A firebrand visits Creation Museum

  • Article by: DEVIN POWELL , Inside Science News
  • Updated: August 14, 2009 - 10:41 PM

Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers and more than 300 scientists, students and secularists take a field trip to protest inaccurate science.

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Peter Dodson, left, of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Foote, center, of the University of Chicago and Jon Todd of the Museum of Natural History in London, England, watch a video inside the Creation Museum June 24, 2009 in Petersburg. The three were visiting the museum as part of a group attending the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Photo: Mark Lyons, Associated Press - Nyt

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A scientist who scoffs at those who believe that men and dinosaurs cohabited the Earth rode a saddled triceratops last weekend. Paul Zachary Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, was on an unlikely field trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.

Myers, who goes by "PZ," brought to the museum 304 scientists, students and secularists who were in town attending a meeting of the Secular Student Association. To this group, Myers is a celebrity, not for his scientific research (zebrafish brain development) but for his often loud and inflammatory defense of science and skeptical inquiry. In 2006 his Pharyngula blog was chosen the most popular science blog by the research journal Nature. It draws more than a million visitors a month.

Why does a biologist known as a fierce critic of creationism travel more than 800 miles and pay $10 to visit a creationist museum in rural Kentucky?

"To gather evidence," Myers said. "You can't just sit in a quiet corner of Minnesota and complain about something."

The Creation Museum presents an alternative to the views of mainstream science. Here the Bible is "the true history book of the universe," a history of a 6,000-year-old Earth based on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve share the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs, and posters on a variety of topics contrast the explanations provided by "man's reason" and "God's word."

The $27 million Creation Museum was built by the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, whose president and CEO, Ken Ham, is on a mission to get creationism into science classrooms nationwide. Last month, for example, Ham attended a meeting of the National Education Association and passed out creationist DVDs and books. He was quoted in a press release as hoping that teachers "see how the Bible is confirmed by observational science."

This association of science and creationism has drawn complaints from the scientific community. When the Creation Museum opened in May 2007, more than a thousand scientists from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana signed a petition protesting the "scientifically inaccurate exhibits." A New York Times article in June featured a group of paleontologists who toured the facility and said the exhibits misrepresented and ridiculed them and their work.

'Faulty science'

"People are free to believe whatever they want," said one student in Myers' group. "What we have a problem with here is the faulty science."

One diorama that attracted Myers' attention depicted two men crouched near the fossilized remains of a dinosaur. On a nearby TV screen, a paleontologist tells visitors what the scientific evidence shows: The remains belong to a dinosaur that died in a small, local flood millions of years ago, dried out, and was buried. Then an associate of the Creation Museum offers his own perspective: the dinosaur died in the Biblical Flood only 4,400 years ago. The two views start with the same facts, the creationist says, but they come to different conclusions because they have different assumptions.

The problem with this argument, Myers said, is that it oversimplifies science and leaves out the weight of evidence backing the paleontology. "If you talk to the paleontologist and say, 'How do you know?' they'll explain in great detail how they know it was a local flood and explain their experience with desiccation -- based on evidence," Myers said. "It's disingenuous to say that the evolutionists are doing the same thing the creationists are doing -- making simple assertions."

"Our own, full-time Ph.D. scientists and many other scientists who work in the secular world provided the research for the museum scripts," replied Ham. "This man is obviously very angry at God and relishes in mocking Christianity -- spending a lot of his time fighting against someone he doesn't believe exists!"

Other members of Myers' delegation criticized what they saw as inappropriate comparisons. An exhibit arguing that the Grand Canyon was created in months by a process similar to that which allowed mudflows from Mount St. Helens to carve canyons in soft rock was met with an outcry. "Anyone who has taken first-year geology would look at this and say, 'Wrong from top to bottom,'" said William Watkin, a chemist from Indiana.

An anthropology student commented on what she saw as a glaring omission in a poster that argued for an Earth just thousands of years old. The poster criticized the accuracy of carbon dating, but failed to detail that scientists realize its limitations and use other kinds of dating. "I asked a staff member, 'What about potassium-argon dating [a technique commonly used to date objects million of years old]?' and he just walked away," she said.

Online firebrand

While soft-spoken and academic in person, Myers is considered a firebrand online, where he broadens his attacks on creationism to include religion as a whole. "Nothing must be held sacred," writes Myers, who does consider himself an atheist. "Question everything."

This view on religion as a whole has drawn fierce criticism and even death threats from religious people and groups. Last year, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, based in New York, called on the University of Minnesota, Morris, to fire Myers. The university responded by removing the link to his blog from its site.

This juxtaposing of science and religion has also drawn criticism from scientists.

"I don't think we gain much ground for scientific understanding by arguing that to fully accept science one must reject religious faith," said Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University in Rhode Island and an outspoken critic of creationism. "After all, the first great advocate for Darwinism in the U.S. was Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who was a Christian."

But Myers and Miller -- who is Roman Catholic -- agree on one thing: The Creation Museum "seems to be an edifice dedicated to misleading people about the facts of science -- they ignore the facts that contradict their views," Miller said.

Myers put it a little more bluntly in a recent blog post.

"This was a not a museum," he wrote. "It is a haunted house. A carnival ride."

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