Righting America at the Creation Museum (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context) is a strange book and I do not fully approve of it, even though I’m mentioned in it (not in a bad way).

Here is the write-up of the book provided by the publisher:

On May 28, 2007, the Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky. Aimed at scientifically demonstrating that the universe was created less than ten thousand years ago by a Judeo-Christian god, the museum is hugely popular, attracting millions of visitors over the past eight years. Surrounded by themed topiary gardens and a petting zoo with camel rides, the site conjures up images of a religious Disneyland. Inside, visitors are met by dinosaurs at every turn and by a replica of the Garden of Eden that features the Tree of Life, the serpent, and Adam and Eve.

In Righting America at the Creation Museum, Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., take readers on a fascinating tour of the museum. The Trollingers vividly describe and analyze its vast array of exhibits, placards, dioramas, and videos, from the Culture in Crisis Room, where videos depict sinful characters watching pornography or considering abortion, to the Natural Selection Room, where placards argue that natural selection doesn’t lead to evolution. The book also traces the rise of creationism and the history of fundamentalism in America.

This compelling book reveals that the Creation Museum is a remarkably complex phenomenon, at once a “natural history” museum at odds with contemporary science, an extended brief for the Bible as the literally true and errorless word of God, and a powerful and unflinching argument on behalf of the Christian right.

So, having read that, what do you think the book is about? What do you think the motivations of the authors are? Do you think this book is pro or con on the museum, on creationism, on evolution, on science, on science education?

Can’t tell, can you?

I am going to guess — and this is just a guess but an educated one — that the authors have intentionally made the position on creationism and evolution as ambiguous as possible in order to allow themselves to carry out, or to appear to carry out, a truly dispassionate and fair analysis of an interesting phenomenon, as academics with expertise in certain areas.

That sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it sounds like a good thing because I made it sound like a good thing. Let me try again.

It seems to me that these authors have carried out a real act of damage against the integrity of the academic enterprise, and against education and society in general, by failing to take a reasoned and fact based stand against what is widely recognized and easily proven as a huge stinking pile of dreckory. (We are open to suggestions on the spelling of “dreckory.”)

The Mennonite News review of this book says:

The book is not a defense of evolution but a comprehensive critique of the museum and the movement behind it. The writing is measured, devoid of bombast and bile, which makes the book effective as the authors rely on facts and cogent arguments. They describe exhibits that don’t adhere to stated principles, opportunistic applications of Scripture and dubiously employed uses of theology, history and science — all in a facility that douses visitors with a flood of information in a fast-paced environment that obscures the shortcomings. The Trollingers “slow it all down” so readers can more fully understand the Creation Museum.

But when we read these parts of the book, we do not see the authors describing exhibits or other aspects of the museum in a negative way, but rather, almost perfectly neutral.

One conservative Christian reviewer wrote:

At the outset let me say that this is not a book that I would recommend for your bedside table. It is neither enjoyable as a reading experience nor does it present a convincing argument. However, for Christians, especially conservative Christians who aim to take the Bible seriously, this book is important. I chose to read and review this book because I believe that it is vital for Christians to be aware of how liberal Christians and unbelievers talk with each other about us, conservatives. We need to know what arguments they find convincing. Don’t be mistaken, this book was not written for conservatives; it was written by two liberal Christians for liberal Christians and unbelievers.

… but when I read the text, while I don’t see apologetics, I see very little negative about fundamentalism (though Ken Ham himself takes some criticism).

Another review:

This is a thorough book, a measured book, a calm and reasonable book. It examines the young Earth Creationism of Answers in Genesis from both a social and a historical perspective, pointing out the gaping flaws in its own internal logic (for instance, placards warning that the physical process of the Flood was unlike anything else in history and placards comparing it to rain washing out a gully are about ten feet away from each other in the same room) and rounding things off with a mild admonition about how far such lunacy strays from the true essence of contemporary Christianity…a comprehensive, you-are-there overview of the center of what Ken Ham clearly hopes to be a network of such faux museums.

This reviewer finds lunacy in the flood myth, but if you didn’t know about the flood myth, fundamentalism, creationism, all that, and read large passages in Righting America, you would not find a reference to lunacy, and it would be hard to find an argument against the flood myth’s veracity.

People are seeing what they want to see in this book. I’m seeing balance and restraint. I don’t like balance and restraint when it comes to vicious, well funded, and coordinated attacks on education and society, and on science.

Here’s some more text from lay readers (not professional reviewers) to give more of a flavor:

This excellent book provides insight into fundamentalism, creationism and Ken Hamm’s “Answers In Genesis” organization. The book describes in detail the contents and informational structure of the Creation Museum and examines both the museum itself and the arguments presented within. The book presents analysis of the space as a museum, the arguments as they pertain to science and the Bible, and the overall movements of fundamentalism and creationism as they impact America’s political landscape.

This is an incredibly informative read for anyone curious about fundamentalist Christianity and the baffling arguments of young Earth creationists. I’m incredibly proud that the book’s two authors are faculty of my alma mater, the University of Dayton!

The Trollingers take their subject at hand seriously. After visiting the Creation Museum several times, thoroughly examining their literature (journals and elementary education pamphlets), discovering influential individuals’ histories, they spend several chapters simply laying out a comprehensive picture of the Creation Museum. They compare it to evolutionary natural history museums, then compare the museum with their own stated goals. The whole book is thoughtful, does not come to conclusions easily, and is respectful of the whole evolutionary/creation debate throughout. Highly recommended

And here’s another:

But Susan and William Vance Trollinger, married scholars (of English and history, respectively) at the University of Dayton, 70 miles from the Petersburg, Kentucky museum, do not ridicule this cultural phenomenon (as, for example, A. A. Gill did in Vanity Fair: “It is irredeemably kitsch…This cheap county-fair sideshow – this is their best shot?”). Perhaps the Trollingers assume that we readers will supply such disparagement ourselves. But their academic detachment and methodical critical assessment offer the best way to penetrate the topic. “As bizarre as the museum may seem to many Americans,” they write, “what happens inside its doors matters to all of us.”

I think you get the point.

I regard this aspect of the book as either a conceit of the academic, and that annoys the bejesus out of me, or a smoke screen. I’m pretty sure it is the former but I can not be sure, and that is the price one pays for this approach; uncertainty about motivation and intended meaning.

Other than all that, it is an interesting book and an interesting analysis. But, marred by what seems to be a motivated encasement in an unnecessarily ambiguous framework.

I know what you are thinking. An excellent piece of academic work should be dispassionate, should be ambiguous about taking sides, or avoid taking sides at all, bla bla bla.

To that I respond that for one, a piece of academic work that appears to not be taking sides is always taking sides. For two, this is not an issue in which one does not take sides.

I do think most people interested in the issue of creationism and evolution will find Righting America at the Creation Museum (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context) to be an interesting read. But I did not want to let this particular fastball go by the plate without smashing it with a bit of reality.

Comments

  1. #1 dean
    April 11, 2017

    “To that I respond that for one, a piece of academic work that appears to not be taking sides is always taking sides.”

    Especially in a case like this where one side – the creationist side – is simply a set of monumental lies and bullshit. Failing to point out that everything at this “museum” is demonstrably false is a huge disservice.

  2. #2 Tyvor Winn
    USA
    April 11, 2017

    This post closely follows and makes a similar point to Greg’s post on how comedians are now almost alone in responsibly reporting the political news while the mainstream media presents lies and bullshit as a balance to actual facts, logic, and more or less reasonable proposals and concepts. This kind of evenhandedness is a travesty of the real thing. The real thing shines the light of criticism and skepticism equally on both (or all) sides alike and lets the proverbial chips fall where they may. Now we have evenhandedness defined as “all opinions are equal.”

    What can we look forward to next in our post-Enlightenment world, a dispassionate, non-critical look at the flat Earth vs spherical Earth model? Or perhaps there’s an academic treatise in the works on genocide or infanticide “that’s ambiguous about taking sides”?

  3. #3 Matt G
    April 11, 2017

    “Equal time” arguments should be answered with “time in proportion to the evidence”. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation gives creationism…zero minutes.

  4. #4 Wow
    April 11, 2017

    Or just leave a space for god to appear and give his side.

    Omnipotent means it can, and omnipresent means it’s already there to do it.

    Meanwhile leave it to humans who don’t believe in figments of their imagination to argue how evolution works.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2017

    To be clear, it isn’t exactly an equal time argument. But it feels like it.

    I’m reminded of this. Anybody remember a while back when a physics teacher (may be in Kenya?) encountered a student who asked interesting questions about the phenomenon of hot vs cold water freezing first? This individual and boosters around the world started a big project where they “asked the question” without providing a single morsel of guidance. I pointed out that it was possible, given their program as it was, for students to walk away from the in class lab thinking that hot water would cool down faster than cold water (which may or may not cause a bunch of hot water to become an ice cube sooner than some cold water in the same freezer).

    Their response was, “yes, they could, but look at the great questions they’ve learned to ask.”

    My response to that was, “Yeah, and do you know how many ‘hot water freezes first therefore creationism is real and science is wrong’ creation fair science posters are created every year????”

    That’s what it feels like.

  6. #6 Wow
    April 11, 2017

    No, asking questions, especially of other people, is one of the least useful things to do in science or any rigorous rational investigative endeavour.

    Asking questions OF YOURSELF is FAR more effective.

    It’s the basis if skepticism, the only real path to self assessed knowledge and far better for increasing your actual cognitive abilities.

    Even better, though, IS ANSWERING THEM.

    And I don’t remember a single case where anyone actually worked out a way to test, how the test could be corrupted or invalid, and how to avoid that, or detect it happening. Let alone the next step: carrying the test out.

    Asking questions is a shit load easier than answering.

    And you learn nothing if all that happens is questions are asked. You need answers to learn.

    “I don’t know” is not a great science answer because it’s true, but because it leads to “how do I find out?”.

    “Thats odd” is not a good science result of an experiment because you’re asking how it turned out differently, but because it leads to MORE ANSWERS.

    “God did it” is a crap answer not because it is a non answer but because there’s no knew knowledge arising from it.

  7. #7 BBD
    April 11, 2017

    I miss AA Gill.

    He wasn’t perfect, but he was good.

  8. #8 Matt G
    April 11, 2017

    I realize they aren’t using an equal time argument, but this false balance (so popular among journalists these days) falls into the same category as so many other tactics: muddying the water, pseudo skepticism, teach both sides, hyping a minority opinion, etc.

  9. #9 Claude
    El Cajon
    April 12, 2017

    Interesting review, but I’m pretty sure “dreck” has a”c”.
    I would go with “dreckery”.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2017

    “:Trump and a top adviser on Wednesday pushed back plans to overhaul the tax code, saying they wanted to prioritize first a renewed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.” … and honest broker.

    Claude, you are almost certainly right.

  11. #11 Jonathan Thornburg
    April 17, 2017

    Greg, could you provide a reference for your mention of a physics-teaching “big project” where the Mpemba effect was discussed “without providing a single morsel of guidance”? All the discussion I’ve seen in the physics-teaching literature have provided considerable context, and google scholar “Mpemba effect” certainly offers lots of published literature.

  12. #12 Wow
    April 17, 2017

    The statement was: “started a big project where they “asked the question” without providing a single morsel of guidance. ”

    Which reads very differently from your shorter cut.

  13. #13 jimbob
    July 21, 2017

    the only book to read is the Bible

  14. #14 Li D
    Australia
    July 21, 2017

    #13 you orta try some Jared Diamond matey.
    Just for some variety.

  15. #15 Wow
    July 22, 2017

    “the only book to read is the Bible”

    To educate yourself about how gullible and stupid people can be?