Dear Ken Ham: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

PZ recently wrote about Ken Ham’s attempt to discredit opposition to creationism being taught in Louisiana schools.

While biblical creation may not be provable through tests and observation, neither is molecules-to-man evolution (or astronomical evolution). And in fact, the evidence that is available to us concerning our origins makes sense in the biblical creation-based worldview, not the evolutionary one.

That seems . . . contradictory. Let’s look again:

While biblical creation may not be provable through tests and observation, neither is molecules-to-man evolution (or astronomical evolution).

You can’t prove this origins stuff! Ken Ham has often made a distinction between “observational science” and “historical science.” The idea is that you can use tests to learn about the world as it currently is, but you can’t test what happened in the past, so science can’t actually speak to that. Of course, this doesn’t make sense. If I come upon a town ravaged by a tornado, I can tell what happened in the past even if there is no tornado for me to look at in the present. Still, regardless of whether or not it actually holds water, this is an argument Ken Ham makes quite often.

Okay, next sentence:

And in fact, the evidence that is available to us concerning our origins makes sense in the biblical creation-based worldview, not the evolutionary one.

Wait. I thought he said it’s not provable. Now he’s saying that the evidence points to the Biblical creation story. Does not compute.

This is the contradiction I was caught up in during the many years I spent as a young earth creationist. I was assured by the Answers in Genesis books that I read, along with others, that the evidence really did point to young earth creationism. Pages and chapters and books of putting forth evidence and proof. Red blood cells in fossilized dinosaur bones, human artifacts found in rock layers supposedly millions of years old, rock layers in the Grand Canyon completely out of order, fish fossils at the tops of mountain ranges—all this and more I was told was proof of the veracity of the biblical creation account.

And then I started looking at other sources and found that all of the supposed proofs I was taught either were simple falsehoods or had easy explanations well known to scientists. The supposed evidence I thought I’d had turned to sand and fell through my fingers and I found that there was a mountain of evidence for the theory of evolution.

Ken Ham and others responded to me—yes, actually responded directly to me—by saying that the evidence didn’t matter, that there was no way for science to say what happened in the past, and that the only thing that mattered was trusting what the Bible said. In other words, Ken Ham wants to have his cake and eat it too. To one audience he pretends to have evidence, but then when challenged on this score he turns around and says evidence is irrelevant and science can’t speak to our origins. I’ll finish by offering my own response to this twist in argument:

Dr. Purdom is right that I was taught that creationism was true not just because the Bible says it, but also because the physical evidence we have confirms it. . . . If this is not what Answers in Genesis teaches, well, it needs to end the false advertising and stop pretending to care about evidence.

Listen to this clip, for example. Ken Ham is clearly discussing evidence. Seriously, listen to it. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Furthermore, he says “many scientists just don’t want to believe in a worldwide flood, because it means, well, the Bible is true.” If AiG doesn’t care about evidence, it needs to stop being deceptive like this.

Indeed. Which is it? “We have all the evidence and science on our side” or “science can’t speak to our origins”? It really, really can’t be both.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • The_L

    I give it an hour, tops, before the mods at the AiG website delete that comment.

  • Kalvin

    This kind of reminds me in reverse of my experience as a new very zealous convert to Christianity in a high school biology class learning about evolution.

    Due to budget constraints we were using textbooks that were several years old. Most of the fossil evidence that the textbook was using as evidence of evolution had been proven to either have been hoaxes or were no longer considered to have been accurately interpreted. I pointed this out to my teacher (who by the way was by far the best teacher I ever had) and she told me that I was correct. She explained to me that she was required to teach from the textbook, and also that she did very strongly believe in evolution and there was newer stronger evidence that firmly supported evolution which she wished to present to the class. I very much believe her on this, but the intellectual dishonesty of the school board has left a lasting impression on me almost 30 years later.

    Anyways that particular teacher would always write encouraging notes on my papers about how she was impressed that I didn’t just believe what was being taught and that it was good that I asking questions. She also taught me a lot about how you can disagree with someone but still respect them and even learn from them.

    I also agree with you that Ken Ham is being intellectually dishonest.

  • John Small Berries

    Let’s say Ken Ham returns home one evening to discover that someone had broken into his house, stolen everything that could be easily converted into cash, and then destroyed the rest (smashed irreplaceable family heirlooms, tore his Bibles into confetti, and so on). And like most homeowners in that situation, he calls the police.

    All over the house, the police find fingerprints belonging to a known burglar, whom Ham (and everyone in his family, if he has one) has never let into the house. The burglar is apprehended and taken to trial, but he denies ever having been anywhere near Ham’s house, and none of Ham’s stolen goods are actually found in the burglar’s possession.

    Would Ham testify in the burglar’s defense, arguing that evidence is irrelevant, and there’s no way to determine what happened in the past?

    • Karen

      DING DING DING WE HAVE A WINNER! I am a civil prosecutor. Every one of the thousands of cases I hav tried has been an interpretation of historical evidence. Actually, historical evidence is the only kind possible, because we can’t conduct a trial during the actual crime. Even eyewitness testimony is historical, because the witness is describing what she remembers seeing, not what is happening at that moment. Apparently Hamm does not believe we can punish criminals.

  • DataSnake

    I knew Ken Ham wasn’t exactly the quickest tractor on the farm, but wow. “We can’t experiment on the past, therefore science can’t tell us anything about it”? No. Just…no. By that reasoning, there’s no point in police investigating a crime scene, because the crime took place in the past. Actually, I’d love to see a defense attorney try that. “Your honor, my client’s fingerprints may have been on the murder weapon, and the victim’s blood may have been all over his hands, but that happened in the past, so these so-called forensic ‘scientists’ can’t say for sure what actually happened.”

    For those of you who are wondering, you actually can “experiment on the past” in a couple of ways:
    1. Reenact what your hypothesis says happened, see if it generates the results you observed in nature. (example: the Miller-Urey experiment)
    2. Use your hypothesis to make predictions about what you’ll find next (example: if we dig to depth x, the percentage of Carbon-14 in any fossils we find should be approximately y)

  • Eamon Knight

    Yeah, that’s basically the no-it-isn’t-yes-it-is whiplash I got at AiG’s joke of a museum. First, it’s not about evidence; it’s about the interpretation you put on it (in a wonderfully post-modern way). Then suddenly, we have “hints” about what the right interpretation is. Pick a story and stick to it, liars.

  • machintelligence

    Fundamentalists love evidence when it supports their viewpoint, but when it doesn’t it’s “God works in mysterious ways” or “more study is needed.”
    Take the Templeton prayer study, for example:

    A 2006 “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)” led by Harvard professor Herbert Benson was by far the most comprehensive and rigorous investigation of third-party prayer to date.[27] The STEP, commonly called the “Templeton Foundation prayer study or “Great Prayer Experiment”, used 1,802 coronary artery bypass surgery patients at six hospitals. Using double-blind protocols, patients were randomized into three random groups, but without measuring individual prayer receptiveness. The experimental and control Groups 1 and 2 were informed they may or may not receive prayers, and only Group 1 received them. Group 3, which tested for possible psychosomatic effects, was informed they would receive prayers and subsequently did. Unlike some other studies, STEP attempted to standardize the prayer method. Only first names and last initial for patients were provided and no photographs were supplied. The congregations of three Christian churches who prayed for the patients “were allowed to pray in their own manner, but they were instructed to include the following phrase in their prayers: ‘for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications’.[28] Some participants complained that this mechanical way they were told to pray as part of the experiment was unusual for them. Major complications and thirty-day mortality occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1), 51 percent of those who did not receive it (Group 2), and 59 percent of patients who knew they would receive prayers (Group 3). Some prayed-for patients fared worse than those who did not receive prayers. In The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote, “It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: ‘performance anxiety’, as the experimenters put it. Dr Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, ‘It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?’”[29] Study co-author Jeffery Dusek stated that: “Each study builds on others, and STEP advanced the design beyond what had been previously done. The findings, however, could well be due to the study limitations.”[30] Team leader Benson stated that STEP was not the last word on the effects of intercessory prayer and that questions raised by the study will require additional answers.[31]
    The above was from Wikipedia.

  • Gail

    I guess if historical science is provable, I should just give up my career in archaeology now. Granted, I’m more on the humanities side of archaeology, but we still use plenty of scientific methods to prove what happened in the past, and that’s all some of my bioarchaeology colleagues do. There are also experimental archaeologists who try to recreate theories about past events to determine their plausibility.

    • Gail

      *isn’t provable

  • Christine

    If we can’t know what happened historically, why does he feel the need to deny the modern science? According to YEC relatives, there has never been a case, in a lab, of going from single-celled to multi-celled life. You don’t need to lie about this stuff if it’s worthless.

  • Ibis3

    In fact, all of our knowledge necessarily is from things observed in the past. It takes time, whether nanoseconds or light years, for photons to hit my eyes and electrical signals to travel to my brain where they are then interpreted. Every science is historical. Everything happened before now.

  • Truthspew

    Well – there were floods to be sure. There’s that thing called the Grand Canyon. Yes indeed, water is a solvent/corrosive. But the Biblical flood – mostly allegory nothing provable. Of course it could be the separation of Pangea that they refer to but I doubt they even knew all the land masses were once stitched together, prior of course to the debut of Homo Sapiens.

    I find it interesting though that Ham refuses to acknowledge the evidence that disproves his biblical world view. That’s cognitive dissonance right there. Someone need to de-program Ham.

    • Sue Blue

      Another favorite “Flood” site is in eastern Washington State, the site of the Ice Age Lake Missoula and Lake Columbia glacial outburst floods. These were indeed enormous floods which scoured most of the eastern half of the state and left giant ripples, torn-up bedrock, huge sandbars and other evidence for hundreds of miles. Every summer you see vanloads of homeschooled or Christian-schooled kids hiking around the most dramatic Missoula flood sites, being regaled by their chaperones about all the evidence for Noah’s Flood which of course the scientists have gotten all wrong. And of course, totally ignoring the blatantly obvious evidence that these were single-point events that only affected a local area, that the water was flowing, not “rising”, and that no rain was involved. Even a geologically uneducated person can look at the satellite images and see exactly where these floods started, what they covered, and where the water went. Oh, and they happened over 12,000 years ago, before the earth was created!
      Oh, how they love them their “evidence” – until it doesn’t add up the way they want it to. Then it’s just an anomaly or something caused by Satan to deceive them or planted by God to test them.

    • DataSnake

      Global flood? Pretty comprehensively DISprovable. Here’s RationalWiki on the subject: and my own blog (sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but I’m kinda proud of this one):

  • Valerie

    Eh. I don’t know. AiG was a big part of my highschool science, and I have walked away from many, if not most, things I was taught and believed in highschool. I don’t know what I’d think of AiG if I listened to it now, but I do (in all fairness) remember Ken Ham speaking (on multiple occasions) about his reasons for believing in young-earth creationism *despite the evidence.* He often told of how his father believed in it, was convinced of the young earth creation account even though his father had never been exposed to the evidence/information AiG shares. His father said things like, “All I know is that if Genesis can’t be trusted, then I may as well scrap the whole bible.”

    I know there are things that could be said about that, but I think that in questioning Ken Ham, you’ve missed his actual motives and what he may be trying to say. He’s not against evidence. He can be *for* evidence, while still holding the conviction that he’d believe the end result of his evidence even if the evidence wasn’t there, simply because God said it.

    I’m not saying AiG is right. I don’t know what I believe on that any more. But I do think you’re overlooking a link between Ham’s belief in evidence, and his belief that evidence isn’t his end-all for what he believes. He also has said multiple times that creationists and evolutionists alike all have the exact same evidence: it’s simply their interpretations that come out differently. It makes sense that what we believe about God is going to color how we view this issue. My belief in God has an impact on how I see it. I’m sure a lack of belief in God would too.

    • machintelligence

      His father said things like, “All I know is that if Genesis can’t be trusted, then I may as well scrap the whole bible.”

      That sounds like a fine plan to me. When can we get started?

      • Valerie

        You’re already free to, obviously.

      • Ginny Bain Allen

        How IS all your moral rebellion working out for you, mach? How is it benefiting the human inhabitants living on our beautiful, privileged globe?

    • M

      Ken Ham claims to do science, but he starts with his conclusion and works backwards. That’s the opposite of science.

      So KH says “the Bible is true and no evidence to the contrary is going to make me change my mind”. That makes him inherently against evidence, because science means taking the evidence into consideration and if your theory doesn’t fit the facts, you change the theory. Science is about following the evidence wherever it takes you, no matter if you like the conclusion or not. Faith is about starting with your conclusion and disregarding all evidence to the contrary. That is why I ‘believe in’ evolution- the evidence all points that way. I ‘believe in’ gravity, anthropogenic global warming, the Higgs boson, and the constant speed of light the same way I do evolution. If there was any evidence to the contrary, I’d look at and evaluate that, but there isn’t. Do you understand why what I ‘believe’ is so very different from a faith-based, non-evidentiary belief?

      You simply don’t get to “interpret” evidence like KH wants to, which is to say you discard everything that proves you wrong and/or say it’s God’s test of faith. That’s … I can’t come up with enough words. Dishonest, fraudulent, intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, lying, unscientific, and false all come to mind. What you believe about the existence of God –who cannot be tested, proved, or otherwise encountered– has absolutely nothing to do with how you evaluate scientific evidence, which can be.

  • jwall915

    I love this post. It really hits at my journey out of Christianity in many ways. I was never a YEC, but I can certainly remember this mentality, which fundies apply to so many things other than evolution/creationism. It’s the whole thing of loving evidence and waving it around loudly, until it doesn’t help their agenda. Then they suddenly don’t care about evidence, and if you do, then you just don’t have enough faith. Or something. Long story short, I got tired of the flip-flopping, the lack of integrity, and the intellectual dishonesty and left. It’s honestly been the best decision I’ve ever made.

  • jose

    Defends world creation 6000 years ago

    Asks evolutionists “were you there?”

    • machintelligence

      Best reply: “Yes as a matter of fact I was!”
      Ham: ” Wait a minute; that’s impossible.”
      Second reply: “How do you know? Were you there?”

  • Alan(UK)

    If Ken Ham had to earn his living in the real world, he would be a fairground showman or would be selling you a dodgy second-hand car or an insurance policy that you don’t really need. He has some basic knowledge of science but he uses it divert attention from the weakness of his argument, in fact everything he says is to divert attention from the weakness of his argument.

    Arguing with Ken Ham is futile, if one of his arguments is undermined he will change to a totally different one, if cornered, he will become vicious and verbally attack his opponent.

    ‘Were you there’ and ‘historical science’ nonsense is easily dealt with. The objective of science is to formulate theories; a good theory provides an explanation for a wide variety of evidence. Experiments in the laboratory provide evidence, observations of natural phenomena provide evidence, past events also leave evidence. Which of these supplies the most useful evidence depends on circumstances. Electrical discharges can be studied in the laboratory, but a proper understanding of lightning requires studying actual lightning strikes in the field. The Earth’s magnetic field can be studied by making measurements over extended periods of time, but a real understanding requires the study of the effects it has had in the past which are still preserved today. Some astronomical events can only be studied by observing the present effect of past events.

    Science is not about formulating a separate theory for every phenomenon. Rather it is concerned with uniting multiple theories into one or extending the scope of a theory to embrace a wider range of phenomena. Thus we now know that an apple falling to the ground and the Earth orbiting the Sun can be explained by the same law – at one time we did not know. We also know that events in the past can be explained by the same laws that apply in the present. Creationists, of course, want separate explanations for different phenomena so that they can pick and chose what to accept and what to reject. The reality is that science has moved well beyond this point – all science is now so interlocked as to make separation impossible – this may account for the current rise of the outright denial of science. Creationists would like to separate some science off as ‘useful’ if only for their own selfish reasons, but if you find SatNav useful, then you have to accept electromagnetism, quantum theory, relativity, and thermodynamics, otherwise you have to believe that it does not work; what is more, you have to accept those theories in the form that scientist have written them, not some creationist interpretation.

    Ken Ham is his own worst enemy, he has painted himself into a corner. In the old days, Henry Morris and others, left themselves some ‘wriggle room’. They allowed the possibility that Ussher’s chronology could be stretched by a factor of two or three, they also allowed a very restricted number of extra-biblical miracles. Ken sticks strictly to Ussher and replaces the miracles by a sequence of bizarre ‘natural’ events. As a result, the time interval from the flood until the patriarchs is overflowing with not just a deluge but with volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, continents rushing around, the mountains being formed, an ice age, animals riding on mats of vegetation; the entire World’s population meeting at Babel, indulging in a major building project, then dispersing and populating Egypt in time for it to have a pharaoh ready for Abraham’s wife. This is what becomes of just making stuff up as you go along.

    Debate with creationists is impossible, even in principle, because they can no more discuss the first 13.7 billion years than a scientist can discuss the Sun being created on the fourth day while plants were created on the third. Instead, I would challenge creationists on the following lines:

    We cannot agree about origins to the extent required for a rational discussion. We can agree about the present. At some point in the past there must be a point where we disagree, this point can only be a rather limited time in the past, let us therefore endeavor to find this point and see what conclusions we can draw.

    We can probably agree up to the time of King Ahab. Let us therefore examine the period from this time to the present looking at tree-ring counts, radiocarbon dating, and any other dating methods. If we can agree that these measurements agree with the historical and biblical records, let us investigate further back. If we can date and item that can be associated with the biblical record, well and good, but even if we can only relate them to human habitation, that will suffice.

    What we are looking for in the dating methods is some change, some divergence between different methods, some change in the regular pattern of tree growth. What we are looking for in the archeological record is some change in human habitation.

    At some time before the assumed date of Abraham we should see changes in the distribution of population, then a decreasing population, and finally a total cessation of human, animal, and plant life – perhaps even signs of Ken’s ice-age. Then we should see the boundary between the flood and post-flood ages. Likewise we should see, at some time before the assumed date of Abraham, enormous changes in the growth pattern of trees and gross changes in the basically smooth radiocarbon dating curve – finally ending in the complete elimination of trees to date.

    These changes should be easy to detect. Of course we would actually find life going on right through this period uninterrupted. Trees will continue to grow. Radio-carbon dates will show aging occurring smoothly. All other scientific dating methods for short periods will be in basic agreement. There will be no flood – looking at it from our end of history.

    The flood is history, is geology, only worked while we could not date ‘post-flood’ events. Creationists might dispute ‘pre-flood’ dating (though they cannot explain why all scientific dating methods are always wrong) but it is up to them to explain how all scientific dating methods fail during the few hundred years after the ‘flood’ then start working after that – all without any sign of change.

  • MNb

    “Ken Ham claims to do science, but he starts with his conclusion and works backwards. That’s the opposite of science.”
    Now realize that every single attempt to use science as an argument for god exactly does that. A more or less sophisticated argument is fine-tuning, which in the end isn’t any better.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    Does Hammy realize that evolution has never been about explaining how life started?