A Museum That Lies Far, Far Off the Path of Science

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I wrapped up my little visit to the Museum of Creation and Earth History in Santee and walked into the gift shop in time to hear a customer assuring the clerk that the Smithsonian in Washington has actual pieces of Noah’s ark but won’t admit it and won’t let anyone near them.

Keep in mind I’d just seen “proof” that the Earth is no older than about 10,000 years, that man and dinosaurs coexisted before a flood that not only created the Grand Canyon but put the final score at humans (Noah and kin) 1, dinosaurs 0. After all that, the bit about the Smithsonian nearly sent me into a faint. I needed someone to deliver a couple of “quick, snap out of it, girl” taps with a copy of Scientific American.

Santee is a long way from Los Angeles, in a lot of ways. I saw more Bush bumper stickers there in an hour than I had in all of last year in L.A. It’s closer in spirit to Cobb County, Ga., where stickers applied to biology textbooks declared that evolution is a theory, not a fact. Or, they did until last week, when a federal judge told the school board to unstick them because they endorsed religious beliefs.

The Santee museum has been making the creationism argument for 33 years, with low-tech exhibits bearing the touching, dorky earnestness of middle-school science projects -- plastic butterflies, blue-painted fake stalactites, piped-in music from some De Mille biblical epic. When I was there, a gaggle of schoolgirls was taking earnest notes in front of an exhibit on Noah’s ark. In the artist’s rendering of life below decks, the ark looked an awful lot like the dining room at Musso & Frank, except the booths were occupied by ostriches and bears.


What confronted the Georgia judge is not Santee’s brand of quaint creationism but a more sophisticated, neo-creationism creep that’s moving through school boards and state legislatures across the country. The forces behind it are emboldened by another four years of a president who is on the record as saying: “On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth.” They’re emboldened by the bogus logic that declares that wanting WMD is just as dangerous as having WMD, so wanting Genesis to be science is just as good as making it so.

The sweaty hallelujah chorus of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” is out of the picture. The talk now is about “Intelligent Design.” ID says chance alone can’t account for everything in creation, and that’s where a higher intelligence -- meaning God, though the ID forces may not use the word -- comes in. ID is a canny tactic, a wedge into the realm of science, in which the Bible is an encoded science text. If IDers can put their argument on an equal footing with science, they figure they’ll skip nimbly around the Constitution’s church-state wall without having to wear themselves out trying to knock it down.

Really, it’s a backhanded compliment to science that religion tries to co-opt its vocabulary. Santee’s museum has its Institute of Creation Research. (Americans respect words like “institute” and “research.”) ID materials show lab beakers, not Bibles. ID also takes a science word like “theory” and deliberately twists its meaning, equating the empirical research that backs up a scientific theory with any fleeting idea that finds a roost in more than one brain. Like the theory that the Smithsonian has a secret stash of ark bits.

Science and faith should always be at odds. Science starts with the smallest bits of evidence, collecting facts and data to figure out the principles that make them all work together. Faith starts with unshakable belief in itself. Cross those wires and you get oxymorons like creation science.

There was a man in the last century who practiced top-down science with harrowing consequences. His ideology came first, and science had to fit it. He denounced the important genetic studies of Mendel as the work of “enemies” -- not exactly the language of science. He insisted, among other things, that wheat plants could bear rye seeds. His notions sent real scientists to exile and execution and condemned whole populations to starve. He wasn’t a scientist himself but he played one at the Kremlin. His name was Trofim Lysenko, and his ideology was communism.

Teaching creationism is flat out against the rules in California public schools. The school board in Vista, not far from Santee, tried to get away with stealth creationism more than 10 years ago but got booted out before it could do any damage. Kansas’ pro-creationist state school board also tried to expel evolution but was voted out four years ago, before it had enough time to do more than mau-mau small changes in the geology section of a children’s textbook.

Now Kansas is getting another bite at the apple of ignorance, with a new pro-creationism school board. And the battle is joined in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Montana, Missouri and Mississippi.

Jack Krebs is a veteran of this war. He teaches high school math and serves on the Kansas state science standards committee, which fought creationism once before. “Watch out,” he says, “it could be in anybody’s backyard tomorrow. You could be next.”

Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, Kevin McCarthy, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” -- and now the scary real-life sequel, “Invasion of the Brain Snatchers.”