How to respond to the “Were you there?” question

Sometime ago I wrote about how creationist Ken Ham teaches children to ask “Were you there?” to anyone who says that some event happened much earlier than the 6,000 years that the Bible is supposed to say that the Earth has existed. The idea behind this question is that when you say of course you were not there, they will say that you cannot assert that as a fact any event to which you were not a witness.

I said that rather than give them a lecture on inferential scientific reasoning based on evidence (which they are not interested in), one is better served by using debating trickery and sophistry, since that is the game being played.

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.

Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to test this rhetorical gambit in person since the university and community that I live and work in does not have many young Earth creationists.

But via Pharyngula I heard of a high school biology teacher in Florida who had the same idea as me and it seems to have worked beautifully.


  1. says

    I disagree. It didn’t work beautifully. The student (and the rest of the class) learned nothing. The strategy might be a good one to use with adults one is on an equal level with, but not as a teacher who has a chance to actually make a difference by getting the kids to think for themselves.

  2. raven says

    Whatever you do, be careful about ridiculing their religious beliefs.

    Xposts from Pharyngula, yesterday.

    Student Wins Suit After Teacher Says Creationism ‘Superstitious …
    www. foxnews. com/…/student-wins-suit-after-teacher-says-creationism-su…‎

    May 4, 2009 – Student Wins Suit After Teacher Says Creationism ‘Superstitious … history teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism …

    Which ended being reversed by the 9th circuit court.

    Published: Feb. 21, 2012 Updated: Aug. 21, 2013 1:17 p.m.

    Supreme Court won’t hear appeal of student’s anti-Christian lawsuit

    High school teacher James Corbett has been exonerated and his four-year case is officially closed.
    Supreme Court won’t hear appeal of student’s anti-Christian lawsuit

    •Analysis: Court evades central question in anti-Christian lawsuit
    •Court: Teacher can’t be sued over anti-Christian remarks
    •Teacher says he may lose appeal in anti-Christian case
    •Student a ‘whiny little boy,’ teacher in anti-Christian case says
    •9th Circuit probes anti-Christian ruling against teacher
    •UCI law dean to represent teacher sued by student

    The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal Tuesday from a former high school student who sued his history teacher, saying he disparaged Christianity in class in violation of the student’s First Amendment rights.

    The high court denied Chad Farnan’s written demand for a review of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last year that exonerated Capistrano Valley High School teacher James Corbett.

    You all have to remember that fundies are vicious and watch your back.

  3. colnago80 says

    You might counter with, “were you there when O. J. Simpson allegedly killed his ex-wife and Ron Goldman? If not, how do you know that Simpson did it?”

  4. mastmaker says

    Or how about?

    Do you think Judges/Juries hand out convictions only in those cases (and in ALL THOSE cases) where there WERE witnesses?

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Do you think Judges/Juries hand out convictions only in those cases (and in ALL THOSE cases) where there WERE witnesses?

    Logically, in that case judges and juries should only hand out convictions only in those cases where they were witnesses- except that people in that position are not allowed to be judges or jurors.

  6. dean says

    I disagree. It didn’t work beautifully. The student (and the rest of the class) learned nothing. The strategy might be a good one to use with adults one is on an equal level with, but not as a teacher who has a chance to actually make a difference by getting the kids to think for themselves.

    Maybe not beautifully, but it was efficient. The difference between the incident in Florida, in a classroom, and interaction with an adult, is responsibility. It does not seem as though any attempt at a discussion with the problem student would lead to any more than, essentially, “nu-uh” and “uh-uh”, no matter how literate the teacher’s responses would be. That does not do the other students any benefit, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to serve the greater class, not the individual student. It is entirely likely the scientific reasons were discussed, with the rest of the class, after the disruption was removed.

    So which would you have the teacher, in the limited time in class, do: continue an argument that with one student, one that would lead to no point, or remove the distraction and continue with the remaining students?

    In a perfect setting (which we don’t have) the approach taken wouldn’t be needed. In this situation it served a good purpose.

  7. Mano Singham says

    As a teacher, I view all such situations as teaching moments. The question is what lesson we want to teach. The student who asks a “Were you there” question is not seeking information (because he already knew the answer) but is indulging in debating tricks and sophistry. The lesson being taught to him (and the rest of the class) is that those are weapons that cut both ways.

  8. mnb0 says

    “it seems to have worked beautifully.”
    I disagree too. A pupil storming out of class is always a defeat for the teacher (if he/she were an adult it would have been different). What both PZ and you seemed to have missed is that

    “I do not have the time to stand here and explain this to you.”
    This basically is an appeal to authority, though in favour of the teacher I must add that offering an after class explanation is something I use too sometimes.
    The irony is that you yourself shows how it should be done (and the teacher didn’t): “You would have turned the tables on them”
    Exactly at that moment the teacher can conclude that “where you there?” is not a legitimate scientific question -- the correct question is “how do we know?”
    And then you can proceed with Evolution Theory.
    This way there is a good chance that at least several creationist pupils will stay.

    With 40% creationists in the USA it makes sense even at that level to spend some time on the issue. In fact a prepared teacher should begin with: “if you think the Evolution Theory is correct, then raise your hands.”
    This is an invitation to creationist pupils to keep their hands down without getting too embarrassed.
    “I see not everybody does; a common argument is the counterquestion ‘Where you there?”‘ Well, if I say I was you can’t contradict me, because you weren’t there either. Nor where you there when the Earth and life was created. So apparentlyt this is not a good question; the right question is “How do we know?”

    Instead this teacher-pupil clash turned in to a struggle for power and that’s something a teacher should try to avoid unless he/she doesn’t have a choice anymore.
    This teacher not exactly an excellent psycholoist and pedagogue. He silenced a pupil who thought he/she asked a legitimate question only by using muscles.

  9. mnb0 says

    “it is the teacher’s responsibility to serve the greater class”
    Yes, but he/she didn’t do that either. This teacher did not make clear why “Where you there” is a bad question neither told what the correct answer was. Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that this particular kid was an obnoxious dogmatist not all creationist kids are, certainly not at that age. And there was no way the teacher could know a priori if this particular kid would reject “Where you there?” being a bad question. It’s even possible that some of the classmates learned another lesson: ‘Be careful what you ask this teacher, because there may be nasty consequences.’ That’s not what I want as a teacher math and physics.
    I know what I’m talking about. Almost all my pupils are religious and I refuse to hide my atheism. Indeed I have heard stuff like “Oh! You are going to burn in hell and worms will eat your flesh!” As I’m the adult it’s my responsibility to give a thoughtful answer. This biology teacher didn’t.

  10. invivoMark says

    The student was clearly planning to “storm out” of the room regardless of what the teacher said. I doubt that being shown that his sophomoric debating “tactic” didn’t work was what made him decide to leave.

    The student had it in his mind (probably because some pastor told him to) that as soon as the teacher mentioned evolution, he would stand up, make is silly argument, and leave, as some sort of protest against the evilutionists.

  11. colnago80 says

    And their answer would reflect either ignorance of the circumstances or lying. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime presented in court. In fact there were no eyewitnesses presented in court who could testify seeing Simpson anywhere outside his property during the time frame of the crime. The only putative eyewitness who purported seeing Simpson outside his property, Jill Shivley, was not called by the prosecution to testify because she had sold her story to the Star supermarket tabloid (and also because her time frame did not fit the prosecution’s theory of the case).

  12. colnago80 says

    You are very naive. That student has been brainwashed by his parents and his pastor and has been programmed to ask stupid questions like this in class for the purpose of disruption. Check out some of the creationist web sites where they recommend asking a question like this for disruption purposes.

  13. Mano Singham says

    I don’t think the student asked a legitimate question because it was a question to which he already knew (or thought he knew) the answer. It was being used as a platform to make further rhetorical points. The student was behaving like a lawyer who follows the axiom that you should avoid asking a witness a question to which you do not already know the answer. The point of a lawyer’s questioning is to arrive at a desired end point, not to gain knowledge. The student’s question was like that. By surprising the student with an unexpected answer, the teacher undermined that entire strategy.

    I personally may not have taken the tone the teacher seemed to have taken and would not have said things like “I do not have the time to stand here and explain this to you”. Instead I would have taken the questioning in such a way that the student realizes that the “Were you there?” question is a trap that he himself had fallen into, not the teacher.

  14. smrnda says

    I think it’s a good demonstration that ‘were you there?’ is only a valid response to an event which say, one person actually witnessed and the other party is relying on second and third hand information, because if both parties weren’t there, the fact that *one* party wasn’t there doesn’t make one account or the other more or less credible. I mean, if *neither of us were there* how do we investigate something?

    Though let’s also acknowledge that there’s evidence that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable (Elizabeth Loftus does research in this area as someone whose work anyone can look up) and in some cases, other methods are more useful in deciding what happened. DNA evidence beats eyewitness accounts of *who committed a crime*

  15. colnago80 says

    Ed Brayton has had numerous posts on this subject, citing any number of studies severely calling into question the reliability of eyewitness evidence.

  16. dean says

    This teacher did not make clear why “Where you there” is a bad question neither told what the correct answer was.

    We don’t know that, since we don’t know the conversation that occurred with the remaining students.
    After reading the article a couple more times, I stand by my initial comment: it doesn’t appear that the kid causing the problems was going to let any discussion go on while he was in the room. Further, the first comment of this comment by the teacher

    What you read here is what we have observed and what we can deduce based on the evidence. And if you actually had read it, maybe you would know that. You are in your junior year of high school, and you should not have to have this explained to you. I do not have the time to stand here and explain this to you. So if you have any further objections I suggest you come and see me after class ends.”

    is a good introduction to why the question was stupid. If he (the teacher) made that start, I’m inclined to believe it was addressed further without the troublesome youth.

    Every teacher handles situations in his/her own way, but any teacher who allows one student to derail a lecture for any reason, religious or otherwise, is not doing a good job.

  17. colnago80 says

    Just as a matter of information, has Prof. Singham ever had an experience like this in a class? I must have taken at least 2 dozen physics classes and I cannot recall anyone asking such a stupid question. Of course, this was before the rise of the Internet and the born again churches that are bent out of shape about issues such as the age of the earth, the solar system, and the universe. However, this is probably more of an issue in biology or geology classes then in physics classes.

    I would not criticize the teacher on his tone because we don’t know how much of this kind of crap he has been subjected to prior to this incident.

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