Creationists, Now at your Local Planetarium

By Greg Fish,

If you’re a creationist, astrobiology is probably your nightmare. While there are only a small handful of astrobiologists out there today, the search for life in space is being funded with multi-billion dollar mission plans and the field is bound to grow. Combining the basic principles of evolution with theories about how stars and planets are formed, biologists, chemists, planetary scientists, and astronomers are dedicating a great amount of time, effort, and cash to answer the question of whether we’re alone in the universe. The core of their project is the idea that Earth isn’t unique, and if life arose here following certain rules, other life arose on other worlds in a relatively similar way from basic building blocks found throughout the universe.

But they’re worried and upset that creationists are making big strides towards developing a potential brain drain in their nascent field by constantly trying to undermine the teaching of evolution and basic astronomy in the classroom. If you want to be an alien hunter, you have to be well versed in the theory of evolution and understand that planets are billions of years old, not thousands.

If you believe that the only way life can come about is through divine intervention, you can’t pick the right places to aim your telescopes or send your probes because you’ll either dismiss potential habitats out of hand or keep looking at some manifestation you think is the supernatural producing life when in reality, it’s just a pretty cloud of gas. You also have to know that our planet is probably not the only one with life on it and that we’re all results of chemistry, something many creationists find obscene and try to politick out of standard science education.

Worse yet, what if a generation of legislators who were raised with almost institutional disdain for the theory of evolution and modern cosmology pulls the plug on all alien hunting projects like another Martian Science Laboratory or another Kepler because they disagree with scientists on religious and ideological grounds? How would we try to find alien life then? And how would we feel being trapped in a bubble of willful ignorance that perceives looking for life on other words to be a ridiculous pursuit of deluded people who should be searching for God instead? Maybe this is a bit of a hyperbole, but it’s a scary thought nonetheless.

And scientists hoping to track down extraterrestrials aren’t the only ones getting irritated over creationist tactics of corrupting education. Physicists, who study how our universe came to be and how it works, are exasperated when they have to listen to school boards taking votes on what they think about the Big Bang—usually from an uninformed opinion taken from the talking points memos of the Discovery Institute and Uncommon Descent.

In a jaw-dropping case of religious beliefs being forcibly crammed into science class, Texas SBoE member Barbara Cargill, a former high school biology and Sunday School teacher, recently got the typical “teach the controversy” rhetoric into the astronomy curriculum of Texan public schools with an 11 to 3 vote in her favor. The controversy she had in mind? Redshift and Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, two of the most easily observable phenomena in astronomy known for several decades and key parts of understanding the Big Bang and the formation of our observable universe. She’s basically asking Texan students to close their eyes and pretend they can’t see other galaxies moving away from us when they look into a telescope and measure the light.

Physicists are already putting up with various cranks telling them that the particle accelerators they use to learn more about how our universe is built will destroy the world. Now they have to go into classrooms and board meetings and have to explain to kids that we can actually see the things that their school board members and teachers are telling them no one truly understands and that the observations have been made over decades with pretty definitive results. Like my colleague and friend with a PhD in solar physics says when the subject comes up: “Oh come on! You’ve got to be kidding me!”

If you’re keeping a list of all the places where creationists aren’t welcome, be sure to add space to it because alien hunters, astronomers, and physicists certainly don’t want them to undo all the progress made over the last century by proselytizing a new generation into rejecting the science that makes space exploration possible.

But all this does beg a little question. If there’s already a Museum of Creation, will someone build the Creation Planetarium next? And what exactly would this creationist version of astronomy be like?