In one of the largest gatherings of critics since the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky opened two years ago, six dozen paleontologists in the area for a conference this week took a field trip to get a glimpse of the marketing tactics used by the other side of the evolution debate.
Paleontologists spend their careers studying evolution, and here they were visiting a place where nearly every room is dedicated to disproving it through Creationism, a fundamentalist Christian belief based on a literal interpretation of the Bible that contends God created the universe just a few thousand years ago.
"The real purpose of the museum visit is to give some of my colleagues an opportunity to sense how they're being portrayed," said Arnold Miller, a professor of paleontology at the University of Cincinnati, which is hosting the conference. "They're being demonized, I feel, in this museum as people who are responsible for all the ills of society."
Miller and other paleontologists object to numerous other aspects of the museum they say imply science is doing more harm than good.
For example, multiple rooms are devoted to the great flood, which a strict biblical interpretation might explain was a rebuke for questioning God. The implication, some of the paleontologists say, is that their studies concluding Earth is millions of years old — not thousands as creationists claim — must pose a similar threat to mankind.
Scientists also disagree with the depiction of Noah's ark itself. Inside a miniature ark is a compartment holding two small dinosaurs, living alongside the monkeys, cows and other animals.
"It's like a theme park, but the problem is it masquerades as truth," said Derek Briggs, a Yale University paleontologist.
The scientists Miller brought with him got a group discount but otherwise had minimal interaction with museum staff. A line of other visitors led outside into the full parking lot for much of the day.
David Menton, a cell biology professor and researcher with Answers In Genesis, which founded the museum, made no apologies for the fact that the museum's teachings are rooted in the Old Testament. He insists they rely on largely the same facts scientists use, just with a starting point millions of years later. Anything before that can't really be proven by science anyway, he says.
"I've spent enough of my professional life in science that I know science being compatible with religion is not the sort of thing that keeps scientists up at night," Menton said. "There's a lot of scientists out there that rather applaud that idea."
He defended the displays that argue people and dinosaurs are contemporaries, including one at the museum entrance that show two young girls playing in a field near a dinosaur.
"I'm not saying dinosaurs and man frequently hobnobbed," Menton said. "I live on Earth at the same time as grizzly bears, but if I could stay as far away from grizzly bears, that suits me fine."
The critique of scientists even extends to the gift shop, where among the DVDs for sale is one entitled, "The Cure for a Culture in Crisis: It doesn't take a Ph.D."
It all had Wednesday's visitors shaking their heads.
"Faith is one thing," said Mark Terry, a high school science teacher from Seattle, "but when it comes to their science statements, they're completely off the wall."
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