I visited the American Museum of Natural History today, and, as usual, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of the exhibits there. It being the Sunday of a holiday weekend, the place was full to bursting, especially with children begging for astronaut ice cream or a stuffed Tyrannosaurus Rex. The museum taught me something else as well, though, something that can help us deal with the growing anti-science movement in this country.
You’ll notice a prominent element in that photograph. Above the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse, a triumphant Galapagos Tortoise adorns the DARWIN banner. I have been to see the exhibit about his life, and one of the elements that surprised me had to do with Darwin’s conflicted feelings on religion. Indeed, as I thought about the different exhibits I saw today, a common element emerged that showed an effective way to approach the feeling in this country that science and religion do not mix.
You see, museums have become one of the new fronts in this debate. The growing number of Americans who feel that evolution is not accurate have, apparently, decided that museums are as guilty as science classrooms of teaching immoral, inappropriate things to innocent children.
It is no secret why some people feel this way. They believe that they already know the correct explanation for why things are the way they are, and any evidence to the contrary must be wrong. The creationists Darksyde profiles for us are excellent examples of this effect. Once knowing, for certain, how everything works becomes an important part of your self worth, it becomes difficult to handle new discoveries.
Upstairs in the museum, I noticed this interesting illustration among the exquisitely reconstructed dinosaur skeletons. By Odin’s beard! It’s an evolutionary tree of the descent of the Tetanuran (Three-Fingered Hand) dinosaurs. And, as I verified from the skeleton evidence all around me, it seems awfully clear and valid. It also did not seem immediately threatening to the moral development of the many children around me.
I visited the Hall of Marine Mammals, where I saw one of my personal favorites. This fellow was staring out at the busy floor, surrounded by a whole bunch of scientifically accurate and thoroughly evolution-drenched material, and everyone seemed to be okay. Indeed, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I became more and more confused. I didn’t get why people would object to this stuff.
When I went to the Rose Space Center to see the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe, I was impressed by the clarity of the scientific narrative of the film. It takes a journey from Earth all the way out to the scale of the observable universe, which is, as I learned, very, very large. As I have mentioned before, there were many children in the museum, and just so there were many in the theater as well. When the show ended, with a scientifically questionable rapid transit back to earth via black hole, one of the children began to cry. The child was saying how this was scary, and how she didn’t like it, and I realized something.
The anti-science crusaders are like this child. They are scared of things that challenge their understanding of the universe. They cherish the idea that they know the truth about the world, and new discoveries threaten this perception. This is the crux of the issue: we think of science as a pathway to beneficial and wonderful discoveries, but they see it as a dangerous fountain, sometimes producing benefits, but other times producing strange, unorthodox, and threatening ideas.
On the way out of the museum, I thought this over more and more. How can you talk with someone about these matters if they refuse to budge on their core belief? Well, I figured, the same way you would talk to anyone unfamiliar with new and intimidating terrain. Show them the wondrous parts first, and engage their curiousity. It might not work in every case, but I think if more creationists went to museums, and could see how amazing the universe really is, they would get less attached to teaching garbage to our children.
If you believe in god, there is nothing in a museum to take away from his glory in having created it all. I don’t believe in god, and I can still tear up at a view of the virgo supercluster, with a tiny highlighted sphere that shows where I live.