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The present is the only window to the past

8 September 2010. My partner in altruism, John Renish, routinely sends me links to articles he thinks will stir a few neurons in my cortex. While many of his selections stimulate my amygdalae, rarely do they jolt my jaded reptilian brain into attack mode. I'd barely finished my first cup of coffee this morning, however, when I was aroused to a murderous rage. The object of my despicable thought crime was Ken Ham, one of a boatload of child abusers whose main goal in life is to promote a fairy tale about creation that he extracts from the stories of some ancient desert tribes. Ham and dozens like him teach children to hate science and believe in the Abrahamic god. To these miscreants, hating science and loving the Abrahamic god are entwined like mating serpents.

What aroused me from my apathetic contempt for the dozens of false prophets who continually cross my morning screen was a blog entry by Dale McGowan relating his child's experience with a YEC [young Earth creationist] science teacher. McGowan is a scientist and the author of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.  His 15-year-old son had been slapped in the face by his science teacher with an overhead slide that read: “Experiments and evidence in the present can’t tell us anything about the distant past.”

Nothing arouses my killer instinct like the abuse of authority, whether it be a cop beating a guy, a soldier raping a civilian, a priest abusing a child, or a teacher abusing science. Society won't tolerate these abusers, except for the one who doesn't wear a uniform. The teacher who thinks he or she is doing god's work by lying to children about the nature of knowledge and science may even be admired in some quarters of society. Instead of being admired, such teachers should be fired, at the very minimum, or imprisoned for their crimes against children. The damage to children that these holy crusaders do will be felt for generations.

Enough with the ire and on to the lesson. Not only is it blatantly false that experiments and evidence in the present can't tell us anything about the distant past, the only way we can learn about the past is through the present. (I won't bother to discuss how both the past and the present are the only ways we can know anything with reasonable probability about the future.) Ken Hammay he and all YEC science teachers soon join Kent Hovind in a federal prisonis often the inspiration for this nonsense about the impossibility of learning anything about the past from present evidence. Ham's essay "Were You There?" is a classic in the history of anti-science/pro-fairy tale literature of the YECs. It is a pity that Ham or his adult followers can't appreciate the irony of holding up a Bible in the present to decry knowing anything about the past from the present. Do they think the essence of the past has been distilled in the pages of their translated pages of black marks on white paper? Are they time traveling with god when they read their book of books? Their god may know everything and may have been present at the origin of the universe, but they weren't there and it is only their word that validates their claim that the book they are holding and interpreting in the present falls outside of their invented general rule that the present can tell us nothing about the past. If Ham and his YEC comrades are correct, then the Bible is no guide to the past since any interpretation of the Bible has to take place in the present, which, they say, can tell us nothing about the past.

I wasn't there when Ham's mother was impregnated or when Ham was born, but of the few plausible alternative explanations for how he got on this planet the one I'd be most likely to accept is the one that uses my present knowledge about sex and birth. When a YEC gets a bellyache after eating crow does he not know that his present pain reveals to others, if not to himself, that the crow was rotten? Does he not even learn from his present discomfort that he should avoid eating rotten crow in the future? When he wakes in the morning to a fresh covering of snow on the ground, does he not think it snowed during the night? Does he know nothing about cause and effect? Will he never infer a cause? Is nothing perceived by him as an effect of anything else? When he reaches for his cup of holy wine does he not know that the cup is where it is because it was there a moment ago? How does the YEC get through the day without basing his present actions on what he reasonably infers from the present about the past?

If the present can tell us nothing about the past, why does the YEC jump for joy when some scientist claims to have found evidence in the present for a universal flood in the past? Why does the YEC have an orgasm when another true believer claims to have found the remains of Noah's ark? Why do crime investigators gather evidence for trials of those accused of crimes if jurors can't assume that the evidence presented in the present can tell them something very important about the past? (This is true on two levels, though I doubt the YEC folks will get it. The investigator uses present evidence and experiments to reconstruct the past; the jury uses present testimony and exhibits presented by the investigator to reconstruct the past.)

The more knowledge we have about a subject, the more we are able to reasonably infer what happened in the past from what we discover in the present. Our experiments and models in the present allow us to test our inferences. Some of the best examples of how much of real science works by making testable inferences about the past from evidence, models, and experiments in the present come from the field of evolutionary biology. The exclusion of that field from serious study, however, is one of the main goals of the YECs who are defacing our nation's classrooms with their graffiti.

As an antidote to this YEC nonsense, I suggest reading The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness by Oren Harman. One of the more interesting questions in evolutionary biology is the question of the origin of altruism. If evolution is all about survival and reproduction, then how did self-sacrifice originate? George Price was one of several brilliant scientists who worked on understanding this problem. Their work has led to further understanding of the origins of moral sensibility, among other things. (In his epilogue, Harman lists some of the main books that take up this problem.) An excellent review of Harman's book was written by biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal for The New York Times. All the excitement of thought and discovery in science is extinguished (before the fire is even lit) by the YEC's notion that god's grace explains all you need to know. If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing being, such trivializing drivel would be rewarded with a lightning bolt to the jaw. Hell, if it exists, will be filled with arrogant Bible-waving child abusers like Ken Ham and teachers who tell children that “Experiments and evidence in the present can’t tell us anything about the distant past.”

No god worthy of the name will let pass without extermination or endless torture the blasphemy of teachers telling stories about a second-rate magician creating this magnificent universe and all creatures great and small. What greater dishonor to creation could one do than discourage children from the study of archaeology, astronomy, paleoanthropology, and a host of other sciences? These YEC miscreants belong in prison for trying to corrupt our youth and undermine our national security by producing a generation of science haters and magical being lovers. Yet, many of our national leaders want to allow these deviants into our classrooms to teach their superstitions under the guise of fairness. Maybe we should have a Burn A Creationist Politician Day. We could have a huge bonfire in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Any politician who preaches that we should allow YECs in our science classrooms will be burned at the stake in a day of national eejit cleansing. Then again, maybe this isn't the example we want to set.

further reading

RECORD OF TIME: An Introduction to the Nature of Fossils and Paleoanthropological Dating Methods

How do astronomers measure the distances to galaxies that are millions or even billions of light-years away?

reader comments

8 Sept 2010
Two things: 1.) I think you setup a real straw man in your arguments since he talks about the distant past but all your arguments deal with the near past.

2.) You also miss a really good opportunity to educate about levels of certainty, by which I mean distinguishing between being very certain that 1+1=2 (when dealing with dollars), and somewhat less certain about exactly what happened at big bang + 10^-37 seconds.

Tim Boettcher

reply: It is true that Ham's argument specifically states that present evidence can't tell us anything about the distant past. Two things: 1) the distant past to the YECs is about 6,000 years, which is nothing compared to the concept of the distant past that scientists employ, and 2) Ham's argument isn't about time, but presence. His point, which he repeatedly makes, is that only god was present at the creation. You weren't there and I wasn't there. He's not concerned with how long ago creation occurred, but with the need to be there to know anything about it.

Ham's argument isn't about levels of certainty, either. The imaginary being he posits as the creator is omniscient. Even if you or I were present at the Big Bang, we would not be omniscient. (We'd be annihilated, but let's overlook that minor detail and assume we could observe the creation from our sky box.) Being there wouldn't guarantee we'd understand anything we perceived. Even if we had all the tools of modern technology to assist us in our observations, as well as all the accumulated knowledge of science in the 21st century, we'd still be struggling to understand exactly what happened. Ham's eyewitness to creation doesn't even have eyes, but he doesn't need them because he is imagined as an immaterial consciousness who can magically produce material reality by commanding it. Any human eyewitness to anything in the distant past, however one conceives of the distant past, would be fallible. He'd have to interpret what he perceived through the filters of his memory, beliefs, interests, and knowledge. Being present when something happens is no guarantee that the observer understands correctly what has happened. Even if the entire scientific community witnessed an event, there would be no guarantee simply from the fact of their being there that they'd understand what happened. Being there is Ham's central focus, but it is a red herring: scientific knowledge is accumulated by a community over time; it is not the perception of an eyewitness.

Ham's imaginary being is infallible and omniscient, so his certainty is absolute by definition. Ham doesn't argue, however, that god's knowledge is absolutely certain and human knowledge about the distant past is less than absolutely certain. He claims humans can have no knowledge of the distant past because we weren't there. It is very unlikely that the YECs want to get into a discussion of certainty. Even the dimmest among them must recognize that even if their Bible is the infallible word of Abraham's god, fallible humans still have to understand those words. The fact that there has been so much disagreement as to the meaning of those words should be sufficient for any reasonable person to conclude that nobody can claim to know for sure what any of it means. The YECs interpret the Bible literally; others see the stories as allegories with profound philosophical points embedded in them. Scholars can't agree on which books are authentic. There's also the problems that are inevitable due to the difficulty in knowing exactly what words in an ancient language meant. Some of these books were written in the distant past in a language that had no vowels.

Ham and his comrades believe what they do on faith, not evidence. Their certainty is purely subjective. The beliefs of scientists regarding the origin of the universe and the origin of species are not absolutely certain, but vary in probability depending on many factors. There is no method to Ham's madness. He can make up any story he wants about god, the creation, the origin of dinosaurs, etc., because he has no test in reality against which to measure his claims. Scientists use many methods to arrive at plausible alternatives, test their hypotheses, and argue in the public arena for what they consider to be what the evidence shows. Science is not infallible. Scientific knowledge is always tentative. Our scientific understanding of the distant past may change as we gain more knowledge. Even so, the probabilities of science are infinitely more valuable to us than the pathetic, immature fables collected in a book alleged to contain absolutely certain truths.

9 Sept 2010
John Renish comments:

The problem of interpretation is much greater than you discuss. First is that the translation of any given word is subject to interpretation. For example, the KJV translates the Hebrew alma as virgin when it discusses the birth of the coming messiah, but the word means young woman and is so translated elsewhere in the KJV. And we all know that if the KJV is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us. Second, every translation must take into account the conditions in which the text was written—social, political, religious, rhetorical, etc. E.g., Hebrew use of numbers is mostly symbolic, 40 meaning “a lot” and seven being more or less holy. If Jesus really said to forgive “seventy times seven” times I’d be surprised because the base-ten numbering system was a later introduction, thanks to the Indians and Arabs. Finally, the inerrancy crowd is often tangled in knots, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation of Leviticus’s prohibition against eating blood meaning that believers cannot have transfusions, and the Baptists’ insistence that the Bible doesn’t really mean “wine,” but “grape juice,” even though Noah got drunk and Jesus says, “I come eating and drinking and they call me a glutton and a wine-bibber.” So, the Baptists take communion with grape juice. Obviously, the Baptists are right and the JWs are wrong. Or vice versa. Yet they’re both YECs. The problem is multiplied by the number of YEC sects. For a humorous take on interpretation by the inerrancy crowd, see Betty Bowers:

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