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Apr 30 2013

Stumping the stumpers

Recently someone told me that a friend of his was a science teacher in the American south who was teaching his students about anatomy and said that apart from a few small differences, the form of male and female skeletons were identical. He was nonplussed when a student said that that was not quite correct since men had one less rib! He of course knew where this weird belief came from but did not know how to reply and so quickly moved on. He later sought and obtained a teaching position in Ohio just to avoid having ot teach students who were so burdened with incorrect biblical knowledge.

I said that in response the teacher might have asked the students to actually count the ribs in male and female skeletons which would not only correct this particular misconception but also illustrate the empirical approach of science. But, as this person rightly pointed out, it is not easy to think of such answers in the moment, unless one is prepared for them. In real time, people are often so stunned by such absurdities that they are at a loss as to how to respond. I know that it has happened to me too, that I think of the best answer long after the event.

This element of surprise is exploited by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis (the people behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky) who have a deliberate strategy, especially with children, of promoting such ‘stumpers’ consisting of esoteric information and arguments that are so outlandish that if one has not heard them before, one is simply stunned. For example, here is AiG founder Ken Ham boasting about this strategy and one particular form that it takes.

My favorite question to teach children to ask about origins is, “Were you there?” This is based on the question God asked Job in Job 38:4 (so, God’s Word is where I obtained this question). I teach students to remember that whenever anyone claims the earth is billions of years old, they can ask that question God asked Job: “Were you there?” It is really a way of teaching young children the difference between historical science (beliefs about the past) and observational science (direct observations that build our technology), but at their level.

You can be assured that this question will be accompanied by a triumphant smirk, since they already know what to expect as an answer

How should one respond? One can of course give a long and serious answer about how scientific inference works and how we can know things about which we have no direct experience. But I think it is wasted because such people are not in search of knowledge but are instead in debate mode where one ‘wins’ by putting the opponent off-balance. Hence one should respond in kind.

My suggestion for how to respond to the “Were you there?” question is to simply say “Yes, I was”. This is likely to stump the stumper who will not expect it. If the person says that he/she does not believe you, you can respond, “How do you know? Were you there?” Whatever argument the person presents to establish that you were not there can be countered with a variant of the ‘were you there’ question. The reason I think this is better because in order to try and prove you wrong, the person has to use the same kind of inferential reasoning that he or she was denying the validity of in the first place, in order to counter your use of their debating tactic. You would have turned the tables on them, which is always good fun.

Some might object that you are telling a lie. But you are not. All the material that each of us is made of existed right from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. We are truly stardust so we have always been around from the beginning of time, if such a moment existed, and will be there until the end of time, if an end should come. If they want to get into a discussion of that, I would welcome and engage in it because then they would have already conceded your point.

In debates, it is better to let the other person try to prove their case than you trying to defend yours.

35 comments

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  1. 1
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    “..they can ask that question God asked Job: “Were you there?” It is really a way of teaching young children the difference between historical science (beliefs about the past) and observational science (direct observations that build our technology), but at their level.”
    You can be assured that this question will be accompanied by a triumphant smirk, since they already know what to expect as an answer. How should one respond?

    PZ Myers once wrote a fantastic article /post onPharyngula answering that very ‘Were you there’question briliantly discussing the science, how it works and how we can know things like the age of fossils and the Earth and pointing out how silly and obnoxous the question was – it was at least a year or so ago though probably longer & can’t recall exact title.

    I had it bookmarked – but alas, have since lost it. Will have to see if I can find again.

  2. 2
    Paul Durrant

    Oh, splendid. I doubt that I will ever be asked that question, but that’s the perfect answer, as it leads to more discussion, where hopefully some misconceptions can be dispelled.

    Although I thought that PZ’s take on that question was also very good indeed.
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/06/23/dear-emma-b/

  3. 3
    Matt G

    And we’re they there when Jesus rolled away the stone on the third day? That knife cuts both ways. Actually it only cuts one way, since WE can present evidence….

  4. 4
    Doug Little

    This is based on the question God asked Job in Job 38:4

    So because his question is based on the bible my answer to the question would be were you there? This should hopefully highlight the absurdity of the question to the person asking it.

  5. 5
    flex

    Heh, in response to the, “Were you there?”, argument I’ve occasionally suggested that the same argument can be used to justify my assertion that their father was conceived by the milkman.

    Of course, they often don’t work out right away that I just called their grandmother an adulterer and their grandfather a cuckold. Eventually though, they generally figure it out.

    It can also be a teaching moment, I’ve never had anyone use that argument on me twice.

  6. 6
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    He was nonplussed when a student said that that was not quite correct since women had one less rib!

    I thought MEN had one less rib,and only on one side, because God used one of Adam’s ribs tomake a woman.

    Have I been wrong all these years?

  7. 7
    cafink

    I’ve always thought that a good response to Ken Ham’s “were you there?” argument would be, “were you?” Since Ken Ham apparently thinks that firsthand eyewitness evidence is the only reliable kind, he can’t make any historical claims, either.

    But I like your take on it even better, making the same point in a more memorable way. I will definitely remember this strategy!

  8. 8
    Tsu Dho Nimh

    I’ve replied to the “Were you there” with “No, but these rocks/bones/atoms WERE there, and we can study them to find out what was going on.”

    But your answer of “Yes.” is so much better. I’m converted.

  9. 9
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @2. Paul Durrant :

    Although I thought that PZ’s take on that question was also very good indeed.
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/06/23/dear-emma-b/

    Yes! That’s the one I was thinking of – still think its the best piece PZ’s ever written. Thanks Paul.

    Turns out it was back in the old Science Blog days – June the 23rd, 2011.

    But Mano Singham I like your post here too.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    No, you are absolutely right and I have corrected it. Thanks.

  11. 11
    Mano Singham

    Thanks. That was a very good scientific reply that would be preferable if you were responding to a sincere seeker of knowledge. Mine was a more shallow, smart-aleck debating argument.

  12. 12
    Synfandel

    Some might object that you are telling a lie. But you are not. All the material that each of us is made of existed right from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

    I was with you up to that point, Professor, but that’s an unworthy bit of sophistry. You’re telling a lie and you know it. I’m fine with that. You’re doing it to make an important point, but let’s not delude ourselves.

  13. 13
    Mano Singham

    Yes it is, but that was whole point. It was meant exactly to show the sophistry of the other side. Rather than telling them that they were indulging in sophistry, it is better to show them that it cuts both ways.

  14. 14
    Synfandel

    Fair enough.

  15. 15
    kevinalexander

    The answer that I give to the question is “Yes, I am there. Evidence connects the past to the present so I am present at the existence of the past. Have I ever seen a dinosaur? Of course, I see old ones at the museum and new ones building a nest outside my kitchen window.
    If I’m in a grumpy mood I’ll ask the smug little shit if he was at the crucifixion or if he saw who rolled back the stone.

  16. 16
    dukeofomnium

    Anyone of any age who is taking advice from Kenneth Ham is not a sincere seeker of knowledge.

  17. 17
    ahcuah

    There is also Darwin’s Rib, from Robert S. Root-Bernstein that’s worth reading.

  18. 18
    DaveX

    On reading PZ’s letter, I noted that in general the “stumpers” are really not questions. They are intended purely as interrupting, confusing conversation stoppers. PZ’s alternative question of “how do you know that?” is much better, if you are actually interested in finding out something you didn’t know already.

    Ham’s other catchy sayings are that the platypus, wombat and kangaroo are good designs and proof of god, but I imagine parasites, disease, and child-killing birth defects aren’t such god-affirming charismatic megafauna. Or Ham’s catchy saying about the buried layers of billions of dead things resulting from the biblical flood somehow glosses over the fact that rabbits (or even bony fishes) were never buried in the precambrian layers.

    Maybe: “Does everybody already know the answer to Ms. Stumper’s question? Good. Then we can move on. A more interesting question might have be ‘how do we know…”

    On the skeletal differences stumper, humans, and especially an anatomy teacher should know that the “few small differences” are in the shapes of the bones, particularly around the pelvis, but certainly not in any numbers of bones or lack of any analogous bones.

  19. 19
    Kevin

    I’m not religious and never have been, but I had always assumed that the “rib” story was made up to explain why males had one fewer rib than women. Just another “just so” story from the book of myths.

    It wasn’t until much later that I learned that this wasn’t the case. I was quite surprised to discover that males and females indeed had exactly the same number of ribs — and every other bone as well.

    Which begs the question of why the myth writers thought taking a rib from a man would be the “right” thing to take in order to create a woman. Why a rib? Why not the spleen, or the liver? The big toe from the right foot? Rib is kind of bizarre, don’t you think?

    Oh well. Another unanswerable question.

  20. 20
    Kimpatsu

    On TAE, a caller asked Matt Dillahunty the same question, and Matt answered superbly that he wasn’t there when Jeffrey Darmer killed all those people, but he know the truth because that’s what the evidence shows.

  21. 21
    MNb

    “simply say “Yes, I was”.”
    You are way too kind. I answer with a counterquestion like “Were you there when your parents were born? No? Then they are aliens and so are you.”
    I have little patience with bad thinking like this. So when confronted with “men had one less rib” I would be tempted to give a sarcastic answer as well.
    So it would probably not be long before I get fired at a school in the American South.

    “In debates, it is better to let the other person try to prove their case than you trying to defend yours.”
    I completely agree. Plus I like to use sarcasm to make clear how silly the point is they try to prove.

  22. 22
    invivoMark

    I quite like that response, and I can’t believe I never thought of it! I’ve been giving the response of asking them about some historical event (When did William the Conqueror invade Britain? When did the Civil War begin?), and when they give the correct answer, responding with “were you there?” But that approach relies on them honestly asking the question, rather than dodging and saying that it’s irrelevant.

    I like your response because it even catches the most intellectually dishonest arguers.

  23. 23
    ImaginesABeach

    If my children responded to a teacher with a smart-alec comment rather than a sincere question, I sure as heck wouldn’t be proud of them.

  24. 24
    MJ

    For that teachers situation you could even go with a more neutral approach and say ‘the christian bible you’re referencing says god took a rib from Adam, the first man, so he could make Eve, the first woman. Adam was still born with that rib so why wouldn’t his sons have it?’. Ask the student where they got the idea all men were meant to have one less rib just because god took one from Adam. Likely (if the student is trying to argue in good faith from the start not just being disruptive) they’ll admit they just assumed thats what the story implied. Which presents a good teaching moment not to just assume things and promote a little critical thinking. Your answer is good too but I know that for teachers in highly religious areas the smart snarky answer could result in angry fundie parents demanding their head on a silver platter (its cool to demand that cause its biblical right?)

  25. 25
    Jared A

    No no, no. Man was made from ash, Woman was made from elm. Kids these days.

  26. 26
    lanir

    The really weird part about the religious side of the argument is that their assertion amounts to “my argument is as true as yours so magically I get to walk off with all the trust your science has built up while sticking you with the sleazy bits of my really obvious make-believe BS”. At some point you’d think you would be able to simply state that even IF you take their nonsense as a given and run with it, the end result they’re aiming for is still nonsense.

    It basically amounts to intellectual robbery. But then the people pulling stunts like this know they’re running a con game anyway so you’re unlikely to shock them by showing them you’ve noticed their little attempted theft.

  27. 27
    bad Jim

    It’s been speculated that the penile bone was the original referent.

  28. 28
    Mano Singham

    I had never heard of it but that actually makes some sense!

  29. 29
    hoary puccoon

    I suggested in the Atheist Experience, instead of “yes, I was,” using “what makes you think I wasn’t?”

    This may introduce the principle of uniformitarianism, if they come back with, “people don’t live millions or billions of years.” In that case, they’ve actually applied good science– generalizing from repeated observations. So you may be able to move on to showing that’s exactly what scientists do when they generalize from repeated observations of radioactive isotopes.

    At any rate, it’s better than, “gee, I never thought of that,” as a response. And for kids, who aren’t cynically pushing creationism to make money, it might sometimes be effective.

  30. 30
    Alexis

    During my childhood I had heard in Sunday school Eve’s creation explains the floating ribs which do not attach to the sternum. In this Just So story, the ‘missing’ parts of these ribs were used to build Eve.

  31. 31
    iknklast

    Mano – I am currently writing a play around a student disrupting a class with “Were you there?” I would love to use your response in this play, but want to get your permission first, since it wasn’t really my idea. I would be more than willing to credit you for the response.

    Please let me know if you don’t mind my using this in my play. (I assure you, this is not a creationist play; it’s a short play about teaching evolution and how difficult it can really become). Thank you.

  32. 32
    Mano Singham

    Sure, go ahead. Let me know how it turns out.

  33. 33
    Mano Singham

    Looks like a more sophisticated version of that old story.

  34. 34
    Osbert Snudge

    I’m gonna get hold of Ken Ham alone in a dark alley and stab him and rub his blood all over the alley and all over me and get caught and tried, and just before the judge sentences me to death I know I will be freed because I will ask the judge, ‘were you there?’.

  35. 35
    Argle Bargle

    The one time I was asked about men having one less rib than women I answered that Adam had a rib removed but that meant he had one less rib, not that all men had one less rib.

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