Category Archives: Science

[Elsewhere] Scrap the Kinsey Scale!

[CN: CSA mention in first paragraph]

As a young and impressionable undergrad, the first academic book on bisexuality I came across in my university library (I have carefully blanked both the author and the title from my mind) argued that being abused as a child led to women becoming bisexual as adults. Even as recently as 2011, researchers at Northwestern University in the US felt the need to “validate” the existence of bisexual men – a move which prompted much snark from said bisexual men.

The outputs of research on bisexuality are often questionable largely because the assumptions and methods behind them tend to be flawed. As an academic in a related field, I occasionally get a glimpse at how the sausage is made: Researchers often circulate their questionnaires on various scholarly LGBT mailing lists in the hope of attracting more respondents, and I have got into the habit of vetting them before inflicting them on my unsuspecting queer friends and acquaintances. Surveys ostensibly aimed at the LGBT community almost invariably will contain a question along the lines of “When did you realise you were gay?” (I tend to return essay-length responses on why I am not “gay” and bin the link.)

Read more at Bi Community News.

[Ada Lovelace Day] The Truth

[Content Note: Contains references to sexual assault and rampant misogyny.]

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today, and over the years I have profiled various women in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths to celebrate. But this year, Ada Lovelace Day follows close on the heels of the publication of an article exposing decades-long sexual assault by a leading astronomer at Berkeley and the complete failure of the university to deal with this in anything even resembling an appropriate manner. And this has made me realise that while the work Ada Lovelace Day does in inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM is hugely important, it is also absolutely vital that we tell girls the truth.

And the truth is ugly. The truth is that Geoff Marcy is far from an isolated case. The truth is that Nobel laureates in your field may feel entitled to make you the punch line of a joke. The truth is that in a corporate career in technology your boss may ask you when International Men’s Day is. The truth is that you will be offered as a perk in job adverts, that you will be (illegally) asked about your childcare plans in job interviews, that in all likelihood you will be consistently underpaid compared to male colleagues with the same amount of experience doing the same job as you just as well. The truth is that these things happen to middle class white women, and god help you if you’re marginalised and oppressed on another axis as well. The truth is that all those micro- and macroaggressions add up.

The truth is that your best bet is to invest significant amounts of time and energy to keep yourself and other women safe. Not because this should in any way be your responsibility, but because no one else will. You may have to stand up to your boss in front of your younger and more impressionable colleagues and tell him that International Men’s Day is all the other 364 days of the year. You may have to walk out of job interviews in tears. You may have to pass on applying for that start-up job because it would involve working with dickbags who see you as a perk. You may have to seek out other women in departments you’re applying to to find out which of your prospective male colleagues you should avoid. (Or later, you may have to be the one warning younger women.) You may have to make a choice between filing a complaint for sexual harassment and finishing your thesis.

The truth is also that you’re not responsible for the shitty state our society is in, or for the behaviour of entitled male colleagues towards you or other women, and that you can’t single-handedly fix it. The truth is that standing up to your boss, or filing a complaint may hurt your career, and may cause you even more distress than the original incident, and you would be fully justified not to do it. The truth is that neither choice will make you feel good about yourself.

This is not to tell you that you shouldn’t pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths. It’s not even to tell you that these fields are that much worse than others: we’ve seen similar bullshit in politics, investment banking, the legal profession, and pretty much any male-dominated field. The corollary is that any field which somehow becomes female-dominated also automatically becomes devalued. So, you know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But please please do pursue careers in those fields! The only way anything might change is if enough of us bang our heads against those brick walls that they (the walls!) eventually crack. Be aware, though, that chances are that your head will crack first. Walk into this with your eyes open, do what you can to keep yourself safe, seek out and build support networks around you, try to help others where you can. That’s the best you can do. That’s the best any of us can do.

Let’s play Stereotype Bingo with the European Commission!

Apparently, science is a “girl thing”. Thank you for that enlightenment, European Commission! As a female astrophysicist friend put it, the EU’s brand new initiative to attract more women into science is offensive to both men and women – and frankly to scientists. So looking at the teaser video (above) and other content on the site, let’s play Stereotype Bingo!
Stereotype Bingo
Let’s start from the top, shall we?
Women want to know about work-life balance as much as about the job
Looking at the profiles of women in science videos, nearly half the time in each video is dedicated to what these amazing women do in their free time, be it play football, go shopping or look after the kids. Firstly, there are plenty of women out there who just want to know what the job is, thank you very much. More importantly though, perpetuating this stereotype with employers is actively harmful to women’s careers. Women are already seen as a liability because they “they can run off and have kids any time”, with high-profile business leaders like Alan Sugar demanding the right to ask women about childcare plans at interview stage. Sure, if we’ll treat men in the same way, let’s talk about work-life balance. But let’s not make it the most important topic for one gender only.
Women are naturally caring
In Six reasons why science needs you, we are told about scientific careers in healthcare (healing); food security (feeding); transport, energy and climate action (fixing our broken planet); and “innovative and secure societies” (keeping everyone safe). Hang on! Where are my explosions? I demand explosions!
Women like pink!
It is impossible to attract women to our website without pink. Perhaps the European Commission should have a word with Pink Stinks. ’nuff said.
Make-up! The science of make-up!
Apparently the Commission have been cribbing ideas from the German Greens [article in German] who recently suggested that one way to get girls interested in science was to teach them about make-up. Apart from the fact that there are plenty of other more exciting applications of chemistry, physics and biology, one does wonder whether the people behind this appreciate the amount of time scientists researching hair dye spend handling strands of cut-off human hair.
It’s a “girl thing”. Even running your own department you’ll still be a girl.
Brian Cox notwithstanding, most people entering scientific careers do actually age beyond 12. Calling women in science “girls” infantilises them and diminishes the achievements of highly professional women like Dr Silke Buehler-Paschen, featured in one of the role model videos.
Clothes and shopping are supremely important to women
In under a minute, the teaser video features three close-ups of shoes. Award-winning veterinarian virologist Dr Ilaria Capua spends a significant amount of time in her role model video shopping for clothes. This is the woman between us and the bird flu apocalypse! I don’t want to know about her clothes!
Women ask for directions
This one is from Iris Slootheer’s video. She talks about the difference between girls and boys, and how women will ask questions if they don’t understand something, whereas men will just get bogged down. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it depends very much on the context whether women will ask questions. In a large mixed-sex group, even a gender-balanced one, women will rarely ask questions. I’ve been to talks on abortion with largely female audiences where only men asked any questions. Secondly, when women do ask questions in situations where men don’t – generally because they would like something explained in a different way – this makes their peers perceive them as less capable. There are many such differences in the ways the same behaviour is perceived in different genders, and they do tend to make it more difficult to for women to progress in male-dominated professions. (Sheryl Sandberg does a great job explaining some of this, as do Pat Heim and Randall Munroe.)
Event when it’s messy, “girl science” is clean
This is one of the things that struck me about the teaser video. We have a bit of dry ice, we have eye shadow going all over the place, but ultimately, everything is crisp and clean. My mother was a research chemist before circumstances forced her to change career, and she got to set things on fire. Let me tell you – that was messy!
Women like practical and applied things. No theory here.
With the exception of Dr Yael Nazé who is an astrophysicist, all of the women featured in the role modelling videos are in the applied sciences. Where are the theoretical physicists and mathematicians? I’m sure women can cope with theory just as well as men!
A scientific career is a good way to meet men
Look at Microscope Boy in the teaser video! The sharp jaw line; the smouldering looks! Don’t you want to go into science just to meet him? Dr Marieke Huisman also mentions this in her video. Because clearly the reason I want to spend my entire career in a male-dominated field is so I can meet boys. There’s a running joke that Vienna’s medical school is Austria’s largest dating agency, but really, that’s so 20th century!
You have a free choice of career at the age this website is aimed at
This is one of the more insidious messages of the campaign. Let’s face it, if you’re a girl at 16 or 17 looking at this and trying to decide whether to go into science, you have years of schooling behind you during which you will have been subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) encouraged to think that real science isn’t for girls, that liking science makes you unfeminine, or that femininity and attractiveness to the opposite sex matter more than intelligence and your future career. We have bigger problems that convincing 17-year-olds that science is sexy. Let’s start by removing the requirement for sexiness from everything girls and women do.
Your achievements are not as important as your “passion”
All of the women in the role model videos do a brilliant job of getting across their passion and enthusiasm for science. This is great! Yet why are we not recognising their achievements in these videos? Several of these women are at quite an advanced stage in their career: they have not only doctorates but run departments and have won awards. Why are their titles not used in the videos? Why don’t they get to talk about some of the amazing achievements of their careers? Passion is hugely important, but being able to showcase your results is what will get you up that career ladder!
Women are creative and being so is important to them
Creativity is one of the buzzwords that’s hugely overused across the site and I suspect this has something to do with gender stereotypes. Women are commonly seen as more creative and therefore when marketing careers to them the opportunity to be creative is a selling point. I know enough scientists to know that science is very much 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You will spend a lot of time on your own, looking at a computer screen. You will stare at data until your eyes are square. You will drip liquids into test tubes until your fingers hurt. And then you’ll do it some more. Setting unrealistic expectations of a job helps no one. Yes, of course there’s room for insight and creativity, but there’s a lot more room for hard work, for Hubble having used the wrong filter on your data so you’ve now misplaced a galaxy, and for staring at your code for hours until your colleague looks over your shoulder and points out the missing semi-colon.
International careers are awesome!
Well, they are, to an extent. Several of the women in the role model videos talk about the fantastic international opportunities they have had. However, what is hidden behind this is the fact that science careers, certainly in the early stages, are extremely uncertain and precarious. When your school friends are on their second baby, you’ll just about be finishing your education. After that, chances are you will end up in a series of itinerant postdoc positions, moving to a different university every couple of years. If you’re lucky, you might become a lecturer one day, though tenure is increasingly elusive. Oh, and you’d better not have met a nice boy-scientist (or another girl-scientist) after all, because their career will almost certainly take them to the opposite side of the world to you!
Women are innately social creatures
A few of the videos emphasise the social interactions of scientific work (teaching students, meeting colleagues, etc.) over the time spent staring at your code or dripping liquids into test tubes. You know what? Some women hate people and will happily sit by themselves with their code and their test tubes. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Boy-scientists will ogle you
This one is actually probably true. Look at how we are again prioritising attractiveness to the opposite sex (see Microscope Boy) over our own achievements!
There are a few things I do like about the campaign. Despite their flaws I like the role model videos. I like that they cover a range of sciences as well as women at very different stages in their career. Role models are hugely important and the range of women we see here can hopefully give girls confidence that there is place and a path for them in a scientific career. Overall though? Could do better.

[Ada Lovelace Day 2011] Caroline Herschel

Today is Ada Lovelace Day – a day when bloggers around the world aim to raise awareness of women in science, technology and mathematics. One day, I would really like to be able to interview and profile my mother for this (she was a research chemist before circumstances forced her to change career) but so far I have not managed to make her comfortable with the idea of being written about. My subject this year, therefore, is Caroline Herschel.
In astronomy, the name Herschel is commonly associated with Sir Friedrich Wilhelm (or William), a German-born astronomer who lived and worked in Britain for much of his life. William made his own telescopes which are described by experts as very advanced, as well as discovering Uranus and a number of binary starts and deep sky objects. What is less well-known is that William’s younger sister, Karoline Lucretia (Caroline), was both his assistant and a successful and accomplished astronomer in her own right.
Caroline was born in 1750 in Hannover. After her growth was stunted as a result of a bout of typhus at the age of ten, Caroline’s family gave up hopes of marriage for her. She was expected to remain at home as a house servant. Upon the death of their father, however, Caroline was able to follow her brother William to England in 1772. At their house at 19, New King Street in Bath (now a museum to the Herschels), Caroline began helping her brother in cataloging his discoveries and also proved skillful at setting up and maintaining telescopes.
Tutored by her brother, she began to understand astronomy and make her own observations from about 1782. She made a number of independent discoveries, including eight comets (with unquestioned priority of discovery on five of them), 14 nebulae, and M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda galaxy. She also confirmed a number of her brother’s discoveries. In 1787, Caroline became the first woman to be granted a salary (of £50 annually, by George III) for scientific work.
Caroline’s work on documenting astronomical discoveries, both by simplifying, re-organising and extending existing catalogues and by compiling her own catalogue of nebulae, was a significant contribution to astronomy in its own right. After her brother’s death in 1822, she returned to Germany where she continued this work.
In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded Caroline its Gold Medal – no other woman would receive this until Vera Rubin in 1996. In 1835, she was elected an honourary member of the Royal Astronomical Society along with Mary Somerville. Unsurprisingly, Mary and Caroline were the first female honourary members of the Society. In 1846, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.
Comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet which Caroline discovered is named after her. So is the asteroid 281 Lucretia and the C. Herschel crater on the Moon.
Caroline died peacefully in January 1848, aged 97. She left a legacy as an extraordinary woman and a pioneer astronomer.

Two million people to be hit by a chunk of satellite today

If you’ve ever watched any of Brian Cox’s TV programmes in a room full of physicists[1], you may have realised that communicating science to the general public is somewhat challenging. Cox’s enthusiasm for “amazing” things is… well, amazing, but his metaphors can be rather clunky and a common criticism from physicists is that he tends to misrepresent or oversimplify areas he is not an expert in. On the other extreme of course, scientific papers are rarely written with the general public in mind and trying to read one may put you to sleep, explode your brain and/or leave you none the wiser after three hours of trying to understand a single page[1].
Two examples of science coverage struck me this morning which illustrate some of the pitfalls nicely. Let’s start with the bad one.
On the Today Programme this morning, we were repeatedly told that there was a one in 3000 chance of being hit by a chunk of satellite today. Why, wondered I, weren’t we being advised to take shelter in bunkers, not to leave the house, and to take other sensible precautions, given that two million of us would be hit by space junk today? Why wasn’t there mass panic? If one in 3000 people were going to be victims of orbital debris, and there are somewhere between six and seven billion people on the planet, after all, about two million of us were going to make the acquaintance of a piece of NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).
You may think I’m being pedantic here, but I found the way the report was phrased extremely misleading. It felt like, in an effort to reassure the public, someone had picked a big number out of thin air and was throwing it at us in an attempt to stun us before the space junk hit. Looking at coverage of the UARS story across the BBC, it’s extremely patchy:

  • The headline for this video from BBS Breakfast quotes “1 in 20 trillion”, though the 1 in 3200 figure is in the text. To make matters worse, Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Astronomical Society (the talking head in the clip) makes an on-the-fly conversion between these two expressions of probability without showing his working. You could be forgiven for being confused.
  • Kevin Yates of the National Space Centre in Leicester does a slightly better talking head job on the Today Programme, converting the 1 in 3200 figure into a 99.7% chance that we won’t be hit.

Ultimately, though, the question remain: 1 in 3200 what?
To be fair to the BBC, a lot of the fault for this farce lies with the original NASA risk assessment. Overall, it’s quite a good document. It gives us the history of the satellite, tells us it’s been defunct since 2005, explains how risk is assessed and communicated. However, on slide 8, we find the following statement: “Estimated human casualty risk (updated to 2011): ~ 1 in 3200”.
Now, what I think this means is the every one in 3200 re-entry events (of this particular type?) is expected to cause human casualties. Context is everything, and context is very much what is missing here.
The second story that caught my attention this morning was the one about the faster-than-light neutrinos. This too I had heard on Today, and I only looked it up on the Guardian because someone posted the “If we do not have causality, we are buggered” quote on Twitter. I was, however, extremely pleasantly surprised by the Guardian’s coverage of this story. They gave me numbers, and those numbers made sense! Even better, they gave me error bars! And they explained the statistical level of confidence! They even linked to the original paper! Still, the story is very readable and understandable to someone with basic numeracy skills. The “buggered” quote does help too, and what I particularly like about this story – and the scientists’ approach to it – is that it gives a very good insight into the uncertainties of scientific research.
Moral of the story: You don’t need to stay indoors today in fear of space junk, but when someone’s presenting you with dodgy science coverage, do call them out on it.

[1] What do you mean this is not how normal people spend their free time?

Please take your gender bias out of your science

A meme has been going around a couple of the social networks I’m on. I picked it up on LiveJournal, but I’m told it’s also been making the rounds on Facebook. It’s called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” and is allegedly a test used in diagnosing Asperger’s syndrome. According to the website introduction, it first appeared in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book “The Essential Difference” in 2003. In a nutshell, the test asks you to look at a picture of someone’s eyes and determine their emotional state – you get four words to pick from.
Before you read on, go and do the test. It shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes, and you might even spot what I’m about to write about. Before I write on, it’s probably a good idea to point out that I haven’t read Simon Baron-Cohen’s book and thus have no idea whether the online test is a faithful reproduction of the one in the book, or just an imitation. So I am writing purely about the online test.
The thing that struck me about the test was the shocking gender bias it displayed. Yes, half the pictures were of men’s eyes, and the other half of women’s, but that’s about as far as balanced coverage goes. The age range of male models used was much greater. We saw young eyes, but we also saw pictures where the wrinkles and eyebrows were threatening to eat the eyes. Heck, men were event allowed *gasp* to have asymmetric eyes! Compare and contrast to the range of images we got for women’s eyes: not a single wrinkle to be seen in 18 images. Without exception, all of the women had their eyebrows plucked into perfectly attractive shapes – no stray hair to be seen. The vast majority were made up to accentuate the eyes and look attractive. There were maybe one or two photos of women without make-up.
Now think about the moods and emotions that the male and female eyes expressed. Did you notice that men were despondent, decisive, insisting, while women got to be fantasising, playful, and flirtatious? Not only were the types of emotions strongly gendered, but women were even limited in the number of emotions they could display. Every single man had an emotion of his own (19 in total, counting the introductory example); yet two women each had to be fantasising, preoccupied and interested, as apparently the creator of the test could not imagine 18 different emotions for women to display.
Now, as I said, I don’t know if this specific version of the test is the one which appears in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book. But if it is, I would be very worried. The underpinning theory of that book, you see, is that there are significant gender differences in how we think, with women more likely to empathise and men more likely to systemise. Baron-Cohen even labels his different ways of thinking the “male brain” and the “female brain”. I would be seriously concerned indeed if it turned out that someone was making such generalisations who did not have sufficient imagination to come up with 18 different emotions which women can exhibit.
I would appreciate it if someone could set me straight and tell me that the test in the book is more representative of real women, but just in case it isn’t, I would like to reassure both my readers and Mr. Baron-Cohen that women can be angry too.

The Creation Museum – A cultural experience like no other

I read about the Creation Museum in Kentucky a couple of years ago. It’s just across the state border from Cincinnati, and what with there being a chance of a business trip to Cincinnati in my line of work I promised myself that if I ever ended up in that part of the world, I would go see the museum. Then, when I booked my travel a couple of weeks ago, I kind of forgot about it and didn’t leave any flex in my schedule for a visit, and when I did remember I was gutted. So when a meeting finished early on Monday, I jumped at the chance, escaped from the office early, threw myself into a taxi and went. It was certainly an educational experience.
The first thing to note about the Creation Museum is that when I told people I was going there, I felt really self-conscious about it. In my mind, there are only two kinds of people likely to be interested in that sort of thing: the religious wingnuts, and the trolls. Now, frankly, I fall in the second category, but I didn’t particularly want to come out to people I work with as a troll. Nor, however, did I want to give the impression that I was a religious wingnut. So finding that fine line where you explain that no, you are not of the Christian faith, but you are interested in different points of view and look at this as a cultural experience is… interesting. I’m not convinced anyone believed me.
Here’s what I found out about the museum beforehand, from speaking to various local people. Apparently they fully own the building and the grounds. It took them a long time to get all the money together, but they were very particular about running it that way and not being in debt before they started the whole thing. The colleague who told me this seemed to think that that gave them more freedom in how they presented their point of view, as they didn’t have to bow to commercial pressure just to make money to pay off debt. Having said that, it didn’t look to me like they were struggling financially. But more on that later. The other thing I learned on my way there from the taxi driver is that when the museum first opened, there were protests outside and significant police presence. There are certainly large signs on the doors asking you to behave respectfully to staff and other visitors. Oh, and another tidbit from the website: Apparently the Creation Museum is within a day’s drive for two thirds of US population.
The building is hardly small, and as well as the main museum, it and the grounds house a planetarium, a petting zoo and reasonably extensive botanical gardens. You can easily spend a whole day there, and the website suggests you actually buy a two-day ticket so you can revisit some of your favourite exhibits on the second day. With only two hours, I barely made it through the main exhibition and a couple of the media shows.
I asked the lady who sold me my ticket if she had any recommendations for a first-timer with limited time. She suggested I saw the entire main exhibition and the multi-media show called “Men in White”. I asked her what that was and she explained that it was about a girl who struggles with the thought of being “only a randomly evolved animal” and then gets visited by two arch-angels – the men in white – who help her with her self-doubt. So I got my souvenir guide book and headed off to the special effects theatre to see “Men in White”.
The show was introduced by a chirpy young woman who explained that it was not quite like the rest of the shows in the museum – it was more of a satire or comedy, and that we might recognise some of the stereotypes we saw. Then we meet Wendy (an animatronic puppet) sitting by her camp fire at night, looking up at the stars and asking questions about the meaning of life. (So far, been there, done that. I became an atheist one night in a graveyard in the Austrian Alps.) She asks whether she really is the product of random collisions of atoms and molecules, and whether there really isn’t any deeper meaning to life. At which point the whole thing just becomes surreal: enter the Men in White, Mike and Gabe, the campest arch-angels you have ever met. As in white dungarees levels of camp. They are glorious, as well as remarkably obnoxious for arch-angels. Mike and Gabe do two things: firstly, they walk us through the biblical story of Genesis – taking a few liberties here and there – and secondly they arm Wendy, and by extension the audience, with a number of soundbites to use when defending creationism against the insidious forces of science. They attack science education as closed-minded, not open to being questioned or to new ideas. They frame believers in creation as discriminated against in the education system (“I don’t want people to think I’m dumb”, says Wendy at one point), as victims of the modern world. They especially have a go at Darwin. Yet at the same time Mike and Gabe can’t fully dismiss science which, according to them, has given us microwaves. It’s an interesting balancing act, assisted by special effects such as water being squirted at the audience to demonstrate what the flood felt like. (This made the kid in front of me cry.) Men in White finished and I went off to see the main exhibition.
If you know anything about creationism, you might know that there’s a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs that fall into that category. The Creation Museum subscribes to the particularly nutty flavour of fully literal young-earth creationism. The guide book says, “In the beginning – in six, 24-hour days – god made a perfect creation.” According to the museum, this happened around about 6,000 years ago. The amount of cognitive and intellectual contortion necessary to actually believe this becomes obvious pretty quickly. There are two key framing devices the museum uses to aid with said contortion.
Firstly, it introduces its own historical narrative and paradigm, the “Seven Cs of History”. They are creation, corruption, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, cross, consummation. The entire main exhibition is laid out according to this narrative, starting with creation and moving progressively through biblical history to the modern world, again taking a fair few liberties in the process.
The second device, which is introduced very early on, is the dichotomy between reason and God’s word or revealed truth. So we have lots of exhibits which present us with a physical observation about the universe and then two conflicting “interpretations”, one by human reason and another by God’s word. For instance and exhibit on fossil layers says “God’s word: Fossil layers were formed by Noah’s Flood (~4,350 years ago) and its aftermath. Human Reason: Fossil layers were formed by present processes over millions of years.” This is subversive in two ways: firstly, it attempts to set creationism on an equal footing with science, but claiming to simply apply a different kind of reasoning to the same facts, thus attaching to creationism the credibility of the scientific method; secondly, there is a very strong implication that because both interpretations of the same facts are reasonable and possibly valid (though of course the creationist version is the right one), scientists who reject the creationist interpretation are closed-minded and therefore automatically wrong. Given how much of the exhibition is aimed at families with children, I will let you judge quite how damaging this is.
Now, in many ways it is absolutely pointless to do a point-by-point rebuttal of every single thing that is wrong, misleading or nutty in the exhibition. It would be playing the game by the wingnuts’ rules, and that’s not something I’m prepared to do. However, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the especially striking cognitive contortions, mostly for amusement value.
You remember the bit from the guide book, about how God created the universe in 6 24-hour days? I wouldn’t have spotted this one, if it hadn’t been for the camp arch-angels, but they kindly mentioned Genesis 1:14 (Gods, I never thought I’d have use for a hotel Bible.), which says “Then Gods said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night’ and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years.'” Which incidentally happened on the fourth day. So up until the fourth day, we have no way of really measuring days or hours. How, therefore, do we know that those first six days in which God created everything were exactly 24 hours long, when hours aren’t even defined yet? This is of course the danger of trying to sound scientific when talking about creationism.
There is the usual hilarity of presenting images of humans walking alongside dinosaurs. At the exit there is even the opportunity to take a photo of your child riding a saddled triceratops. There is also a special exhibit/feature (which I didn’t have time to look into at all) about dragons and dinosaurs. The most amusing part is the series of descriptions of the effects of original sin, which include gems like “According to the Bible, animals and humans have “life” (…), but plants do not. So humans and animals were created to eat plants, and in the original world before sin, humans and animals would never die.” So apparently it was only once original sin had been committed that we started to have carnivores.
Incidentally, the museum very squarely puts original sin on Adam’s shoulders, consistently calling it Adam’s sin. I must admit I’m not 100% sure which version of original sin I prefer: the one that blames women for everything for the rest of eternity, or the one that patronisingly takes responsibility away from Eve, making Adam responsibe for her actions. I’m willing to listen to arguments either way.
Another fun bit is where the exhibition has a go not only at science but also at the wrong kind of Christianity, i.e. Catholicism. Apparently Catholicism is wrong in much the same way as human reason is wrong, in that it relies on human structures and institutions, as well as human interpretation of the truth revealed through the word of God. Apparently this is a big no-no, and one should be taking one’s scripture as the only source of truth, quite literally.
Of course one of the biggest problems young-earth creationism has is the abundant scientific evidence that the universe is rather older than 6,000 years, and so the museum spends a lot effort trying to discredit this, starting with Mike and Gabe and going right through this exhibition. The phrase “millions and millions of years” is repeated in a tone of utter contempt until your little brain can’t think of it any other way.
An entire room of the museum is dedicated to what I would describe as wonders of the universe: beautiful pictures of plants, animals, galaxies, red blood cells, you name it. Even a video explaining how awesome carbon is, and another explaining how the earth is in just the right place in the solar system to support life. The little captions in the corners of the pictures tell you how God created all this, especially for us. The fun bit here is that every time an exhibit claimed that something was too good to have arisen by chance, the only scientific counter argument was the anthropic principle; and I must admit I’m really not a fan of the anthropic principle – it’s cop-out. Than again, I think God’s a rather bigger cop-out. But that room certainly gave me an insight into why some people may want to choose to believe in God as opposed to the anthropic principle.
The exhibition ends with another video show – The Last Adam – which takes us through the final three Cs of history (Christ, Cross, Consummation) by telling the story of the crucifixion and how Christ will save us all. One of the few images I remember from this is that of a very cute lamb which didn’t have to be sacrificed anymore because God had sent his only begotten son, etc. etc. At the end of this, a member of staff encourages us to pick some of the free literature and go out to tell others the good news.
Of course no museum is complete without a gift shop, and the gift shop in the Creation Museum is hardly small. One whole wall is covered in textbooks aimed at homeschooling parents. It is one of the scariest things I have seen in my life. Another scary thing is that the back cover of the guide book is taken up by an advert for a “Christ-centred liberal arts college dedicated to presenting a Biblical worldview in all [their] academic majors”. They “embrace a literal, 6 day, 24 hour creation account”. The associated picture is of scientists in lab coats with lab equipment.
From what I can tell, the museum is making pretty good money which, as I understand it, it funnels into the “Answers in Genesis” ministry. My financial contribution to all this, beyond the entrance fee and my guide book, was a t-shirt with a picture of a dinosaur and the words “Prepare to believe” printed on it. I am looking for suggestions on how to deface it. Suggestions I’ve had so far are “Prepare to believe – in science!” from Paul (where I’m tempted to also add “after carefully examining the evidence”) and “Holy crap!” from @_njd_ over on Titter. I would love some more suggestions on this please.
Overall my trip to the Creation Museum was a highly interesting and education cultural experience. Although I must admit the only reason I’m not running away screaming is that I made a conscious choice to look at the whole thing in a detached way. There are some deeply worrying messages and ideas in the whole thing, and the fact that people believe them – even people I work with – is truly scary.
You can find possibly slightly blurry photos of a lot of the exhibits in the Creation Museum here.