Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CreoZergs, Creation Museums and Dino Saddles, oh my!

For the past 6 years, Minnesota biology professor P.Z. Myers has maintained the blog Pharyngula as a means to communicate his research, but also to establish firmly his perspective on religion, creationism, Intelligent Design and their various incompatibilities with modern science and the phenomenon of "New Atheism." That is, Myers and numerous others (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens), all respected scientists, journalists and philosophers in their fields are outspoken activists who espouse the state of atheist/agnostic life (specifically the U.S.), criticize the de facto respect that religion seems to expect in light of it's popularity and overall involvement in world affairs, and the objection to various religious groups (e.g., Discovery Institute) who openly and covertly act to discredit science education, influence political lobbies and attempt to control school curricula around science by the election of pro-ID school councils and textbook selection committees.

Dr. Myers' indirect enemy of sorts for many years has been Ken Ham, director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, notably in a 2007 blog summary of the museum's opening and general public review. A group of Pharyngula-followers, fellow scientists and atheist/agnostics began a crusade earlier in the year to plan a large-scale march on the museum, intended to merely discover the truth of the museum's teachings and to hopefully stage an intellectual discourse around various topics presented there. Earlier blog entries deal with missives back and forth from the museum security group indicating behavioral expectations (all members of Myers' group were required to sign a release indicating they'd follow museum 'rules'). This group, dubbed the CreoZergs (in deference to a powerful, insectoid hive race in the popular game StarCraft) descended upon the museum last week. Their overall journal begins around this post, and continues to the present.

Now, one can begin by saying that the museum is a privately-funded edifice pandering to a specific subset (that being Young Earth Creationists) of Christianity. My mind reels with the possibilities of what 26 million in donations could do for a local museum of science and history, but never underestimate the things Americans will donate money for. It's mission is to present a literal Biblical interpretation of creation, biology and human origins and with the overriding rule that any scientific finding in direct conflict with this is rejected in favor of the Biblical interpretation. That statement alone biases it and makes it "not" a museum in the traditional sense. You can't claim that a certain tenet of science supports your museum's teachings (e.g., their Darwin room claiming that human variation can be explained biblically) when a thousand other points in that same scientific inquiry are in opposition to your fundamental rule. It's cognitive dissonance at best, really bad science at worst.

The question I have is, yes, our American freedoms allow someone like this to build what I consider a monument to the fear of reason and science, but what about something like a Holocaust Denier museum? I am certain they too could find numerous factoids and arrange for interesting, convincing and even Biblically-supported displays that pardon the Nazis for their atrocities in light of "slanted news". People will argue the "lie" of the Holocaust outright even in the face of eyewitness accounts and concise, detailed documentation of the murdered Jews (something we only have fragments of in the creationist argument). Let's back away from the Godwin canard for a moment and give an example of a museum dedicated to white supremacy. An Anti-Abolitionist museum could find numerous accounts and facts arguing the Biblical support of slavery, even in Christian texts and surely enough supporters exist to fund such a place. Would either of these places be given de facto respect with a supposed goal of free speech and their respective curator's interpretation of the facts?

I know people who approach the human origins/evolution question from both sides, and generally the atmosphere is people have the right to agree to disagree. Assuming that Ham's museum continues as a privately funded site not supported by my tax dollars, it's their right to preach their 'facts' to a ready audience. People can go and jeer and poke fun at the (in some cases) ludicrous and outright false claims, but in the end the CM is not for them. I wouldn't say go to the museum to heckle, but rather request of the curator to post some sort of signage indicating that this museum will outright reject certain scientific facts that are incompatible with the Biblical creation. Give me a disclaimer ahead of time so that the scientific treatment of a geology exhibit someone is viewing may not reflect what is in the accepted literature of that discipline. If you're so proud to engage in intellectual dishonesty, at least own up to it...it's the Christian thing to do after all.

Overall, I think the museum is a comforting, silky pillow of safety for people who truly see science as evil, or have some inability to reconcile it with their deeply respected Biblical creation story. The way the museum lays out the subtle iconography (snake symbols for human interpretations, straight lines for Biblical) gives further credence to the overall mindset. My only concern is the take home message. Some of the children will go here with their parents, parents who either home school them or otherwise control how scientific fact goes into their education. In some cases these children will grow up espousing such a mindset, and it's not unlikely that someone who was raised with a "Flintstonian" view of ancient Earth could be elected to office and vote on a piece of scientific funding or a bill that has a specific slant that is in conflict with their worldview. THAT is the concern that I have. Just because I think Cinderella's castle at Disney World is an amazing attraction doesn't make it my default source of information on Medieval fortresses.


  1. I don't think it's fair to say that it is a more egregious sin to suggest that God created the world than to propagate the hatred inherent in pro-Nazi or pro-Slavery "spin-doctoring." I also don't think you need to worry too much about "your" tax dollars building a museum dedicated to a Christian interpretation of "scientific" facts. And, thirdly, there are plenty of more damaging kinds of brain-washing parents can do to their children - having your fundamental argument be a concern that some children may grow up with a lack of discernment regarding scientific inquiry seems like a stretch to me...

    At the end of the day, these people are trying to "save YOUR soul" - to prevent your suffering from eternal damnation. Whether YOU believe that is a remote possibility or not, these people believe it ardently. Theirs is not a mission of "evil" - to discredit scientific pursuit. It may not be a mission you agree with, but their intentions are not as sinister as your missive suggests.

    Not that you asked, but that's my two cents!

  2. Also, if you can provide a reference for your statement that "any scientific finding in direct conflict with [creationism] is rejected in favor of the Biblical interpretation" I believe it would represent the disclaimer owning up to their intellectual dishonesty, n'est pas?

  3. Ken Ham's statement to this effect, indicated throughout his book The Lie: Evolution (and in blog posts like this one, http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/2008/10/science-cannot-judge-the-bible.html#more) point to one simple perspective: Biblical inerrancy. Per his position and 2 Timothy 3:16, the Bible is the ultimate and incontrovertible source of knowledge. Thus it is Biblical correctness first, scientific correctness second. If #2 disagrees with #1, we go with #1.

    As for the stretch, the underlying goal is not always the simple saving of souls, but the approach--outright rejection or misinterpretation of scientific findings, quote mining, lying on the stand (with regard to the Kitzmiller trial), setting up subtle cues that paints all evolutionary theory as ultimately racist, Satanic, or anti-Christian--all of these are decidedly NON-Christian tactics and undermines a true free exchange of ideas. Ham was very clear (http://www.answersingenesis.org/Home/Area/wwtl/chapter8.asp): Christianity is under attack from secular science, evolution, abortion, homosexuality...just about everything aside from preservatives in food. It's fearmongering and outright distortion of the truth, and it makes me question his compassionate motives.

    Whether a parent chooses to teach their kid Biblical Creationism as truth is their right; when the parent tries to get onto a school council to change what textbooks get used in classes, forcing textbooks to give face time to the consideration of other (read: religious) perspectives, that is what concerns me. For the same reason I wouldn't deign to barge into a Sunday school classroom and tell them the overall problems with the Noah story, I would expect them to show the same respect to a secular classroom's teaching of evolutionary theory in a state-designed biology curriculum.

  4. For the same reason that you wouldn't deign to barge into a Sunday school classroom and tell them the overall problems with the Noah story, you should show the same respect to their privately-funded Neighborhood of Make-believe by...not going there. If you were actually posting about a roving band of Christian Creationist Quote Mining Liars coming to tell your school district about the overall problems with the state-designed biology curriculum, your apparent outrage would make sense to me. However, I'd still like to see your arguments be presented as more fact-based and do less fearmongering yourself (which is what you're doing when you compare Creationists to neo-Nazis and slavery apologists and hint that there is some as-yet-unstated additional, sinister, decidedly NON-Christian motive behind all of this) since, as you say, the protection of a "free exchange of ideas" is your primary objective.

    As for the stretch, you are the one who said that your "only concern" was the take home message for the presumed sheeple you envision being irreparably damaged by the presentation of this misinformation.

    That being said, I still love you :-) (and so does Jesus)

  5. The concern over this museum is that it becomes a center of misinformation; it is seen as real science to some Christians. Some of these are members of the legislature (http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=176926). It's bad enough to expect some politicians to understand science without the obfuscation of this place.

    The overarching concern is that it's just part of a bigger problem, that being the desire for certain religious groups to adjust the teaching of science in schools to give credence to their "alternative theories", meaning Intelligent Design and the like. There has been local impact in the past; the Illinois Board of education dealt with this in 1997 (http://ncseweb.org/rncse/17/2/evolution-too-controversial-illinois-schools) and it can still happen again. Every year new board members get elected, and like in Kansas, Florida and Pennsylvania--this can create changes to local standards that have nationwide impact (see Kitzmiller vs. Dover case). Texas especially is of concern, since they revised standards (http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-03-30-science-texas_N.htm) that could potentially affect textbooks nationwide. The board recently approved some confusing language that can allow ideas of alternate theories (basically the already shot-down intelligent design arguments) in the name of 'academic freedom'. Every roadblock the creationist/ID movement puts up serves to fragment sound science curricula in exchange for political positioning.

    So yes, if it sounds like fearmongering, it's only because it's happening now, all over the country, and the museum is just one symptom. The examples I provided were hyperbolic but the point was not to compare them but to say "would the country be as tolerant of someone's particular museum exhibit if it was patently offensive to a certain group of people?" James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA in some ways nuked his career in 2007 when he discussed race vs. intelligence in Africa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_D._Watson#2007_statements_deprecating_racial_equality).

    I would also say that in many ways I subscribe to the position that a person doesn't by default have a right to their opinion, but rather a right to their INFORMED opinion. I in no way intend or expect believers to change their attitudes because of anything I said, only that they keep their faith-based chocolate out of my evidence-based, non-intelligently designed peanut butter.


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