“We need to ask ourselves this question: ‘Where do we put our faith and trust? In the words of scientists who don’t know everything, who were not there? Or in the Word of God — the God who does know everything — and who was there?'”
—Ken Ham, “Were You There?”
I’ve been reading this stomach-turning story about young-earth creationists taking groups of children on tours of real museums, using the exhibits and displays of real science in the service of lies. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Enemies of science like Ken Ham have raised child-brainwashing to a fine art, drilling their young devotees in the art of mindlessly reciting creationist talking points:
Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.
“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”
I have nothing but sympathy for the children whose minds are being poisoned by this evil ignorance. Sadly, many of them will grow up into adults who will carry these tactics forward to the next generation. I routinely get e-mail from creationists using the same “Were you there?” ploy, apparently thinking it’s a stumper question.
The distinction which creationists seek to create between present and past events is an artificial one that does not exist in reality. Events that happened in the past and were not directly observed can be scientifically verified. We do it the same way we scientifically verify a claim about a present event: derive testable predictions and go check whether the evidence supports them.
Here’s a simple example which I routinely use when creationists ask me this. A man claims he is innocent of murder. There were no witnesses to the crime. However, at the crime scene, we find fingerprints on the murder weapon which match that man’s fingers, genetic traces under the victim’s fingernails which match his DNA, bite marks on the body which match his teeth, and bloody bootprints which match his shoes. Is the question of this man’s guilt or innocence beyond scientific verification, just because the crime was not directly observed?
The same principle applies with evolution. We do not directly witness the past, but we can reconstruct the course of events by examining the traces they leave behind. We date rock layers using radiometric dating and other methods; embedded in those layers, we find fossils which display varying characteristics. We can relate those fossils to earlier or later fossils, as well as species living today, and observe how they have changed over time. From the hypothesis of descent with modification, we derive further predictions (such as the existence of vestigial structures, or shared molecular errors forming nested hierarchies) which we can test in living things.
There is no basis for this bizarre belief that the only way to know how something happened is to directly observe it. If anything, empirical evidence of the past is more reliable than eyewitness testimony. It is amply documented that human beings routinely exaggerate, misremember, confabulate, and lie. Physical evidence of the past is not distorted by deception, by the limits of human imagination, or by the tricks that memory plays.
The creationist argument fatally undermines itself. Creationists like Ham say that, since no human was there when the Earth was created, we can’t really know what happened and must rely on the words of God, who supposedly was there. But how do we know God was there? After all, we weren’t there! Creationists who say the Bible is infallible weren’t there to see it written, so how do they know who wrote it? How do they know it was written by someone with any knowledge of the events it relates?
What the creationist argument comes down to is that we should believe one set of claims about the past rather than another, based on nothing but their unsupported say-so. This assertion is really just the aura of infallibility in a different form.