Science Talk July 25, 2007 -- Saddle Up That Stegosaurus—A Visit to the Creation Museum
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Asma: They think that things like abortion and pornography are directly linked to the teaching about evolution in the schools.
Steve: That's Stephen Asma from Columbia College Chicago, talking about the folks behind the new antievolution Creationism Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. He has done scholarly research on science museums, which makes him a great reviewer of the new museum, and we'll talk to him this week. Plus, we'll test you[r] knowledge about some recent science in the news. Steve Asma is professor of philosophy and humanities at Columbia College Chicago where he also carries the title of distinguished scholar. He toured the Creation Museum and wrote an article about it in the current issue of Skeptic,, the magazine of the Skeptic Society, which was founded, by the way, by Scientific American columnist, Michael Shermer, who also edits Skeptic Magazine. Anyway the Creation Museum explains how dinosaurs and humans lived side by side as well as numerous other fantasies. To find out more, I called Asma at his office in Chicago.
Steve: Professor Asma, good to talk to you today.
Asma: Hi Steve. How are you doing?
Steve: Okay. So, you are an expert in a sense on natural history museums in general. You wrote a whole book about natural history museums. Tell us a little bit about that.
Asma: Yeah! I did a book that's—it's a history of western collecting practices, really from the Renaissance period up to the present; and I did a sort of comparative analysis of the way in which, you know, the United States has engaged in natural history collecting versus say Great Britain and France. So I looked at some of these major institutions like the Field Museum or the American Museum of Natural History, and sort of their correlates in England, the Kentucky Museum and the Grand Gallery of Evolution in Paris, but also some sort of [the] smaller idiosyncratic collection[s]: Cuevas Collection, John Hunter's collection, something like, you know, in Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum. And so I looked at all these different collections and tried to see what were the things that all museums were doing together over time. What were sort of their missions, as it were, and how did they differ and change. And there are some very [quirky]
corky characters, you know, the curators are very interesting, the specimens, the taxidermy, and so I did sort of interdisciplinary approach and that was the study.
Steve: And you really kind of hit the jackpot by going to the Creation Museum, if you are looking for [quirky]
Asma: Oh Yeah! (laughs)
Steve: So you go to the museum, first of all tell us what is the actual physical layout? What is a visitor confronted with when you walk in?
Asma: Well, when you first walk in, you feel like you are in this, you know, it's very modern. They are definitely trying to speak to a savvy, you know, a pop culture, secular culture. And so you walk into an institution that looks like any other sort of—vaguely new age in terms of the architecture—but any other sort of public museum, and when you first enter there is a very high ceiling with skylights that are sort of throwing light against a, what looks like a sort of crevasse, of like the Grand Canyon; and in situ, sort of, in-place there, you find sort of fossil bones jutting out [into]
that you walk along this entry way [that you walk along] to pick up your tickets, and that's how you first get into the museum.
Steve: All right, so that's what greets you immediately—and what's the rest of the physical layout like there? I know there are dinosaurs there!
Asma: Oh Yeah! When you first walk in after you sort of purchase your ticket, there is a theater, and you are encouraged to sort of see this little film first called, Men in White, which is a pun, kind of, a play on Men in Black.
Steve: Men in Black.
Asma: Yeah! And the two men in white are, you know, wearing sunglasses and very hip, but they turn out to be the angels, Gabriel and Michael, referred to as Gab and Mike throughout the film; and it's this kind of humorous, kind of embarrassing little film about how you don't have to accept what the scientists are saying. These eggheads are just, you know, giving us a world view that is depressing and nihilistic and there is another way and that's the sort of the mission of the Creation Museum. And then from there you start to enter the exhibits.
Steve: Now you had an extensive conversation with Ken Ham.
Steve: The curator, the real mover behind the creation of the Creation Museum.
Asma: That's right.
Steve: So, maybe some of the listeners don't know about Ken Ham—won't you give us a little bit about him and about the fascinating conversation that you had. The quality of his rhetoric is really interesting. I mean, when you read Ham's quotes, he is not a dumb guy.
Steve: He comes across as a very bright guy, possibly delusional (laughs), but very bright. So you had this conversation with him that feels when one reads it—and when I read it, it felt to me like it's almost Lewis Carroll.
Asma: Yeah! That's right. (laughs) Yeah, one of the things people—I think, if you don't enter into the creationist logic too far, it is really easy to go well, you know, crazy, crackpot, insane. But if you actually try to, like I did, have a reasonable conversation with somebody like Ken Ham, you feel that there is a kind of logic there. It just begins from very bizarre premises. For example, he said that dinosaurs were in fact on Noah's Ark. And
which[that] was [interesting] impressionism, was [because,] that at least [in] older versions of it, you know, the dinosaurs just didn't make it in the flood or something and [were] (unclear 6:23) wiped out. But when I heard that dinosaurs were on the ark, I asked him, you know, how was that managed in terms of space; and I even asked him, well, how many sheep or basically how many prey animals would dinosaurs have to eat if you'd have to load that on the ark; and before I know [it,] that I am having this kind of elaborate conversation about how many sheep. And his argument was, well, maybe the dinosaurs were vegetarians, because God could have, we know that in a crisis, you know, carnivores can switch to [a] vegetarian diet and perhaps the dinosaurs didn't eat any sheep and they ate you know grains or something. So, you know at this point, I am like scratching my head, but you do get drawn into it somehow.
Steve: And the number of species argument gets tak[en]
ing care of because the literal Biblical interpretation is kinds and not species.
Asma: That's right. Yeah, they feel strongly that the issue is not species but rather genus, and even there they are not using the term as contemporary zoologists would use the term. It's much more fuzzy, and they just mean sort of almost like how folk culture uses the word "kind"—well kinds of things— and he sort of said to me, "well, you know, just like there are these different dogs, you know?" In the end he said, "They are all the same kind of thing, a dog," so therefore what the scientists are telling us are many different species of dinosaur are in fact really just, you know, one or two kinds. And, you know, he seems to think that the number is really a couple of dozen, so they could get on the ark after all, and we could put them on the ark, he thinks. Noah could put them on the ark in a juvenile state, so that they were small, big babies or toddler dinosaurs, and therefore they wouldn't take up as much room.
Steve: That's really fascinating, so instead of evo-devo, you have creation-devo.
Asma: That is right. (laughs)
Steve: So let's talk a little bit more about Ken Ham. He is a young Earth creationist. So these are the people who believe that the Earth is about 6,000 years old.
Asma: That's right. Yeah! He comes from Australia originally, and apparently while there, he took a bachelor’s degree in science—which is astounding—and his dream was to start a creation museum there in Australia. For some reason which is not explained to me, he ended up in the States and kept the dream alive, in his terms, and then started this museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. He subscribed, as he said to the young [Earth]
est doctrine that if you calculate, you know, the same old Bishop Ussher’s kind of calculation of the genealogies in the Bible, you will end up with a creation date of around 6,000 years ago; and everything else in the science is—pretty much all of geology —is a kind of fabrication or a series of sort of errors based on the sort of assumptions with secular scientists, that's his world view.
Steve: That's all of the geology, all of cosmology.
Steve: Obviously all of modern biology.
Asma: That's right.
Steve: The subhed of your article is, "The deeper agenda of the New Creation Museum in Kentucky". So, what is the deeper agenda?
Asma: Well, having studied a lot of different museums, you know, I expected, you know, to hear a kind of subtle, you know, subtext described to me by the, you know, the directors. And so they first, they were very explicit and said, "Look, the agenda, the deeper agenda of the museum, is to convert people to Christianity", full stop. That's the point of the museum; it is an evangelical center.
Steve: You quote Ham as saying that, "Evolutionary Humanism," which I guess is his term for secular, science and evolutionary theory, has had a devastating effect on society. What exactly is this horrible effect? Because I thought society was in many ways more equitable and just in general better than it's ever been.
Asma: Yeah! Well, they think that things like abortion and pornography and suicide are directly a link to the teaching of evolution in the schools because they believe that evolution teaches a kind of nihilism, that everything is ultimately meaningless because you no longer need God to sort of explain the origin of species or the development of life on the planet; and once you removed that, you are left with this kind of cold, dismal world where you're just on a hunk of earth spinning around the sun and God's not looking out for you. And all of that leads to the social ills the social conservatives have always sort of acknowledged in the twentieth century, and so they think that that causes the rise of abortion, pornography and so forth. But if you think about natural selection as the cause of our being here, or you know the process by which we've arrived, then you lose hope for humanity in general and then engage in these other, you know, social evils.
Steve: So because you will lose hope, the science is not true.
Asma: Yeah! That's the interesting logic, yes. I think in many cases, you know, Ken Ham, is savvy and wouldn't say it quite like that because he is careful enough to know that, that just sounds like wishful thinking, causing your sort of metaphysical views; and I think he would be more careful to say that way. But I think, you know, if you look at it in a detached way, that's definitely what it appears to be.
Steve: Talk about the Culture in Crisis exhibit that you spend a little time in the article on.
Asma: Yeah! The Culture in Crisis exhibit is like many of the other exhibits in the sense that they are employing the edutainment techniques that you find in most other institutions. You have some video going; you have some things that kids can manipulate. You have some traditional, you know, between the text. But when you walk into this exhibit, you have a kind of video projection going on inside the windows of the sort of average American home. So you look through the window and you see a girl with abortion pamphlets all around her, crying. In the other window, there are a couple of boys sort of experimenting with drugs and watching pornography, you know, on the computer. In another window, there are parents fighting and arguing and then sort of across the way from this, you see that the vision exhibit that indicates to you the cause of all this misery and the cause is the idea of an ancient Earth that the world is billions of years old that is like written on a sort of smashing, sort of construction ball and that ball is smashed into a church and sort of, now the church is crumbling all around it. So then you know the actual display is showing you that, that the ideas that come from geology and cosmology and science have actually led to the fall and the breakdown of morality in Americans.
Steve: So, the article talks about the fact that—your article talks about the fact that it [cost]
caused 27 million dollars to build the Creation Museum and you also say that it is continuing to pick up steam in big budget patronage.
Steve: So where is this money coming from, and is there any federal money involved here?
Asma: My understanding is that there is not federal money. They were cagey about that when I asked and I can't say for sure. I didn't uncover much data on this myself. My understanding is that most of this money comes from wealthy patrons, who are also evangelical Christians who believe in the mission of the museum; and then the museum is itself an offshoot of a larger organization called Answers in Genesis, and Answers in Genesis makes a tremendous amount of money by selling DVD's, books, CD's. They do speaker tours, they go to schools. It's an elaborate Web site, and I know they generate a lot of income through that Answers in Genesis, but to my knowledge I don't know about federal funds.
Steve: Right and they sell a lot of educational equipment to home-school parents to simply write down.
Steve: Would you go again?
Asma: I would definitely go again, I think (laughs) probably I'll wait a little while. I am not in a hurry to get back there because the experience is, it's a strange emotional experience because you are—on the one hand, some of it is just funny and it's hard to believe; on the other hand, there is bits of it that are sort of frightening for two reasons—one is that you can see tremendous devotion and care has gone into the creation of the museum and in creation of a world view that is kind of—that just simply flies in the face of all of the scientific understanding we have of nature, so that's hard to take. And then there is something about the us and them quality of the museum especially in the later exhibits, where look, the enemy is sort of
on us, there is this sort of, one gets the sense that you are either with this or against this; and that, I think, is a frightening possibility, and I think that can't be good for us down the road, as a culture, to create these kinds of inviting suspicions and paranoias.
Steve: And you also talk about the possible kind of interpretation that any young kid is going to have when they go to a place like this, because it looks like an official kind of institution.
Asma: That's right. Yeah! The way in which knowledge is presented is something that I studied a lot when looking at all museums; and it has a huge psychological impact on you, when you, sort of, go to a museum and it has the sort of rhetorical arts of persuasion, you know, that other museums have, the edutainment quality or even some of the classical sort of qualities that one experiences in a museum. These I think in many ways are persuasive—especially to younger minds—that what you are experiencing in the museum is truth, but it's got to be true, because look it's written down on in these tablets, it's in the movie here, it's—clearly they had the dinosaurs—and I think that's dangerous. Some of my colleagues think I am being overly, you know, I am worrying for nothing and kids can kind of figure out this is sort of Flintstone stuff and not to worry about it, but I am not to so sure. Being in this world, the world of evangelical Christian[ity] in America today—especially in, you know, the heartland and in the South—increasingly the only way they are getting information is through other evangelical Christian media. So they are not actually encountering other, you know, information not only about nature, but about the news and about culture and about other people. So I tend to think that, you know, if kids are sort of immersed in this closed information system and they go to this museum, well you know then evolution, geology, astronomy, all of it is going to be treated with a kind of suspicion and it won't be studied properly.
Steve: And not the good, healthy suspicion that scientists themselves have.
Asma: Right! (laughs)
Steve: You have another book coming out, scheduled to come out in 2008, on monsters. Tell us a little bit about that.
Asma: Well that's a, you know, way my interest in monsters has come out [of] my interest in natural history because traditionally natural history has been sort of on the cusps at trying to sort out, you know, what is actually believable and credible out there in nature and what is fantastic; and if you look at natural history, history all the way up into twentieth century, it's always trying to figure out, well, you know, is there such a thing as, you know, these giant sea creatures, is there you know the stuff of cryptozoolgy, you know the yeti, and are there in fact giant squids, are there in fact cyclops, this kind of stuff. And so I am tracing that kind of interest that we've always had in the exotic, strange, and the frightening and trying to understand like, well, what change[d?]
o You know that [in] early days it would be, you know—if you look at the Christian era of the medieval period—mostly demons, which is the sort of the thing. In the Darwinian era, monsters become re-conceptualized so that they are no longer demons from the other world, but in fact just problems with natural biological processes; and so you get the development of teratology and the study of developmental disabilities and these kinds of things. And so that's what I am sort of looking at in the new book.
Steve: And the monsters of the early twentieth century/late nineteenth century, have—the study of them has given us our modern kind of evo-devo evolutionary theory, in it's most comprehensive form.
Asma: That's right, that's right. I think it was actually important to Darwin himself, although the history of Darwin's thought tends to stress, you know, the discovery of natural selection, you know by reading Malthus and sort of emphasizing that. Parallel to that he was very influenced by—he would sort of walk around—back when he was friends with Richard Owen, they would walk around in the Hunterian Museum in London. And the Hunterian Museum is filled with one sort of monstrous, sort of fetus after another and these things had an impact on him, and he began to think about, well, what do monsters tell us about biological processes in general? So it did have a formative role on his thought as well.
Steve: Yeah! We should probably explain that, in common parlance, monsters might be thought of as Frankenstein and Dracula, but in biology—why don't you tell us what monsters are in the world of science and biology?
Asma: Well, the term that's—of course, no one uses the term monster really in a contemporary way, because it's loaded with sort of a pernicious judgment and so forth—but teratology comes from the Greek word for monster, and so teratology is study of developmental changes or abnormalities, anomalies in embryogenesis.
whether there be sort of Eventually we began to understand certain things were genetics but somethings were also just environmental; you changed the temperature of [the] developing fetus and you get sort of different phenotypic changes. And so that's what I am referring to when I talk about sort of post-Darwinian monster studies. But part of the book I'm writing is trying to figure out, well, how did their transition happen? You know in the ancient times, somebody that would be born with extra digit, you know, six fingers or joint twins for example, or a hermaphrodite would be considered an omen from the gods and would actually be, in many cases be, killed and so that's an interesting story of how we got to have a much better understanding in scientific understanding of these biological anomalies.
Steve: Professor Asma, really great to talk to you, thanks for the article, it's fascinating reading in the current issue of Skeptic; and [I] hope to talk to you again when the monster book comes out.
Asma: Great; thanks for inviting me, Steve.
Steve: Over 100,000 people have visited the Creationism Museum in its first two months of operation. You can find Steve Asma's article about the museum at his Web site www.stephenasma.com—that's s-t-e-p-h-e-n-a-s-m-a. Hit the link for research and it comes right up. We will be right back.
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Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Scientists have bred a low-calorie watermelon.
Story number 2: A study of Medicare patients found that illiteracy was a big risk factor for death, surpassed only by smoking.
Story number 3: Studies of people who are prone to getting writer's cramp found that their hands tend to be much smaller on average than people who don't get that condition.
And Story number 4: New finger printing method also can provide lifestyle information about the person who left the prints.
Time is up.
Story number 1 is true. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists have indeed developed a low-calorie watermelon. Actually, the watermelon is very low in sugar compared with your more familiar watermelons, but still has the other desirable nutrients such as antioxidants and potassium. So this watermelon may be okay for some diabetics. The low-sugar watermelon could be available in stores by the end of the summer.
Story number 4 is true. A fingerprinting method developed by British researchers gives more than just the pattern of the print. The technique pulls up the actual print and saves it using a gelatin-based tape. Once the pattern of ridges and whirls is recorded, the print can be analyzed for contents such as drug traces, cigarette smoke or foods ingested, thereby providing more information about the suspected criminal.
And Story number 2 is true. A study found that illiteracy was second to smoking as an indicator of death risk because people who couldn't read didn't take medications properly or seek medical care appropriately. For more, check out the July 24th episode of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.
All of which means that story number 3 about people who get writer's cramp having small hands is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. But what is true is that researchers have found that writer's cramp is associated with less gray matter in the cerebellum, thalamus and sensorimotor cortex, which are brain regions involved in controlling movement. That's according to research published in the July 24th issue of the journal Neurology. But the condition is still somewhat mysterious because it's not yet known whether the brain abnormalities are causing the writer's cramp or the writer's cramp is causing the brain issues. I sometimes get reader's cramp—in fact my brain seized up several times while reading Steve Asma's article on the Creation Museum.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com; check out news articles at our Web site, www.SciAm.com’ the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.