By Martha Heil, an editor at the American Institute of Physics
Answers in Genesis, the biblical literalist ministry had a local advance opening of its young-earth creationism museum today. It claims that the museum scientifically proves the Word: that the earth was created in six days, that dinosaurs with pointy stabbing teeth ate only plants before the fall of humankind, and that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. They also would not let scientists in their gates today.
Today was for the believers. Today was also a carefully orchestrated event for people who would carry their message to the citizens of the nation. A huge press conference was planned and drew reporters from all over the country. Tomorrow, in another post, we’ll look carefully at the news stories those messengers carried and see the impact that this ministry had on the conversation about a museum that purports to do science, but deliberately misleads its visitors using scientific terms and hand-picked facts.
Today, since scientists weren’t allowed near the place lest they interrupt Answers in Genesis’ well-funded and well-guarded version of the history of the Earth and the development of the species on it, I couldn’t stay. I had hoped to introduce the attending journalists to some scientists, not so they could get “the other side of the story”, but so they could get some perspective.
This museum is not a museum of science. It’s a museum of faith, carefully cloaked in scientific garb, to help prove the truth of the Christian bible. Why is this a concern for scientists, such as the ones that have signed petitions protesting the museum, or those who couldn’t be there but are quietly fuming?
Because this museum distorts science. It’s an educational attraction, carrying in this morning at least one schoolbus in through a long line of cars waiting at the iron gates. It shows first the scientific viewpoint places a scientific fact in front of the visitor, then “debunks” the years of research and testing that went into ascertaining that piece of knowledge with carefully chosen phrases that reinforce a specific religious viewpoint.
Down the road from the creationism displays, there is a roadside attraction that scientists aren’t worried about. The Living Word Outdoor Drama promises plays from biblical times, staged for religious education and information. It has live animals in its shows, invites concert performers to sing and causes no ire in the scientific community. Why? Because it’s honest. It aims to renew or inspire your faith, but it doesn’t try to deliberately mislead people using scientific terms that many people find confusing even while they’re in school and have the job of learning those terms.
Down the road also and the place where I spent most of my day is Big Bone Lick State Park, with campgrounds, a lake, live bison, and a small paleonotological museum. Being a state park, it’s nowhere near as well funded as the Answers in Genesis shop. It has a few displays of the huge mammoth bones that were found preserved in the sulfur and salt swamps in the area. The salt found here allowed Native Americans to cure meat, and so the traces of those early dwellers on our continent are also found here.
Outside the state park’s museum, I met a physicist and astronomer who come one Saturday a month to show visitors views of the Sun and its explosive activity through a solar telescope. They’ve been coming for years, and their college campus is about to open a planetarium for the students. It’s been in the works for a long time, due to the ups and downs of educational funding, and these teachers hope later to do outreach efforts like bringing in younger students to see the discoveries of science as shown in the sky. Their planetarium runs on the same computer system as the planetarium at the Answers in Genesis attraction. However, the astronomers will show students what the great enterprise of science has discovered.
The Answers in Genesis theme park has been reported to have cost $27 million dollars. However, until tax time, we won’t know if those 27 million dollars are all from small donors, as the directors like to imply. The state-of-the-art planetarium system was donated and groups of volunteers came to help build the museum. Ken Ham, the founder, is a dedicated fundraiser and publicist. Does the museum have large donors that fund this display of faith?
This well-crafted educational site also has accompanying instructional materials for students of all ages. It has found a few folks with PhD’s who serve as the talking heads and the justification that Answers in Genesis is doing science. It’s even implied that those who don’t visit the museum can’t critique it, because there must be some startling new discoveries inside. But according to the Answers in Genesis website, the questions the museum poses are old ones, ones that have been shown to be untrue many times over by those whose business is testing hypotheses and performing experiments to get data.
Scientists of all religions can come together and do great science, because the process of science has safeguards set in it to help overcome human biases. Scientists can repeat others’ tests. They can look at data gathered and evaluate whether the most logical conclusion has been drawn. The system called peer-review, in which a scientific manuscript is sent to colleagues in the field for evaluation, is there to weed out weak conclusions and help improve ways of testing. Religion can be a large part of scientist’s life and is, for many practicing scientists—but at the work bench, it’s no more relevant to the experiment than the scientist’s favorite football team.
When someone begins with a conclusion—such as that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time—and then cherry-picks facts that support the conclusion, that’s not science. That’s all. Please don’t be confused.