Hey, Ken Ham: “Were You There?”

You may recall that last month we wrote about a tragically confused child who challenged a NASA tour guide’s description of a moon rock said to be 3.75 billion years old.

The child’s challenge was to ask: “Were you there?” and it made her mother so proud that she wrote about it to Ken Ham (ol’ Hambo), the Australian entrepreneur who has become the ayatollah of Appalachia. He runs the online creationist ministry, Answers in Genesis (AIG), and he also created the infamous, mind-boggling Creation Museum.

Ol’ Hambo was so thrilled that he blogged about it, and in response to that we wrote: Ken Ham Disciple Exposes NASA’s Godless Lies.

It seems we weren’t the only one wrote about the incident. Today, at his own blog at the AIG website, ol’ Hambo writes: Were You There? He says:

Recently, I wrote a blog item about a young girl who very politely challenged a guide at a NASA exhibit about the supposed billions of years date for a moon rock.

[…]

Well, we have found that certain secularists and atheists regularly monitor my blog and Facebook. They really get upset when they hear of any instances of children learning about the truth of God’s Word, starting in Genesis. They continually use the term “child abuse,” for example. They want to indoctrinate children with the idea that they are just animals and life has no meaning or purpose. These are the same people who usually support killing millions of children by abortion.

That’s Hambo’s defense! He calls his critics “secularists and atheists” who think that “life has no meaning or purpose,” and he also suggests that they support “killing millions of children by abortion.” Hey, Hambo: Is that the best you can do?

But he wasn’t talking about us. All that your Curmudgeon did was blandly report the incident, just as Hambo described it, and then we trusted your intelligence, dear reader, to reach your own conclusion about the child’s behavior and Hambo’s approval of that behavior.

Anyway, Hambo’s personal blog post today serves only to introduce his much longer article about the situation, which appears elsewhere at the AIG website. It has a great title: Were You There?, and it offers his answer to what he claims is this question that was sent to him:

I understand you teach that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago. I just have one question: Were you there?

Good question. Here are some excerpts from Hambo’s response, with bold font added by us:

Thank you for sending us your question. The simple answer is “No, we were not there.” And we have never claimed to have been there. This question is based on one that God asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding”

Maybe God asked that question and maybe he didn’t. We don’t know because we weren’t there. Let’s read on:

When teaching children, we tell them they should politely ask the question “Were you there?” when talking to someone who believes in millions of years and molecules-to-man evolution. If someone replies by asking the same question, as you have done, we say, “No we weren’t there, but we know Someone who was there, Someone who cannot lie, who knows everything, and has always existed. And this One has revealed to us what happened in the past in His history book called the Bible.

The “Hambo Maneuver” may superficially seem to be a devastating debate tactic, but it’s subject to the same logical objection as the First Cause argument. Specifically, it cannot survive its own premise.

If one begins with the premise that everything has a cause, and then works his way back to God’s being the cause of the universe, the game isn’t over yet. It has just begun. The conclusion that God created the universe isn’t exempt from the premise that brought you to that conclusion. The premise that “everything has a cause” demands that you persevere and seek the cause of God — which leads to the absurdity of an infinite series of earlier gods. The traditional “solution” is that when one gets to the desired moment in the causal chain, he arbitrarily abandons the suddenly inconvenient premise, leaving him with God as an “uncaused cause” — a conclusion which contradicts the premise. Whether one capriciously abandons the premise at the “right” place in the causal chain, or diligently pursues it to an infinite series of gods — the argument is an absurdity. There’s nothing wrong with the premise; but it doesn’t lead to the desired conclusion.

Hambo’s “Were you there?” maneuver is far worse. While causality is a valid premise, Hambo’s premise — that nothing can be known without eyewitness testimony — is manifestly absurd. But setting that aside, Hambo’s Maneuver — like causality — has no logical stopping point. If it’s valid to reject an explanation when the explainer says “No, I wasn’t there,” then even if he says: “But I know someone who was there,” it’s fair to ask: “How do you know he was there if you weren’t there?” And Hambo’s technique of insulting the questioner doesn’t resolve the issue. Here’s what we mean:

Even Hambo will admit that he wasn’t there when scripture was initially written by a succession of scribes. Because he wasn’t there, it’s fair to conclude that Hambo has no reason to believe that the content of the scribes’ scrolls comes from God. All we have is the word of those scribes that they wrote what God told them to write. Did it really happen as they say it happened? We don’t know, and neither does Hambo. We weren’t there.

Are we to blindly assume that the scribes really were taking dictation from God? There is no logical reason for that assumption. So where are we? Was God really there or did he arrive later? He says he was there (or so the scribes claim), but how do we know? It’s traditional to grant him credibility because he was present at the Creation, but that credibility depends on his having been there. We weren’t there to see for ourselves, and the scribes weren’t there either. So it’s rather circular to give him credibility based on a claim we can’t verify. Is it blasphemous to avoid fallacious circular reasoning? We don’t think so.

If eyewitnesses are as essential as ol’ Hambo claims they are, then his whole edifice necessarily collapses. Just as the child refused to accept the NASA tour guide’s lecture about the age of moon rocks, we can’t take anyone’s word about anything unless we were there to see for ourselves. That’s not obstinance; it’s what we learn from ol’ Hambo himself.

We can’t leave this subject without offering something better than Hambo’s Maneuver. How about this? When a claim is made, one can properly ask: “How do you know?” A scientist can give some meaningful information in response to that question, and a child can learn something of value that way.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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40 responses to “Hey, Ken Ham: “Were You There?”

  1. aturingtest

    First comment here. I’ve been reading your blogs for a couple of months now and have to say how relieved I am to find some rationality in what seems to be a world of head-in-the-sand, willful ignorance. Your politics sometimes escapes me, but you (and Gabriel Hanna) never fail to give me food for thought, which is what the Internet is (or should be) for.
    Anyway, Hambone’s “were you there?” exercise in logic ranks right up there with “why are there still monkeys” in terms of sheer stupid.
    Also, testing to see if I did the Gravatar thing right. Fingers crossed, as you can see.

  2. You got the default gravitar, aturingtest, but welcome aboard anyway.

  3. All we have is the word of those scribes that they wrote what God told them to write.

    It is rare in the Bible to find a claim that God told the author to write this text.

    In particular, nothing in the early chapters of Genesis has anything about the authors or their source of information. There are some scattered references elsewhere to a variety of sources. The Book of Job has some famous pronouncements by God about primeval times, but nothing there about six days of creation a few thousand years earlier.

    As far as snappy rejoinders to “were you there?” I think that “how do you know that I wasn’t there?” is the best. For everyone knows that I wasn’t there, and they have good reasons for knowing that – everyone realizes that they can know things about times and places that they were not present at.

    And finally, I am pleased when the YECs admit that they are driven to such extremes, for they are tacitly admitting that the evidence for an old Earth is so overwhelming that their only recourse is to deny vast areas of knowledge.

  4. Nice post. I especially liked the dismantling of the first clause and ‘were you there’ arguments. And ‘Hambo’s Maneuver’ is a great name.

  5. aturingtest

    Ok off topic I know but ya’ll gotta see this avatar!

  6. The correct response to the precocious tot that was being spoon fed by her creationist parents would be, “I wasn’t there when you were originally conceived either but I can reasonably assume it wasn’t an immaculate conception”. You can view the universe based on your faith or your own rational thinking, it’s really your choice in life unless you’re indoctrinated at an early age, then you have no choice!

  7. Long before “Edwards v. Aguillard” forced at least some species of evolution-denier to ditch all references to God and Genesis, all evolution-deniers statred backpedaling on the “what happened when” part. If there had to be a key moment when this started happening, it would have to be very soon after “scientific” YEC was concocted to find a compromise position (heliocentric YEC) that was acceptable to both deniers-on-the-street (then including many flat-Eathers and geocentrists) and activists (increasingly conceding at least OEC). That moment undoubtedly involved the blatant double standard of “were you there” that “scientific” YECs and OECs alike were invoking. That even the most clueless rube could see that it was a double standard was a huge problem, for that would mean that the only form of evolution-denial that could survive in the long run would be Omphalos creationism.

    Thus the “don’t ask, don’t tell what happned when, just promote unreasonable doubt of evolution” strategy was born. There was resistance to it by the more idealistic Biblical literalists of course (probably because many were Omphalists in private), but eventually it became the dominant “species,” which then “evolved into ID.

  8. aturingtest

    As Erik said above, being indoctrinated at an early age into this kind of thinking makes it hard to develop a habit of rational thought process. This is what bothers me more than anything else, I think- the fact that “were you there?” is aimed specifically at children. I know that there are adults who will buy into this kind of inanity (Bill O’Reilly “tide comes in, tide goes out” comes to mind), but this is an argument designed to turn children into the sort of unthinking, follow-the-herd-and-give-us-your-money person that theocrats seem most comfortable with.

  9. Bob Carroll

    Erik, I hope you are not confusing the doctrine of immaculate conception with that of virgin birth. Immaculate conception relates to Mary’s birth, not that of her son. Mary , according to the (recent) Catholic doctrine, was born with no trace of original sin, so that she could eventually be a fit mother for the messiah.
    . Now in my view as a nonpractising catholic, there is no such thing as original sin, so *all* conceptions are in that sense immaculate.

  10. Yeah, we might be “secularists and atheists” (although technically I’m a theist), but at least we have blogs that allow comments, Hambo!

  11. I do think Ken Ham is right to object to the term “child abuse” being used on him by his opponents. It’s a heavily loaded term and an extreme charge not to be brought lightly. Instructing children in doctrines one disagrees with may be a bad thing, but it’s hardly equivalent to beating or starving them. Yet I often see proponents of the rational side throw “child abuse” around almost frivolously (probably because they think it’s cool to sound shocking), and I fear they could invite legal action for libel.

  12. Deklane says: “I fear they could invite legal action for libel.”

    Maybe. But the creationists are far worse. They constantly associate racism with Darwin’s theory, and they never hesitate to link “Darwinism” with Hitler, communism, sexual perversion, and all kinds of criminal behavior.

  13. longshadow

    The traditional “solution” is that when one gets to the desired moment in the causal chain, he arbitrarily abandons the suddenly inconvenient premise, leaving him with God as an “uncaused cause” — a conclusion which contradicts the premise.

    Otherwise known as “the Turtle of Special Pleading” ….. (“it’s turtles all the way down…”)

  14. longshadow

    Additionally, there is an analogous construct in the financial world…. it’s called a “Ponzi” scam ……

  15. Deklane, I don’t think it is frivolous to say that children taught these things are abused. They are being denied a sound education and destined to relearn science or stay ignorant for the rest of their lives.
    In my opinion, they are ill suited for any career in science. I’ve watched one very bright niece give up courses in science because they were too difficult. I think it was due to a poor science education.

  16. satchmodog

    God cannot lie??
    Does that mean everything god says is the truth and the law, so he by default cannot lie?

    More importantly, is God a Vorlon or a Shadow?

  17. Gabriel Hanna

    @Lynn: I’ve watched one very bright niece give up courses in science because they were too difficult. I think it was due to a poor science education.

    That’s going on all over the country; it can’t all be due to creationism. I’ve mentioned here before how college freshmen struggle with fractions and basic algebra, for example. Not freshmen from the Bible Belt either. But there are any number of reasons why people might find science course difficult. Poor math education in high school is one, and it can often be laid at the feed of fads in education–which are not due to creationists.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Math_wars

    I don’t think it is frivolous to say that children taught these things are abused.

    I don’t think it is frivolous either; it is a very serious, and false, accusation that trivializes real child abuse. That’s the thing that people who engage in this sort of hyperbole don’t realize. You are not magnifying the importance of your hobbyhorse, you are diminishing the awful thing that you are comparing it to.

  18. Children who are deliberately taught to accept superstition and reject rational thought are intellectually crippled for the rest of their lives. That’s not the same as the psychological trauma that abuse victims suffer, and if one had to choose, clearly physical and mental abuse is the worse than being raised to believe in superstition over reality. However, it still is a form of abuse to take away a person’s ability to see the world clearly. Victims of this indoctrination will not only struggle in science, but in many other aspects of their lives. They will be vulnerable to all sorts of irrational movements such as alternative medicine, anti-vacination groups, deniers of every ilk, and people like Ken Ham. These children are willfully mis-educated, and will suffer for it.

  19. Ed: “Children who are deliberately taught to accept superstition and reject rational thought are intellectually crippled for the rest of their lives.”

    True, but 90+% are intellectually crippled in that they fall for some pseudoscience and superstition, be it one of the mutually-contradictory literal interpretations of Genesis, astrology, untested “alternative” medicine, other “new age” mumbo jumbo, etc.

    I admit being in a small minority, but I having been uncritically taught a literal Genesis in grade school actually helped me to reject it. My suspicions that they were fairy tales began not long after learning about the flying reindeer (after asking too many questions like “how many houses per second…?” :-)), and long before ever hearing the word “evolution.”

    While I don’t advocate either, if I had to choose between children being taught a literal Genesis and the bogus “strengths and ‘weaknesses'” of evolution scam, I’d much prefer the former.

  20. @Ed:They will be vulnerable to all sorts of irrational movements such as alternative medicine, anti-vacination groups…

    Are you seriously saying that it’s creationists that largely fall for these things? If so, that’s obviously false. If not, then what’s your point–there’s no amount of education, of any kind, that will immunize anyone from irrationality.

    We’ve often remarked here on the number of creationist engineers. Do their bridges fall down at a higher rate than those built by engineers that accept evolution? Were their grades in their colleges courses worse? Where is the evidence of this “crippling” you claim exists?

    I have found the most striking examples of irrationality to come from the highly educated who mistake their expertise in one area for equal expertise in all of them.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Dewdney
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell_Targ
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_E._Puthoff
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_G._Taylor

    Evolution is not a directly experienced reality. You have to study a number of facts as well as accept a number of assumptions in order to appreciate it. Most people who accept evolution leanred it in the same way, and believe it for the same reasons, that most creationists accept creationism–because it is what they were taught and it is what right-thinking people believe. And because most people learn most things they know in exactly the same way, learning one set of bogus ideas doesn’t mean you are any more or less rational than if you learned another set.

    And this is why creationist enginners build bridges that don’t fall down.

  21. Gabriel Hanna says:

    … learning one set of bogus ideas doesn’t mean you are any more or less rational than if you learned another set.

    True. But it certainly doesn’t help. It’s tolerable to have a large fraction of the population that believes silly things, but it’s disastrous if they try to force their madness on others. Don McLeroy can probably drill a tooth as well as any other dentist, but look what happens when he gets a taste of political power. Politics are the problem, not creationism (or astrology, etc.).

    Oh, you left Fred Hoyle off your list.

  22. Evolution is not a directly experienced reality. You have to study a number of facts as well as accept a number of assumptions in order to appreciate it. Most people who accept evolution leanred it in the same way, and believe it for the same reasons, that most creationists accept creationism–because it is what they were taught and it is what right-thinking people believe.

    I don’t want to make a big deal about this, but I would suggest that a better example might be heliocentrism. How many people could give a good reason for accepting that the Earth goes around the Sun? I think that the evidence for “descent with modification” is more accessible than that for the orbital motion of the Earth. For example: Nobody has thought up any explanation for the “tree of life” which doesn’t involve common descent, while there certainly are other explanations for the observed motions of the heavens.

  23. I’d add Brian Josephson to the list for sure.

  24. Gabe: Anyone not taught critical thinking skills, which in my opinion includes most creationists, are more vulnerable to irrational movements of all sorts.

    That is not the same thing as stating that everyone who falls for irrational ideas or movements is a creationists – there are many other people in our society that grew up without learning critical thinking skills. For example, there is also a population of “new-agers” who likewise seem to have grown up with a very limited set of critical thinking skills.

    What I believe are critical thinking skills relate to logic, the ability to judge evidence, some understanding of statistics and probability, a knowledge of how science works, and so on. I might put in a few extra’s like being able to detect a conflict of interest or concealed motive, knowing your own biases and the limits of your expertise, etc. The point is that if you can think rationally, you can read and accept evolution not just because it’s what you’ve been taught, but because it is well-supported by a clear logical theory and abundant quality evidence. (this works for everything except quantum theory, string theory, and anything with the words light and asynchronous in the same sentence)

  25. SC: “How about this? When a claim is made, one can properly ask: “How do you know?” A scientist can give some meaningful information in response to that question, and a child can learn something of value that way.”

    As a retired science teacher, I would say this is the most important point of your post, and it seems to have been lost in all the dialog so far.

    “How do we know?” should be the overriding, all-important, central theme of ALL science education, because it teaches *how science is done*, which is at least as important as “what facts we have learned” — probably more so, unless you are training to be a “Jeopardy” contestant. When students learn “How We Know”, they can then understand the logic that leads us to the acceptance of the various scientific discoveries such as evolution, plate tectonics, the expansion of the universe, etc., etc.

    Arguing religion leads to more argument; learning how science is done leads to more discoveries.

    And just on the off-chance that Ken Ham is reading this post:

    Mr. Ham, your insistence of an inflexible, literal interpretation of every word in the King James version of the Bible will lead to more people rejecting the Bible than accepting it. God gave us the ability to reason, and when we use that ability we can understand that a creation that took place just 6,000 years ago is not just highly improbable, but totally impossible. There is just way too much evidence discovered that points to an earth and solar system that is about 4.6 billion years old, and a universe that is about 13.7 billion years old. You could say that the evidence for this is God’s clues that He left for us to discover. To say otherwise is to imply that God is trying to deceive us.

  26. Well, maybe Ken Ham was there. I’ve seen some unretouched photos of him…

  27. Lot of people left off the list, unfortunately; all the suggestions are good. I’d have to include a few people I know personally, and some of those who know me personally would no doubt include me on the list.

  28. Hey, GH, are you still at WSU Physics Dept?

  29. “How do we know” should be the central, most important question of, not just science, but of ALL education. It is the root question that, as retiredsciguy says, leads to answers instead of argument. If enough people hear “because the bible says so” as the final and only answer creationists can give, maybe it will sink in that this is no answer at all, and rational/critical thinking skills will be developed and passed along as the norm to enough children to make a difference. I don’t think irrationality will ever be NOT a part of the human experience. Everybody’s got their pet voodoo. But maybe we can hope to reduce it enough to keep it out of real, rational life.

  30. retiredsciguy said:

    Mr. Ham, your insistence of an inflexible, literal interpretation of every word in the King James version of the Bible will lead to more people rejecting the Bible than accepting it.

    In my world, truer words were never spoken. This concept more than anything else made me reject Christianity. I got sick and tired of being told “Your way of Christianity is wrong! Our way is the proper way because the Bible says… blah blah blah… ad nauseum.” I can tell you the day I decided, “That’s it.” It was when my grandmother died and a co-worker clapped his hand on my shoulder and told me that only people in his church (which my grandmother did not attend) were going to heaven. I finally started thinking through this whole, stupid argument and realized that that’s what it was, one endless argument.
    So pay attention, Ham. Your ways are not turning more people to the Bible; you’re turning more people away.
    Wait, what am I saying? You don’t care, Hambo, so long as the money comes in. Never mind.

  31. I’ve tweaked this quite a bit, starting with the critique of the First Cause argument, and continuing with the criticism of Hambo’s “Were you there?” argument. Now it deals specifically with Hambo’s claim that God was there — to which I respond: “How do you know that if you weren’t there?” Anyway, I think it’s been improved a bit.

  32. @SY: Hey, GH, are you still at WSU Physics Dept?

    No, moved with my dear wife to Wisconsin.

  33. Ken Ham wrote: “Recently, I wrote a blog item about a young girl who very politely challenged a guide at a NASA exhibit …”

    Very politely? Hmmm. How do you know, Ken? Were you there?

    How do you know she wasn’t being a brat, impolitely interrupting a very polite NASA guide who was trying to lead an interested group of tourists through the exhibit?

    Obviously, it makes a better story when you state that she was “very polite”. It also makes it sound as though you made up the entire story, because unless you were there, you have absolutely no way of knowing how the alleged young girl asked the alleged question.

    Even if it is true, how can you possibly consider it polite for the girl to imply that the NASA guide is 3.75 billion years old??? She was just being a smartass.

  34. If you read the original letter posted by Ken Ham, allegedly written by the ltitle girl with an addendum by her mother, it’s the little girl herself saying she was polite. Strictly speaking, she *was* there. However, the more I read the letter, the more I have my doubts. Maybe something like the incident described really did occur, but the little girl’s description of it is “too good.” It reads like an adult’s idea of a little kid being cute, not how the child herself would describe it. In particular, that “um” is a pause for effect I don’t think a kid would put into a written description, but an adult would in going for a from the mouths of babes effect. Like I said, the incident may have happened, but it’s been filtered through an adult straining for effect.

  35. Deklane says:

    Maybe something like the incident described really did occur, but the little girl’s description of it is “too good.”

    I have a dim recollection that there’s a Jack Chick comic where that happens. Not “Big Daddy,” where a creationist kid makes a fool out of his biology teacher, but another kid in a museum. I can’t find it, however.

  36. There was something on Free Republic a few months back in whcih somebody posted a story of his home-schooled kid thoroughly confounding a museum guide with Creationist facts and logic over Evolutionist conjectures and speculations. The poster’s mistake was to give the name of the museum where the incident supposedly happened (the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, if I remember correctly), and it was quickly pointed out that the Field Museum doesn’t have guides or docents. The original poster was not heard from again, at least not in that thread. As for the story Ham passes along about the girl and the Moon rock, well, there is a photograph of the girl in question. Anyway, it does seem as though Creationists love this sort of story. They don’t normally encounter actual scientists, but they do run into petty authority figures like teachers and museum guides. Teachers and guides aren’t necessarily specialists in particular areas and might not know much more about a given field than they have to in order to pass along basic information, but to Creationists they’re credentialed representatives of the Establishment and befuddling them is sweet victory.

  37. Deklane says:

    There was something on Free Republic a few months back in which somebody posted a story of his home-schooled kid thoroughly confounding a museum guide with Creationist facts and logic over Evolutionist conjectures and speculations.

    That one was pure fantasy, but museums are used to such things. Some of them put out guides for their personnel. For example: Evolution and Creationism: A Guide for Museum Docents.

  38. @Deklane:that “um” is a pause for effect I don’t think a kid would put into a written description

    Actually, my experience is that young people nowadays write “um” all the time. They write as they would talk, if you’re lucky (they write as they would TEXT if you’re not). These are older than the one in the letter (high school through college).

  39. SC: “I have a dim recollection that there’s a Jack Chick comic where that happens.( …a kid in a museum.) I can’t find it, however.”

    I’ll bet Ol’ Hambo has a complete collection of Jack Chick, and he drew on the one you mention as inspiration for his “polite little girl” story. As for the “photograph of the girl in question”, well, it could be his niece.

    Look — the guy is obsessed. He will do or say anything that will bring in more money for his “ministry”. I was living in Greater Cincinnati when he first started raising money for his Creation Museum, and he had a willing accomplice in the then-editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Without the legitimacy bestowed upon him by the paper, he would still be trying to collect his first $1,000. He came across then as he does now — a singularly obsessed crank.

  40. SC, thanks for the link to “Evolution and Creationism: A Guide for Museum Docents”. I just finished reading it; it should be required reading for not only museum docents, but all teachers at all grade levels (including college professors), all journalists, and for that matter, all students.

    But hey, I’m prejudiced.