So Fox News breathlessly reported that Chinese researchers had found Noah’s ark. “Has Noah’s Ark been found on Turkish mountaintop?,” they asked, dumbly. “No,” answered slacktivist.
Gawker replied at greater length:
A group of evangelicals found some 4,800-year-old wood on top of Mount Ararat. They are “99.9 pecent” sure that it’s Noah’s ark. This is totally real, which is why it’s on the front page of Fox News’ “SciTech” section.
Slacktivist didn’t actually just say “no,” he expanded on the point by noting:
The expedition seems to have found a wooden structure. They hear hoofbeats, so they’re “99.9 percent” certain it must be a zebra. Or a unicorn with zebra stripes.
Considering the style of argumentation offered by Noah’s Ark Ministries, he continues:
If you had these people read Aesop’s story of the Ant and the Grasshopper and then asked them what the story means, they would reply that it means they should start raising money for an entomological expedition to Greece, because holy cow — talking insects!
Atrios was just bemused, wondering:
Weren’t there like 15 In Search Of documentaries and even a movie around that time about how they so totally found Noah’s Ark? Also, Sasquatch.
Various sciencebloggers responded to the incident with predictable ire, with PZ Myers jumping on the Chinese creationists’ claim that the wood had been carbon dated to 4,800 years old:
Oh, yeah. Now the creationists are willing to say carbon-dating is valid.
You wish. Todd C. Wood, a baraminologist (creationist who knows better than to reject evolution outright) at William Jennings Bryan College in Dayton, TN, rejected the finding, observing:
1. They claim that radiocarbon dates the wood to 4800 years before present, but the Ark was constructed of pre-Flood wood, which would mean that the carbon dating should be much, much older.
2. The modern “Mt. Ararat” (Agri Dagh) is a post-Flood volcano. The Ark could not have landed on Agri Dagh because it did not exist at the end of the Flood, and even if it did land on modern Agri Dagh, it would have been destroyed by the many, many eruptions of Ararat since the Flood. You can observe all the fresh lava flows on Agri Dagh at Google Maps.
3. Given that the Flood survivors left the Ark to find a devastated world, the Ark would have been the best source of timber for the first decade or so. I think it highly likely that the Ark was dismantled to supply the growing population with building material for shelter.
Say what you will about creationists, some of them have genuine critical thinking skills. But as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. Wood assumes that magic things happened to radioisotopes during the Flood, so wood from before the Flood should, like dinosaur bones and preCambrian fossils, have an apparent age of millions of years old.
And then the whole thing collapsed. Wood later reported on comments by someone who tagged along on some of the Ark expeditions and absolutely debunked the story. He concluded:
So there you have it. You know, creationists give evolutionists a hard time over hoaxes like Piltdown, but frankly, we’ve got just as many skeletons in our closet. Paluxy, Durupinar, the Burdick print, and so it goes.
In creationist math, three hoaxes are “just as many” as one, I suppose. And Wood gives some tolerably good advice (if you edit it right):
Here’s some friendly advice to my readers: Please stop pouring money into fruitless searches for Noah’s Ark. Do you know what real good you could accomplish with your money? Instead of gambling it away on the hope that you’ll find Noah’s Ark on a mountain where it can’t possibly be? If you’re really into creationism, invest in creationist education or research. There are plenty of creation scientists out there struggling with little or no research funding, and it physically sickens me to see people getting swindled out of thousands of dollars on ridiculous Ark expeditions. Don’t like research? Then just donate to the Creation Museum. Or give your money to a legitimate missions organization, like the Bible League. Support your local soup kitchen or shelter for battered women or addiction rehab facility. There’s so much good you could do with that kind of financial blessing.
There is no Ark. There never was, and if there had been, it wouldn’t still be sitting on Mt Ararat. Do something useful with that energy. And remember a point slacktivist made about this in 2007:
it’s still startling how many people have gotten drowned in the details of this story. They travel to Mt. Ararat in search of the ark, or they obsess over details of hydrology and storage space. Just as lost at sea are these poor folks’ mirror opposites — those who obsess over the details to prove that the story is “literally” false. (I’m forced to place the word literally in quotation marks here because it is the word they insist on using, although what they mean by it is far from clear.)
Both sorts of literalists approach these stories with the same incomprehension as that of people who don’t understand jokes. “What kind of bar?” they ask. You try to ignore them, to get on to the punch line, to the point, but they keep interrupting. “A duck? I don’t think you’d be allowed in the bar if you were carrying a duck.”
Such people are particularly infuriating when you’re trying to tell a really good joke. They’re even more infuriating when you’re trying to tell a really important story.
Enjoy the story. Study the story. If you find meaning in the story, retell the story and help other people understand it. But the truth of the story about Noah’s ark has nothing to do with exactly how long a cubit was, what sort of wood is meant by “gopher wood,” or what happened to all the poop. Noah’s ark is a story about the dangers of selfishness, about the importance of being good to one another, and ultimately of honoring our ancestors. It’s also about the patriarchal society of the era in which it was written down, a culture in which the sins of the father pass to the children, and in which Noah’s religious devotion could save not only himself, but his family, just as Lot’s goodness (including a willingness to offer his virgin daughters to be raped by a mob to save a guest) was sufficient to save his family.
In other words, a good story, but also a problematic one. And sometimes, problematic stories are the best ones, since you need to think about them more, and reward careful consideration. But not an excuse for chasing around Turkey sneaking rotten wood up a mountain to build a fake boat.