The trough of stupid arguments sloppeth over once again, so let’s put on our hazmat suits and dive in. You can begin the list here. We’re now well past 25 arguments and still going.
This may be Creationist Ken Ham’s favorite line to infect students’ minds. In Job, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Ken Ham paraphrases this into a challenge to the scientist that summarizes what science knows—about evolution, about the Big Bang, or about anything that happened in the past. Ham’s challenge is, “Where you there?” The implied evidence-free conclusion is, “Because if you weren’t, God was!”
Ham proudly wrote about nine-year-old Emma B. who took Ham’s advice and attacked a museum curator’s statement about the age of a moon rock with “Were you there?”
Biologist PZ Myers nicely deflated Ham’s anti-science bias with a gentle reply to Emma B. Myers noted that Ham’s “Were you there?” is designed simply to shut down discussion and is a question to which you already know the answer. He recommended instead, “How do you know that?” which is a question from which you can actually learn something.
“Were you there?” is a variation of the more general question, “Did you experience this with your own senses?” To Science, this question lost significance centuries ago. The days when Isaac Newton used taste as a method to understand new chemicals are long gone. Modern science relies on instruments to reliably provide information about nature—from simple instruments like compasses, voltmeters, Geiger counters, and pH meters to complex ones like the Mars rovers, Hubble space telescope, LIGO gravity wave observatory, and Large Hadron Collider.
Not only is Ham’s question irrelevant, not only does it attempt to shut down discourse rather than expand it, it can be confronted directly. If Ham wants to play games, he needs to expect the same:
Ken Ham: “You say there was no six-day creation? Well, Smart Guy, were you there?”
Atheist: “Why yes, as a matter of fact I was there.”
Ham: “No you weren’t!”
Atheist: “Oh? How do you know? Were you there?”
To rebut this ridiculous claim, Ham would have to use (shudder!) common sense, a tool that he doesn’t want introduced into the conversation because it is devastating to someone who wants to imagine a 6000-year-old earth, men rising from the dead, and a god who desperately wants a relationship with us but is apparently too shy to make plain his existence.
And if direct observation is so important to Ham, I wonder how he validates the Creation story—was he there?
(This ties in with Stupid Argument #6: Creationism.)
This argument is an attempt to wriggle away from Bible verses that are unpleasant or that contradict each other. “Interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones” is advice from Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (page 48). McDowell makes clear that difficult isn’t the issue at all—it’s contradictions that are the problem. They’re not difficult to understand, only to reconcile. For example, the epistle of James says that salvation is by works but Romans says that it’s by grace. The trick, McDowell tells us, is to find the interpretation that you like in the constellation of competing verses, bring that one forward, and either ignore the others or reinterpret them to be somehow subordinate or supportive of your preferred interpretation. That’s not quite how he puts it, but that’s what he means.
The quest for the “clearer” passage has become a quest for the most pleasing one.
The mere existence of what McDowell euphemistically calls “difficult” passages is an unacknowledged problem. How could verses conflict in a book inspired by a perfect god? If conflicting verses exist, doesn’t that make the Bible look like nothing more than a manmade book? How could God give humanity a book that was at all unclear or ambiguous? What does it say that 45,000 Christian denominations have sprung up over varying interpretations of a single holy book?
And no, “I’ll just have to ask that of God when I see him in heaven” won’t do because the Bible has no purpose except to be clear and convincing to people here on earth. (This argument is discussed in more detail here.)
Polls of the population can be interesting and informative—percent of prison population that are atheists vs. Christian, fraction of Republicans vs. Democrats who are Christian, gender mix of Christians or atheists, the biggest issues troubling voters, the most/least religious parts of the country or world, how many Americans think the end times have arrived (41 percent, by the way), and so on.
The problem arises when polls are used to drive government policy. Public opinion should make no contribution to the scientific facts used to guide policy. Of course, elected officials must answer to their constituents, but the opinions of non-scientist constituents still count for nothing on any question of science. Politicians make policy, and scientists give us science’s best approximation to the truths of nature. “We should do nothing because acknowledging climate change is scary” is a policy option, but “Climate change is a hoax that can be ignored” isn’t.
Creationism in public schools is another area where science steps on toes. Americans are embarrassingly clueless (or willfully so) about evolution. 42 percent accept strict Creationism (God created humanity in the last 10,000 years), and an additional 31 percent accept guided evolution (evolution was tweaked by God). (Acceptance of evolution rises with education, which highlights the nonscientific agenda behind Creationism, but that’s an aside.)
Answers in Genesis said about this wide public acceptance of Creationism, “Although the vast majority of Americans desire both creation and evolution taught in school, the evolutionary naturalism worldview dominates, revealing a major disparity between the population and the ruling élite.” No, the disparity is between a population that to a large extent accepts the agenda of conservative and religious leaders on one hand and science on the other. Nonscientists don’t get to invent science.
The Discovery Institute tried to give a veneer of scholarship to the debate with its “Teach the controversy” campaign. If we’re talking about science, why can’t we present claims of both sides and let the students decide?
I wonder if they’ve thought this through. How would such a science class be graded? Would pastors be brought in to grade the tests of students who don’t like evolution? Would an answer, “I feel that the answer is …” automatically be correct? And how many “controversies” do we teach—does only the biblical idea of Creation get to come in, or are we throwing the door open to humanity’s hundreds of origin myths?
Texas governor Rick Perry put it this way, “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”
Oh? And which one is right? How do you know? If you already know, why don’t we just teach that one instead of wasting class time teaching both?
“Teaching the controversy” isn’t what we do in science. We teach science in science class, not discarded theories like astrology, alchemy, or Creationism. And, of course, within science, there is no controversy! This is a manufactured issue, and polls of citizens do not make science.
“Who is the right god?” is like asking,
“What is the last decimal digit of pi?”
There are ten possible answers and none of them are right.
— commenter Greg G.
Photo credit: Garry Knight, flickr, CC