Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Science, credulity, and the "Ark Encounter"

I was just reading an article in the Louisville Eccentric Observer, a weekly online news source that bills itself as an "alternative" news source that tackles issues that the mainstream media won't touch.  The article, entitled "Investors of the Lost Ark," describes the financial troubles that are facing the "Ark Encounter" project, which had as its goal to build a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark by 2014.

The "Ark Encounter" project, which is the brainchild of Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, has the full support of Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, who arranged for $43 million in tax breaks for Ham's projects.  Beshear's budget also included a 6.4% cut to funding for public education.  [Source]  Funny how those two go together, isn't it?

In any case, the LEO article tells of a visit by LEO staffers and a variety of scientists to the Creation Museum, another of Ham's projects.  One of the visitors was Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, who reports that he had a contact with a 13-year-old "volunteer guide" who informed him that King Arthur's sword was made of iron from a meteorite.  Phelps, who was standing in front of a display of St. George slaying a dragon at the time, asked the boy if King Arthur had killed any dragons with that sword.

"I'm not sure if he did," the boy replied.  "But Beowulf killed three dragons."  The boy went on to describe the third dragon Beowulf killed as being of the flying and fire-breathing type, and told Phelps that "it was probably a pterosaur."

"Aren't those just fictional stories?" Phelps asked the boy.

The boy was vehement.  No, tales of dragons interacting with humans are proof that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, he said.

Okay, now skip downward to the comments section, and you will find two outraged comments directed at Joe Sonka, who wrote the article.  I quote:
Regarding your opening paragraph: I have been to the Creation Museum many times, and I know they don’t have tour guides, much less 13-year-old ones. It’s a self-guided museum. The teen might have been at the museum with a parent to do some volunteer work (like stuffing envelopes) and was taking a break inside the museum. But there are certainly no guides in the museum, and this young man (though obviously a bright kid) was not representing the museum.
And also:
You are to be pitied: taking the words of a 13 year old boy who is not a guide at the museum (and thus does not represent it) and implying that his beliefs are those of the museum (you wrote that ” fantasies” such as his are a part of the museum’s mission) is low journalism. In my academic life, I was told to seek out primary sources when researching and writing an accurate paper about a topic. Oppose the museum’s message if you want, but to quote a teenager barely out of childhood -- and who is not a representative of the museum -- to help make your case is pathetic journalism.

So, let me get this straight: Sonka's calling the boy a "volunteer guide" (which was misleading; I, too, thought the boy was an official volunteer, and in fact thought it was curious they were using guides that young) somehow negates his main point -- than the fact that the museum is so scrambling fact with fiction that it leaves a 13-year-old unable to tell the difference?

And that's the problem, isn't it?  By undermining the gold standard of scientific induction as a way of knowing, the Creation Museum calls all of actual science into question.  Dragons in Beowulf?  Oh, sure, they were dinosaurs.   How did the animals not kill each other on the Ark?  Because god made them all peaceful plant eaters for the duration of the voyage.  What about fossils of animals that don't exist any more?  Those species died in the Great Flood.  What about the light from distant stars showing that the universe has to be older than 6,000 years?  The speed of light isn't constant, and neither is the rate of flow of time, and both have altered by just the amount necessary to reconcile astronomical measurements with Genesis.  (If you don't believe me that this last one is something that creationists actually argue, go here.  Make sure you have a soft pillow on your desk for when you faceplant.)

So, anyway, back to the LEO article, which describes the financial troubles that Ham's organization is having, and the gloomy projections of budget shortfalls that will force the opening of "Ark Encounter" back to 2016.  Sonka seems pretty cheered by this.  Myself, I find the whole thing profoundly discouraging -- even if the "Ark Encounter" is delayed, they still seem to be raking in money hand-over-fist.  Mike Zovath, vice president of Answers in Genesis, stated that they already have $100 million of funding committed for the project.  "God's raised up investors," Zovath told an enthusiastic crowd at a Grant County town hall meeting last August.

What bothers me most is that this project, and the Creation Museum as well, are specifically designed to target children.  They're intended to be flashy, eye-catching, and entertaining, with interactive exhibits and displays of biblically-themed stories.  The underlying, and more sinister, message is: don't believe what your public school teachers are telling you.  Don't believe what the scientists are saying.  They're being tempted by Satan to mislead you.  Whenever you have a question, go back to the bible; and if what the bible says is different from what anyone else ever says, about anything, the individual is wrong and the bible is right.  In other words: stop thinking, stop trying to figure things out, just believe.

And that stance is completely antithetical to real science, which takes nothing on authority, and only respects the firm ground of hard evidence.  Groups like Answers in Genesis hate science for this very reason.  But the end product of such bizarre thinking is what Phelps saw in his 13-year-old helper -- a teenager who actually, honestly thought that Beowulf was real and had fought a dinosaur.

If you can be indoctrinated to believe something for which there is no evidence, and then to doubt the principles of scientific induction themselves, there is no end to the foolishness you can be induced to swallow.


  1. Rate of flow of time relative to _what_?

  2. I don't suppose the Ark Encounter people have proposed an answer to the conundrum of how Noah managed to build the ark on his own, without millionaire contributors?


    I must say, I find it very difficult to even discern if he is arguing for or against the universe being very old. He makes some very conflicting statements.

    His opening few paragraphs seem to suggest he is for a young universe, but than in his spiel about The Constancy of the Speed of Light, he seems to accepts that its probably consistent

    Than he just goes on to make a fool of himself:

    "Albert Einstein discovered that the rate at which time passes is affected by motion and by gravity. For example, when an object moves very fast, close to the speed of light, its time is slowed down. This is called “time-dilation.” So, if we were able to accelerate a clock to nearly the speed of light, that clock would tick very slowly. If we could somehow reach the speed of light, the clock would stop completely. This isn’t a problem with the clock; the effect would happen regardless of the clock’s particular construction because it is time itself that is slowed. Likewise, gravity slows the passage of time. A clock at sea-level would tick slower than one on a mountain, since the clock at sea-level is closer to the source of gravity."


  4. As a matter of fact, the quote above that starts with "Albert Einstein discovered that the rate at which time passes is affected by motion and by gravity…” is accurate from the standpoint of science, therefore I do not understand the assertion that the author “just goes on to make a fool of himself:” at least not based on this quote.

    The US Navy ran tests years ago using atomic clocks (cesium I think) placing one on the ground, and the other in a high performance aircraft that was then flown around the world at its max speed, refueling in flight, back to the original base. The time on the two clocks were then compared, and it was found that the clock that had flown around the world was slow compared to the one that had stayed on the ground.

    A similar experiment was performed with two atomic clocks with one placed at the base of a water tower and one at the top of the tower. After they had been left in place for a while their times were compared and the clock at the base was found to be slow compared to the one at the top.

    Modern airliners inertial navigation systems adjust their internal clock based upon altitude because it has been found that distance above sea level affects the rate at which the navigation clock runs, and a slight error is introduced into the flight path calculations.

    An excellent source on this subject is Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time”. I trust that no one will place Stephen Hawking in the woo-woo category?

    1. You (and the author of the website) are correct that the rate of time flow is affected by gravity, and that therefore time flows more slowly near a heavy object than away from it. The error is the magnitude of the decrease. Even near the sun, the time dilation is insignificant -- the amount of "warp" in space near the sun is hundreds of orders of magnitude too small to create the kind of error in the age of the universe that the author is trying to get us to buy. Plus, scientists know about this effect and are able to correct for it -- so the idea that the universe is really 6,000 years old is plain foolishness.

  5. Thanks Gordon, I should be more clear next time.

  6. This isn't relevant but anyways:

    I've often wondered about time and I cant seem to logically accept that physical clocks would "Slow down" they are mechanical devices that operate in a certain way, regardless of outside events. In other words a clock launched out of the "super light speed cannon" would tick just as fast as a clock not shot out of a "super light speed cannon" .

    The more logical reason for time dilation, in my mind, can be seen like this:

    Imagine 2 beams of light are travelling in the same direction and at point A at the same time. Light beam 1(LB)travels near a super massive object on its way to point B, while LB 2 does not.

    LB 2 would arrive at point B first because LB 1 actually has a longer path to travel as the super massive object moved it off-course slightly, causing a curve.

    If clocks were on ships in the same situation, they would than show a discrepancy because Ship 2 arrives at point be first.

    Black holes are super massive any light that travels by it does not continue beyond it, I find this helps me further rationalize my previous statements.