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.