Several months ago, my mother sent me some books for the children. Most of them were standard fare and some I was really excited about, but one thing stuck out—an Answers magazine insert about volcanoes and designed for children. Answers, of course, is the publication of Answers in Genesis, a young earth creationist organization my parents support. At six, Sally is scientifically inclined and knows quite a bit about evolution from books, documentaries, and episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. She also knows that her grandparents don’t believe in evolution. She was completely aghast when she first found out.
Young earth creationism is central to my parents’ beliefs, and it was to mine, too, until I became a theistic evolutionist (and later an atheist) while in college. My mother has already said some things to Sally about it—just little pieces—and I know she’ll say more about it in the future. But rather than shut my mother out of Sally’s life or bar my mother from mentioning it, I’ve opted to instead focus on making sure Sally is informed and prepared for any comments she may here or questions she may receive. In this interest, I handed her the Answers magazine insert and told her what it was.
Sally scanned the insert, reading about volcanos and magma and fault lines. “This all looks right, mom!” she told me, surprised. And that—that right there—is one of the most powerful tools young earth creationists use to win people over to their position. They include enough accurate scientific information that the bits that are wrong are generally surrounded by bits that are completely correct. It’s like putting a pill in chocolate pudding. And so I took the insert from Sally and showed her the points that were incorrect—namely, sentences that referenced the floods or geological timetables centered on the flood. By my count, there were only three incorrect sentences in the entire insert. The remainder of the insert covered standard scientific information.
This conversation brought to mind a Friendly Atheist article I had read and bookmarked some time earlier. Here is an excerpt from the article:
According to the new hire at Answers in Genesis, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson, there are perfectly good reasons so many scientists reject Creationism.
They go to public schools, for example. And how do you expect to learn any real science when the curriculum is dictated by practicing scientists and expert educators and you use textbooks that don’t have “Bible” on the cover?
They also don’t read any Creationist literature. If they did, he argues, they would totally abandon that whole “we need evidence” nonsense.
Hemant quotes from Jeanson and then notes, correctly of course, that Jeanson’s reference to “young earth creationist scholarly” literature is stretching reality to the snapping point. But there’s an important take away here—young earth creationists like Jeanson honestly and truly believe that they are doing scholarly work. They believe they’re doing science. I sometimes see people deride creationists for reading only “one book,” but this misses the wider array of creationist literature. The passionate creationists I know have all read many books on the topic, not simply the Bible. Indeed, an individual could read dozens and dozens of books that appear, to the layperson, to be “scholarly” in nature without ever strolling outside of the highly detailed and very insular world constructed by creationist publishers.
You can see why this would be convincing to someone already predisposed to be a young earth creationist. Imagine a person who believes in God and the Bible but has been taught the theory of evolution. Then a friend who is a creationist shows them scientific books showing that actually, science reveals that God created the world in six days. This friend takes them to an Answers in Genesis conference at a local church where they hear credentialed scientists using scientific-sounding language to reveal that evolution is fundamentally flawed and that geology indicates a young earth and a recent creation. It’s not surprising that the young earth creationism packaged and marketed by Answers in Genesis is so convincing to so many. It has a scientific veneer that gives it seeming credibility.
But what really struck me about Hemet’s post was his use of the image below, with the caption “Creationists think this is science.”
The reason this image struck me is that I remember sitting in an Answers in Genesis conference when I was around 16 years old and hearing Ken Ham explain that images like this are one of the greatest enemies young earth creationism has. He put an image like this one up on the screen in the sanctuary and explained that these images, splashed across Sunday school walls in churches across the country, condition people to see young earth creationism as a myth. After all, we all know that a boat like that could never have held two of every animal, and certainly wouldn’t have survived the ravages of a global catastrophic flood. He urged people not to display images like this, and called on churches to accurately portray what the Bible says the ark looked like.
See, there are entire creationist books about the flood and about the ark. There are books full of scientific calculations explaining how Noah and his sons and their wives could have housed and fed two of every animals for months on end. These books explain how the ark would have been constructed, discuss the materials that would have bene available, and answer criticism thrown at the story. No one at Answers in Genesis thinks the image above is science. Instead, they think it’s nonsense. This, instead, is what the ark actually looked like, according to their calculations:
And lest you think I’m exaggerating the efforts to which Ken Ham et al. go to debunk the Noah’s Ark of Sunday school wall fame, take a look at this image:
When Sally skimmed the Answers magazine insert, she was expecting something ridiculous, something unscientific and unrealistic. Instead, she read about tectonic plates and heat and eruptions. Answers in Genesis is successful not in spite of science but rather because of science.
And yes, they do science wrong. They start with a conclusion and then work backwards from there, rather than the other way around. Further, many of their attempts to use science are laughably bad, such as their insistence that neanderthals and homo floriensis (the hobbit people) were descended from the descendants of Noah who gathered at Babel several hundred years after the flood (that is not how genetics works) and lived as little as two to three thousand years ago (that is not how archaeology works). Still, if they relied on displaying photos like the Sunday school version of Noah’s Ark rather than on using scientific language to explain and justify the first chapters of Genesis, young earth creationists would have a far smaller audience.
Sally was fascinated by this explanation, of course. She looked again at the insert, trying to discern where the science ended and where the story started. I was glad, in the end, that my mother had sent the insert. It gave me the opportunity to show Sally that young earth creationism isn’t all just fantastical myths and stories, it’s also a bastardization of science to serve an agenda. And you know what? Understanding that what sounds scientific is not necessarily in fact scientific will not only help her navigate young earth creationism but also aid her in her finding her way through the twists and turns of various other scientific battles we face in our society today, from contests over vaccinations and autism to discussion of GMOs and organic food.