of the sun or a black hole. For these things we use a model. These models are extremely complex, limited only by the amount of computing power the researcher can afford. Some of the most powerful computers in the world are at Los Alamos National Laboratory where they model the changes to nuclear weapons at nearly a molecular level.
Models aren’t just pretty pictures though. Researchers often compare models to observed data. The more accurately the model matches historical data, the more likely it is to successfully predict the future. This is used by hurricane and climate models (among other fields of study).
Finally, there’s another kind of science. That the science of understanding science. Some may call this historical science, but that’s misleading. It’s not history (which is a science in and of itself, it’s just one of those people-based squishy sciences that I don’t like much). It’s certainly not a history of science. It’s certainly not doing science about things that happened in the past. Instead, it’s more of a history of a claim in science.
If someone wanted to be able to explain why scientists think a certain way about a topic, then a historical review of scientific papers would shed some light on that. Popular science books, in my experience, generally have three sections. The first is almost invariably a history of the topic. Who thought what, when, and why about the subject. And how the other three science methods were used to change people’s minds about the topic.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this fourth method, but it’s not “science”. It’s not trying to explain a new phenomena or understand how some part of the universe works. It’s about why we think the universe works a certain way. The shift in emphasis is pretty subtle.
I prefer to teach by example. So here goes.
- Experiment – A scientist determines which alleles on which gene causes a bacterium to be toxic to humans.
- Field study – A scientists follows the spread of the disease in the human population.
- Modeling – A scientist models the spread of the diseases in the future.
- Historical – A scientist looks for previous cases of a similar bacteria that may lend some insight into this one.
Here’s the thing though. Historical science, while often useful, doesn’t really add to the knowledge of how the universe works. It’s basically assembling the work of other scientists and deriving a conclusion from them. So-called “metastudies” often fit into this category. A scientist who is helping to make a policy decision might gather all of the research on (for example) a particular pesticide. These studies might range from the chemical composition, to toxicology reports on various species to persistence in soils and rivers. That scientist will use all those other papers to develop conclusion about the safety of the chemical. Instead of determining if it’s safe to use around pregnant women, the scientist may be able to determine if it’s safe to use anywhere. Many of the popular science books are actually metastudies.
Here’s the thing though, the people who most deny science both conflate this type of science with other types of science AND use this type of science to attempt to refute science. In this way, they are highly hypocritical.
Creationists are probably the worst about this. Darwin’s Doubt is almost purely a book of historical science work. Meyer uses references from dozens of scientists and hundreds of papers to attempt to refute the work of those same sciences.
Meyer doesn’t do research into intelligent design. Neither does Behe, who has, on occasion, actually done science work. Neither does Douglas Axe nor Ann Gauger, when they do their research. They are doing experimental science, but not related to intelligent design. Indeed, among the actual scientists I’ve talked to, most don’t even know why those three are doing whatever it is that they are doing. It’s not that what they are doing is confusing, there’s just no purpose to it.
The study of events that happened in the past is not the type of historical science I’m talking about here. There are perfectly good experimental, field study, and modeling research that uses data from history to predict the future. This is not what Meyer does. He uses previously written papers to try and convince people that other previously written papers were wrong. Of course, he even does that incorrectly as he ignores much of the important work in the field.
But more interesting is that Meyer, and some others, say that science that deals with the history of life (and Earth and the universe) is a historical science and therefore, never able to be tested, experimented on, or shown to be correct. Of course, the entire idea of an intelligent designer that did something some time ago is exactly the same thing that they say can’t be studied. That was also an issue in the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate.
Of course, that’s just silly. Looking at historical data, we can form a conclusion about what conditions are necessary for a hurricane to form. We then look for those conditions to predict the formation of hurricanes. Yet, no scientist ever created a hurricane in the lab.
Yet, to some creationists, until we create a hurricane in the lab, then they believe we know nothing about the formation of hurricanes. No one has ever seen a hurricane form. There are satellite images of various stages of hurricane formation, but no eyewitness accounts (or video) of a hurricane.
Until a scientist presents a single paper that describes every aspect of the formation of a hurricane, down to the molecular level, then they can’t “know” what is really going on. In fact, there is apparently no evidence that shows that atmospheric pressure centers can form hurricanes.
OK, I’ve digressed rather significantly. Sorry about that.
The point is that there are many valid ways to do science. There are many valid ways to refute the conclusions of scientists make that are based on science. But using historical papers (especially when they are misquoted) will never provide evidence that supports a contrary position. The use of past papers is valid, but not for the purposes that some groups attempt to use them for.
 For example, one of Axe’s papers is all about how he removed chunks of proteins and then reported on how they didn’t work anymore. Like that’s a shocking revelation to anyone.
 And replace atmospheric pressure with mutation, etc. etc. etc.