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08 December 2010

Skeptical Investigations: The Creation Museum

Cross-posted from the Winnipeg Skeptics blog!

On 13 November 2010, Ashlyn Noble of the Winnipeg Skeptics organised a visit to Winnipeg's very own Creation Museum. An article detailing the trip appeared in the Uniter (discussed here), and prior to the trip several of us met to discuss the specific claims outlined on the museum's website (notes on specific claims can be found here). What follows is an account of the trip itself.

The museum is just around the corner from my house, so I walked. It was fairly chilly. I remember feeling relieved, as I'd just finished preparing for a talk that I was presenting later that evening, and I was looking forward to a bit of light fun. I was not to be disappointed.

When I arrived, several skeptics were loitering outside. We were a little early, and the University of Winnipeg's Atheist Student Association was touring the facility, so we stood around and gawked at the sign. It was vaguely reminiscent of Kent Hovind's—or, to give his full academic title: Mr. Kent Hovind's—dinosaur-themed plywood monstrosity of miseducation. This is probably because Kids Like Dinosaurs. Get 'em while they're young, right?

We were soon ushered inside and downstairs. In the basement we found a fair sized gymnasium, with a small side-room which contained the museum itself. Before being shown the exhibits by museum curator John Feakes, his assistant presented to us a slideshow which purported to highlight the main problems with atheism in general and evolution in specific (if you don't consider evolution to be a subdivision of atheism, well... then you're a rational person).

Before the slideshow began, I was personally presented with two items: a creationist textbook (In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood, Eighth Edition, by Walt Brown, Ph.D., a mechanical engineer) and a compact disc, which contained the PowerPoint slides that we were about to see and a summary of the evidences found in the museum, along with citations where appropriate.

I'll make the museum notes and PowerPoint presentation available here; I think that the commentary that I'm providing constitutes fair use, and given my conversations with Mr. Feakes, I'm certain that he wouldn't mind. If it turns out that I'm mistaken, I will remove them. The entire text of In the Beginning is (apparently) available for free online here.

Museum Notes
PowerPoint Presentation

My overwhelming impression was that these people were genuinely open to discussion on the topic. I don't think that they were interested in having their minds changed, but, in stark contrast to Ray Comfort et al., I did not get the impression that they were being intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think that they were honestly mistaken—they had accepted several false (or unsupported) premises along the way, and now they were stuck.

I won't discuss the slideshow in detail, as it actually had very little to do with evolutionary theory, but it was very full of hilarity. A small sample:

All unaccounted for by the atheist


The buoyancy of tugboats and the process by which moustaches grow are also unaccounted for by atheism. Atheism is a single position on a single topic. I'm not going to waste my time on these, because they are completely unrelated to the topic at hand. There are plenty of fairly good naturalistic explanations for the existence of these three concepts. If you want to learn about reason, science, and morality, I recommend you start by looking them up on Wikipedia.

Most of the claims that were made during the tour were actually dealt with in the post that I threw together before we went to the museum. I'd recommend checking it out. In the meantime, let's move on to the museum proper.

We started out with the blatant falsehood (sarcasm) that is the geologic column. Feakes repeated several of the claims from his website, we challenged them, etc., etc. ad nauseam. We were in a good position, as the eighteen (or so) of us were fairly well-versed in the theory of evolution. We were also lucky enough to have several specialists in the crowd, including students of both archaeology and biology and a biblical scholar. When the discussion moved past my (fairly broad but admittedly shallow) knowledge of the subject, these folks were all too happy to leap into the breach.

I noticed that the creationists evinced a bizarre (but not uncommon) tendency to conflate evolution, abiogenesis, and cosmogeny. I explained repeatedly that the theory of evolution only describes the origins of biodiversity after life first arose (although chemical evolution could probably carry us further back), while Feakes countered that he'd heard astronomers refer to stellar evolution. This seemed to be a sticky point for him, which it shouldn't be. I told him that whether evolution applies to stars depends on what is meant by "evolution": the word can be applied generally to refer to any sort of change over time or it can signify the biological theory which his museum purports to refute. To use both meanings at once is to be guilty of an fallacy of equivocation. The theory of evolution does not deal with the origins of life or of the cosmos. It's that simple.

I think that everyone maintained a fairly congenial demeanour throughout what quickly became a frustrating experience. Unfortunately, because we were pressed for time, we frequently had to curtail the debate and move on.

Over the course of the tour, Feakes made use of several arguments against evolution that even Answers in Genesis has repudiated. He acknowledged this fact with impressive forthrightness. His response? "When I start working for Answers in Genesis, I'll stop using these arguments." He seemed oblivious to the reason that AiG doesn't want him to use these arguments: they are absurd.

As the tour wore on, I grew increasingly annoyed by John Feakes' dogged insistence that these purported anomalies in the geological record falsified evolution. In exasperation, I pointed out that while evolution is at least in principle falsifiable, creationism is not.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Any set of evidences would be consistent with the work of an all-powerful creator deity. If you assume a God who can do anything, then anything that happens is consistent with your hypothesis!"

John disagreed, stating that he wasn't simply a creationist: he was a "Christian Creationist"—to falsify his position, one simply needed to falsify Jesus.

Oh, is that all? See, falsification is problematic when you're dealing with historical, rather than scientific, propositions.

Later, I pointed out that not only were there no contemporary, extrabiblical accounts of Jesus in history (and one could be forgiven for supposing that there should be, considering that he was magic), but that there was no reason to believe that the Gospels themselves were eyewitness accounts. Rather than being aghast at the suggestion that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might not have been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I was amused to see that Feakes was more perplexed than anything. "What do you mean?" he asked. "John was one of the apostles and Mark was St. Peter's secretary." I found his innocence startling and a little sad. Yes, I know that's who John and Peter were supposed to be. But those attributions are almost entirely discredited by the textual critics who study the works in question.

During the section on human evolution, we spent some time discussing the complexity of DNA. Feakes spent a lot of time on arguments that just came down to the oft-refuted irreducible complexity. He also argued that the efficiency of information storage in DNA was evidence for design. I indicated that I found this puzzling, as DNA does not actually store information very efficiently at all. "What are you talking about?" Feakes asked. "DNA is basically double-coded binary. You're a computer guy, you know about binary!"

(Yes, he said "double-coded binary". I remember that exact term, because it was so weird. I guess he meant base-4, which would be more-or-less right.)

The thing is, as bases get smaller, efficiency drops. Binary is basically as inefficient as you can get in terms of information storage. Anyone who makes the smallest effort to understand the math knows that! Storing information in base-4 is the third-least efficient method that a creator deity might have used!

Mr. Feakes asked if I agreed that redundancy could be a sign of design. I easily granted him the premise that good design often had in-built redundancy: better to have two kidneys than just one, for example. John didn't really take this argument anywhere, though, and I found it amusing that he claimed both redundancy and efficiency as evidence of design.

Em examines reproductions of art that depicts either a stegosaurus or any other generic animal. You decide!

A creationist oncologist (now if that isn't a terrifying combination of adjectives, I don't know what is) showed up at one point, and asked me for a single example of observed evolution. Off the top of my head, I mentioned the (aerobic) metabolism of citrate in E. coli bacteria. This was, of course, unacceptable, because it was only "microevolution".

I find this defence hilarious, as they admit that "microevolution" occurs while discounting so-called macroevolution. I was happy to point out that young-Earthers actually believe in a much faster, more powerful version of evolution than "evilutionists": since they have roughly 4,500 years since the flood to explain biodiversity, originating from a (relative) handful of "kinds", they have to posit some sort of "super evolution", while simultaneously denying that small changes can add up to large ones.

See? Hilarious.

(That's not to say that rapid evolution has not been observed to occur: Robert points us to the example of the Italian Wall Lizard.)

This creationist oncologist fellow maintained that I still had no proof of evolution, and he responded with incredulity when I told him that "proof" isn't a scientific concept. I waited for his spluttering to die down before I said that proof is a philosophical, logical, and mathematical concept.

I went on to chat about the pseudogene that used to code for production of vitamin C. Because has an excellent description of this research, prepare for some copy-pasta!

Recently, the L-gulano-γ-lactone oxidase gene, the gene required for Vitamin C synthesis, was found in humans and guinea pigs (Nishikimi et al. 1992; Nishikimi et al. 1994). It exists as a pseudogene, present but incapable of functioning (see prediction 4.4 for more about pseudogenes). In fact, since this was originally written the vitamin C pseudogene has been found in other primates, exactly as predicted by evolutionary theory. We now have the DNA sequences for this broken gene in chimpanzees, orangutans, and macaques (Ohta and Nishikimi 1999). And, as predicted, the malfunctioning human and chimpanzee pseudogenes are the most similar, followed by the human and orangutan genes, followed by the human and macaque genes, precisely as predicted by evolutionary theory. Furthermore, all of these genes have accumulated mutations at the exact rate predicted (the background rate of mutation for neutral DNA regions like pseudogenes) (Ohta and Nishikimi 1999).

An excellent example of a prediction made by evolutionary theory and later validated by scientists.

Ashlyn captioned this photo: "Gem – logicing the pants off the creationists."

After the main tour through the museum, we were treated to a Q&A session. It was apparently recorded by Feakes, however I don't have a copy. I'll try to summarise.

The Kalam cosmological argument was advanced. I pointed out the compositional fallacy involved in stating that since everything in the cosmos had a cause, therefore the cosmos itself had a cause. The end.

At one point, Feakes mentioned that God spoke to him. I was a little concerned by this, but the assembled creationists seemed surprised and offended when I asked if he actually heard God's voice audibly. Given what we'd seen and heard that afternoon, and that the man had just said that God spoke to him, I thought that it was a legitimate question.

Before we left, a church elder made the argument from prophecy. He said that the Jews had returned to reclaim Israel, which was somehow magical because they had been driven from their land, met with severe oppression and violence at every turn, with multiple attempts made to destroy their culture, all while remaining a distinct and identifiable people, before finally being given back their home.

The elder challenged us to name another group that had been systematically persecuted and nearly wiped out, but had survived as a distinct group with a unique culture. Without pause, I said, "Off the top of my head, American Aboriginals?" He blinked, then said: "But they haven't been systematically persecuted or wiped out!" At this point, the assembled skeptics erupted in derisive laughter.

But even if there weren't another group that fit his description, it's irrelevant. He's taking a description of what happened to the Jews and pretending that it was part of the prophecy, when (as far as I know), it wasn't (a kind of sharpshooter fallacy). It's not unlikely that there may have been Christian Zionists actively working toward this goal, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, it could be just one of those things that happens.

I'll quote from Iron Chariots:

The Bible (specifically Daniel) predicts that the nation of Israel would be reborn, and its creation in 1948 is often taken as the fulfillment of that prophecy. But of course this happened because people worked to make it happen, in part because of the prophecy. Most scholars believe the Israel that was "predicted" (Daniel was written after the fact) was the Israel created under the Maccabees.

Isn't it odd that every generation seems to claim that they are living in the final days before Armageddon?

For the most part, the museum boiled down to Christian Presuppositionalism, arguments from ignorance, irreducible complexity, and the idea that because some scientists had purportedly falsified data, the sciences of geology and archaeology could safely be dismissed. There was also, of course, a double-helping of anomaly hunting. (For more on anomaly hunting, I recommend these articles by Steve Novella.)

If you were there and you'd like to provide your take on the experience in comments, please do!


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this up, I was planning to get around to it after exams but you just have the best phrasing for this sort of thing. I'm seriously sitting here crying with laughter.

  2. I do hope that you and Leslie will chime in with your thoughts at some point, too! Best of luck with exams!

  3. Also, you get today's Sanity Award for being the first comment of the day that isn't David Mabus/Dennis Markuze!

  4. For sure! I'll never want to forget the day I learned that plants are not in fact, alive, after all.

    I will treasure this sanity award always.

  5. In case anyone missed a late night TV comment on the Ark theme park in Kentucky: (Conan)

    "Developers in Kentucky plan on opening a creationist theme park. Yeah. When asked what the creationist theme park would look like, developers said it's still evolving."

    Thanks for organizing the trip Ashlyn, and thanks for the recount Gem! I maintain that there were no eyewitness accounts, that prophesy proves Jesus wrong (see sign of Jonah), and that a literal reading of Genesis misses even the authors intent...

    I'll make the Kings Head one of these months :)

  6. Anyone remember the name of the book Feakes kept mentioning which purported to tell all about falsification of human skulls by archaeologists and museum curators? I seem to recall that it was written by an orthodontist.

  7. All science enters the presuppositional world, no matter who handles it, whether you are a Christian or an atheist. All evidence is interpreted and judged--according to one's worldview. That is undeniable.

    Irreducible complexity is quite the powerful concept to fend off for the evolutionist. I have read the recent, advanced theories opposed to the concept, and they are lacking (I should say they take leaps). But they are expounded in such a way that not many people understand the depth of language.

    I would love to hear your perspective on the subject of irreducible complexity.

    1. In that case, I recommend that you listen to the two-part episode of the Life, the Universe & Everything Else podcast in which we discuss common creationist claims, including claims of irreducible complexity:

      LUEE Episode 34: Common Creationist Claims, Part 1

      LUEE Episode 36: Common Creationist Claims, Part 2