June 27, 2011 5 Comments
A few days ago there was an entry on PZ Myers blog Pharyngula about a story of a 9 year old girl named Emma B who went to a NASA exhibit and when shown a display of a moon rock. She was told by the lady guiding the tour that the rock was 3.75 billion years old she asked this: “Where you there?”. It’s a silly question and one that would be pretty easy to dismiss as an innocent girl who thought she was being insightful and was just mixed up in how best to ask “How do you know it’s that old? Where you there?”. That pretty much would have ended the story right there. Sadly, that isn’t what our Emma was trying to ask, because she had been taught by her parents that the group Answers in Genesis has the ‘right’ way to question a scientist. Here, just go watch this video titled “Friends of God — Evolution” and see what I’m talking about. (Skip ahead to 4:00 for the really relevant parts). The fellow doing the ‘teaching’ is Ken Ham. You can find Kens response to Emma here which is duplicated above, but as you will see later why I want to point to Ken’s side too.
Now you understand the context of what is going on, here is PZ Myers response to Emma.
I read your account of seeing a 3.75 billion year old moon rock, and how you asked the person displaying it “Were you there?”, the question that Ken Ham taught you to ask scientists. I’m glad you were asking questions — that’s what scientists are supposed to do — but I have to explain to you that that wasn’t a very good question, and that Ken Ham is a poor teacher. There are better questions you could have asked.
One serious problem with the “Were you there?” question is that it is not very sincere. You knew the answer already! You knew that woman had not been to the moon, and you definitely knew that she had not been around to see the rock forming 3.75 billion years ago. You knew the only answer she could give was “no,” which is not very informative.
Another problem is that if we can only trust what we have seen with our own two eyes in our short lives, then there’s very little we can know at all. You probably know that there are penguins in Antarctica, and that the Civil War was fought in the 1860s, and that there are fish swimming deep in the ocean, and you also believe that Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, but if I asked you “Were you there?” about each of those facts, you’d also have to answer “no” to each one. Does that mean they are all false?
Of course not. You know those things because you have other kinds of evidence. There are photographs and movies of penguins and fish, there are documents from the time of the Civil War, as well as the fact that in many places you can still find old bullets and cannon balls buried in the ground from the time of the war, and you have a book, the Bible, that tells stories about Jesus. You have evidence other than that you personally witnessed something.
This is important because we live in a big ol’ beautiful world, far older than your 9 years, and there’s so much to learn about it — far more than you’ll ever be able to see for yourself. There’s a gigantic universe beyond South Carolina, and while you probably won’t ever visit a distant star or go inside a cell, there are instruments we can use to see farther and deeper than your eyes can go, and there are books that describe all kinds of wonders. Don’t close yourself off to them simply because you weren’t there.
I’d like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham’s silly “Were you there?” The question you can always ask is, “How do you know that?”
Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the “Were you there?” question, but you don’t know the answer to the “How do you know that?” question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don’t know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.
You could have asked the lady at the exhibit, “How do you know that moon rock is 3.75 billion years old?”, and she would have explained it to you. Maybe you would disagree with her; maybe you’d think there’s a better answer; maybe you’d still want to believe Ken Ham, who is not a scientist; but the important thing is that you’d have learned why she thought the rock was that old, and why scientists have said that it is that old, and how they worked out the age, even if they weren’t there. And you’d be a little bit more knowledgeable today.
I’ll assume you’re actually interested in knowing how they figured out the age of the rock, so I’ll try to explain it to you.
The technique scientists use is called radiometric dating. It uses the fact that some radioactive elements slowly fall apart, turning into other elements. For instance, a radioactive isotope of potassium will decay over time into an isotope of another element, argon.
One way to think of it is that it’s like an hourglass. You know how they work: you start with all the sand in the top half of the hourglass, and it slowly trickles into the bottom half. If you see an hourglass with all the sand at the top and none at the bottom, you know it was recently flipped over. If you see one with half the sand in the top, and half in the bottom, you know it’s about halfway through the time it will run. And if you look at how quickly the sand moves through the neck of the hourglass, you could even figure out how long until it all runs out.
In radiometric dating, the scientists are looking at how far along all the radioactive potassium is in the process of turning into argon. The amount of potassium is like the amount of sand in the top half of the hourglass, while the amount of argon is like the amount in the bottom half. By measuring the relative amounts of the two elements, and by measuring how fast radioactive potassium turns into argon, we can figure out how long it’s been since the rock solidified.
It takes a very long time for the decay to occur. It takes 1 and a quarterbillion years for half the potassium to turn into argon. When they measured those elements in the moon rocks, they found that the radiometric hourglass had mostly run out, so they knew that it was very, very old.
Scientists double-check everything. They also looked at other elements, like how quickly uranium turns into lead, or rubidium into strontium, and they all agree on the date, even though these are decay processes that run at different rates. All the radiometric hourglasses they’ve used give the same answer: 3.75 billion years. None of them say 6,000 years.
I think you’re off to a great start — being brave enough to ask older people to explain themselves is exactly what you need to do to learn more and more, and open up the whole new exciting world of science for yourself. But that means you have to ask good questions to get good answers so that you will learn more.
Don’t use Ken Ham’s bad question, and most importantly, don’t pay attention to Ken Ham’s bad answers. There’s a wealth of wonderful truths that reveal so much more about our universe out there, and you do not want to close your eyes to them. Maybe someday you could be a woman who does go to the moon and sees the rocks there, or a geologist who sees how rocks erode and form here on earth, or the biologist who observes life in exotic parts of the world…but you won’t achieve any of those things if you limit your mind to the dogma of Answers in Genesis.
Best wishes for future learning,
This has to be one of the most elegant and wonderful things I’ve ever read. PZ has explained why it’s not a very good question and how to get a better answer. He’s written something even a 9-year-old can understand, or at least should be able to. He’s been clear and simple, sincere and open. He doesn’t mock Emma for her poor idea, he gives explains better ways to learn new stuff and even says quite plainly that she’s welcome to disagree with him and continue to believe Ken Ham’s interpretation of the universe, but that learning new things should be a good thing!
Now I haven’t posted about this yet but one of my major concerns with religion is it stifles its adherents willingness to learn about the world about them beyond there holy texts. Ken Ham’s teaching of children should strike any sane, non-fundamentalist person as method to make sure these kids don’t learn things that might disagree with his world-view. This to me is sick. It is wrong and it is harmful. It’s warping a child’s mind away from one of the greatest things about being a child: discovering the world around them. These kids aren’t old enough to understand the facts of life, their still working on the basics of 1+1 and he’s telling them they have no need to think about anything else, just ask “where you there?” when confronted with something that goes against what he teaches. These kids are still working out the concepts of right and wrong within society, their haven’t even grown up to the point they can make the choice who to believe yet, they are told ‘believe me because your mommy and daddy have said so and don’t you even think about believing anyone else’. Sick. Sick SICK.
I have no qualms about respecting an adult making an informed choice of belief, even if I disagree with that choice. They have chosen what facts, evidence, and information to accept and which to reject. They can make a ‘educated choice’. A child taught like this cannot. They are being robbed of their ability to think for themselves before they ever have a chance to learn that they can! This in my opinion is one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever, destroying a child’s ability and desire to learn. Sure there are uncomfortable facts about life that we don’t want our kids to learn about too soon, but that doesn’t excuse people like Ken Ham from twisting them away from learning anything that might be uncomfortable, or in this case contradict him.
Let me ask this, from a christian perspective then, if a person never makes a choice to follow christ because they are never told they have the option not too, are they really choosing anything? If they’ve grown up with only one option and been so indoctrinated against any other possibilities, even if they do everything right according to their faith, does it matter? I know all the verses, I know all the arguments here so don’t quote me John 3:16 please, because it’s quite simple, if a person never makes a choice because they’ve been denied the right to think about it since birth, does this non-choice have any meaning? Does god accept those that only chose faith because their parents said so?
Its semantics to me, considering I don’t believe in some magic space daddy, but the implications should bother my christian friends who’ve come of age by now. Most kids will grow out of this phase hopefully and start to look at the world around them, perhaps question some things and maybe make a choice later, but the goal of Ken Ham is to prevent that. ‘Get em early before they can question us’ mentality has to be the sickest form indoctrination. The mother in the video from above is clearly one person who never stopped in their life to make a real choice, from birth to death this lady will likely never question the validity of Ken Ham or of the Bible or of her ‘saviour’.
Normally I’d leave it here but this saga continues because dear readers, apparently what PZ wrote above is an attack!!! I’m not even going to summarise this, just read it.
Ok, now notice something missing here? Like ANY LINK TO PZ’s post he questions?
KH: “Apparently, in this instance with Emma, a well known atheist wrote (very typical for him) an anti-Christian blog attacking me/AiG. Apparently some of his followers decided to send this on etc. I don’t read these vile blogs, but it is typical of these extremely intolerant people who in the anger, shake their fist at God.”
Wait…’intolerant’? ‘Angry’? Maybe I missed something in PZ’s letter that stands out as intolerant or angry. *re-reads it* Hmm…nope, seems pretty calm and reasoned to me. I know I said this before, but PZ even says it clearly, Emma is free to agree with Ken Ham if she wants too. ZOMG! INTOLERANCE ABOUNDS!!!11!1!!ONEELEVEN!!!11!!!! (sorry, leet speek) and the rest of the response just gets more depressing from there. The comments are equally disheartening to read. Examples:
James Strom Isn’t it true that God uses the “uneducated” un-perfect people (Like me and you) to teach the “Overeducated” about the Wisdom of God? Good for you Emma! Praise God indeed!
Lisa Joy Starr They must be really scared of all the Emmas in the world to attack a 9 yr old like that. It just proves to me that they know that we are right or else why would they be so vicious?
Jason Eric I am so glad that the world is still filled with far, far more people like Emma and her mom than people like these atheists who will stoop to anything, including viciously attacking a little girl. You don’t attack kids, atheists. You just don’t.
I’ve seen enough, moving on.
For someone who claims he doesn’t read ‘these vile blogs’ Ken certainly has a lot to say about them. This isn’t the first time Ken and PZ have butted heads over things but usually they are scientific facts they disagree over, and Ken has this constant habit of not linking anything he refers to so his readers can find out for themselves. In the world of the internet this is considered very dodgy and dishonest. Ken doesn’t want people to actually read what PZ wrote, just his conclusion about it. Not very surprising. Here is PZ replying back, sarcastically.
I know I haven’t addressed the evolution topic before, or the science vrs faith (ways of knowing) topic, and I intend to in the future, but for now I hope I’ve made it clear how I feel about the actions of people like Ken Ham and those that would destroy a child’s mind before they have a chance to ever use it.