How good science is at studying the past is a central point to the discussion of origins. One of the primary assumptions made by evolutionists is that the past can be studied and understood as easily as the present functioning of the universe can. They seem to think that the same degree of certainty can be obtained about the present functioning of the universe and its past. They do this by ignoring the fact that while we can see how the universe operates today, we cannot observe the past. This means that studying the past requires a lot of philosophical assumptions to be applied when interpreting evidence.
When we are studying the operating principles of the universe in the present, we can focus on specific observations and experiments in the present to see what the results are. However, we cannot actually see the past. Even when observing a distant object in space we cannot observe what could be seen before we looked through the telescope. As a result, we cannot actually test the past, because everything we see we observe in the present. If more than one theory can produce what we currently see in the universe, you cannot distinguish between them scientifically, except by eliminating a possibility by showing that it could not have happened.
What about forensics, you may ask? Yes, forensics is dealing with the past, but it is also not perfect. It is actually a good example of how science can go wrong when dealing with the past. In forensics, the forensic scientist on the case looks at the evidence and tries to construct a theory about what happened. Sometimes that theory is wrong because there is another factor for which there is no evidence. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the longer a case lingers the less likely it is to be solved. That is because evidence tends to degrade with time. It is also interesting to note, that forensics is in part about finding intelligent involvement in a past event, however, evolutionists exclude intelligent involvement as a starting assumption.
This is a key problem when trying to study history scientifically, that is you have to make assumptions about the past. A key assumption made by institutionalized science is absolute naturalism. This assumption eliminates the possibility of any intelligent involvement in the origin and subsequent history of the earth and the universe. It excludes any divine involvement and therefore it excludes history as described in the Bible before any evidence is even looked at. You see the Bible describes two major supernatural acts of God in Earth’s history, Creation, and the Genesis Flood. If you try to determine the history of the Earth, based on the assumption that only natural processes were involved, you have to assume that these two events never occurred. Consequently, if these events actually did occur as described in the Bible and you tried dating the earth based on naturalistic presuppositions, you will inevitably derive an age for the earth that is much older than it really is. This is because both of these events would have thrown off the dating methods that are used.
A prime example of this is the age of the Earth. Institutionalized science commonly gives an age for the earth of 4.5 billion years. This figure assumes that the earth formed naturalistically by collapsing out of a cloud of dust and gas, however, few people realize that the paper also states that if it did not form that way that it could be any age younger than 4.5 billion years. By the way, while not specifically stated in the paper 6,000 years is less than 4.5 billion years. This of course is just one of many examples, but it makes the point quite well.
The problem with trying to scientifically study history is that we do not have access to the past and so we have to make assumptions. Consequently, any theory about the history of the earth or the universe or anything else in it requires making assumptions that can never be tested. As a result, these theories are only as good as the assumptions behind them.
So, while it is possible to apply scientific methodology to past events, it is limited by the fact that we can only observe what exists in the present. Because we cannot observe past events, we need to rely on the records and other evidence about the past that we can study in the present. One of the problems that result from this, is the fact that it is always possible to add extra hypothetical events to a model to explain away problems with the original concept. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for this because there are other clues, but it is far too easy for such just-so stories to be invented to patch a theory about the past. However far too often it is extremely difficult and even impossible to test these stories. It is a major reason why science is limited when studying the past.