As a science teacher, I am always curious about people's attitudes toward what I teach. Since more than 40 percent of U.S. adults believe literally what is written in the Book of Genesis—that Earth and the universe were created in six days about 6,000 years ago—and since I was in the neighborhood recently, I decided to visit the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., run by the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Ministry.
The museum has a brand-new planetarium and 70,000 square feet of exhibits claiming that the story of Genesis happened exactly as written. In the main lobby, a large display depicts life just after creation. Richly detailed with plants and rocks, it features a small boy playing, while two dinosaurs graze nearby. According to the exhibits, the stars are younger than Earth (they were created on Day 4), and Noah saved all animal species that we see today from the Flood. Earth had its one and only ice age, lasting a few hundred years.
What disturbed me most about my time spent at the museum was the theme, repeated from one exhibit to the next, that the differences between biblical literalists and mainstream scientists are minor. They are not minor; they are poles apart. This is not to say that science and religion are incompatible; many scientists believe in some kind of higher power, and many religious people accept the idea of evolution. Still, a literal interpretation of Genesis cannot be reconciled with modern science.
Scientists tell us we live in a remote corner of a vast universe that existed billions of years before humans arrived. The universe and Earth could continue just fine without us. We are one species of many on a little planet with an ancient fossil record that shows that more than 99 percent of the species that once lived are now extinct. This speaks to a tenuousness of our existence as a species—an existence we need to protect vigorously.
AiG's biblical literalists, on the other hand, hold that we are God's favorites. We live at the universe's center on a planet God made and maintains for us to use. Earth's resources are here for us to exploit. God protects us and promised he would not destroy Earth again until the end of days. In that scenario, we have little reason to safeguard our existence.
Creationists begin with answers and work to prove that those answers are right. This is antithetical to the scientific process. Scientists who formed the idea of human evolution did not invent the idea and go looking for fossils. Well before Charles Darwin published his treatise in 1859 and well before workers in a limestone quarry in 1856 found strange bones that would later be called Neandertal, scientists struggled to explain what they saw in the natural world and in the fossil record. The theory of evolution was the product of that analysis. That is how science works.
The danger is that 40 percent of the American electorate seems to have forgotten what science is. Considering that our nation put a man on the moon and invented the airplane and the Internet, this development is extraordinary. Yet when much of the electorate faces the complex scientific questions of our day, they do not reject science wholesale, they cherry-pick it. Few if any of them live without the benefits of fossil fuels and electricity. Most are happy to fly in airplanes, take hot showers, heat their homes, drive their cars, watch their televisions and text their friends. They reject science only if it conflicts with their beliefs or asks them to change their way of life.
When Americans selectively reject science, it handicaps us, as a nation, in a knowledge-based global economy. We need to be open when scientific discoveries tell us our actions have consequences, raise doubts about our future and ask us to change. So I'll keep teaching science, not belief. Because if students do not understand how science works, we can destroy our country's future or even threaten our existence on this old Earth.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
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