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Experimental versus forensic science March 31, 2010

Posted by Bill Belew in science.
Tags: , ,

Admit it, we are not all of the Bones, Ducky or Abby mold. And even they can’t agree and have to make leaps in their assumptions.

See Your famous scientists don’t agree with my favorite scientists. Guess who’s wrong?

and Why there are expert witnesses on both sides of an argument – ask Bones.

There are, I understand, two types of sciences. One is experimental or operational science. The other is forensic or historical science.

The first – experimental/operational science involves doing experiments and drawing conclusions. It is also called process science. As a result of this kind of science we have computers, medicine and even fast food. It’s not always good, right? But good for the most part.

The second – historical/forensic/origins science deals with the past. It cannot be reproduced in a lab or elsewhere because experiments on past events and history are unrepeatable. Observations in the present are made and used to make inferences about the past, requiring guesswork and guesswork upon guesswork and the scientist’s world view comes into play. It is like looking only at someone’s naked feet and trying to determine what clothes the person is wearing.

It is in the second realm of science where conflicts occur.

Too often the uninformed think that just because there is great success in experimental science, the same can be said of origin’s science. Not so. Not so.

In historical science it is the inferences about the past that are debated, not the science.



1. Kirk Bertsche - April 3, 2010

You make some good points, but I think a much better distinction than “experimental” vs “forensic” is “inferential” vs “non-inferential” (or “less-inferential”) science. Many areas of experimental science are just as inferential as historical science. (I would claim that some areas are MORE inferential.)

Consider fundamental particle physics, for example. None of these particles (protons, muons, pions, etc) can be directly observed–we infer them based on interactions that we observe with matter. And these interactions are not even observed directly; they are computer reconstructions based on sensors in large particle detectors. And current theory says that quarks exist but can never be seen in an isolated state. Similar arguments could be made for the motion of charge carriers in semiconductors, and many other small-scale phenomena that our everyday lives rely upon.

On the other hand, I would claim that a historical astronomical event such as the explosion of supernova 1987a is much less inferential. We saw the sudden increase in the light intensity, followed by a decline, and now we can see the beginnings of a nebula forming. Supernova 1006 was observed by Chinese and Muslim astronomers and is now visible as the Crab Nebula. These behave generally as we expect stellar explosion to behave. Type-II supernova are even fairly well understood on a theoretical level, and the observations match the theory.

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