Do you want conspiracy theorists to create the nation's scientific research agenda? Does it make sense to take their bizarre views seriously?
Consider just a handful of the strange and false claims that currently abound and the damage they've caused: AIDS was created by the CIA and is spread throughout Africa via polio inoculations; mercury in vaccinations cause autism; and adding fluoride to drinking water was a communist plot to undermine the strength of Americans. Or consider the nature of science education when weird conspiracy theories like the following are taught as fact: the lunar landing was a hoax; the energy companies are suppressing research showing that it is possible to power automobiles with water; and the massive die-off of honeybees are the result of the desire by food corporations to control the production of our food supply.
Crazy, right? Now add to the mix an outsized dollop of fundamentalist religion, a multi-million dollar theme park disguised as a museum, and a huge ego coupled with a publicity department. What you get is actually a number of very interesting things that are worthy of our attention.
Ken Ham, the head of the Creation Museum cum theme park, penned a column this week that "explained" the reason for a portion of NASA's research activity. He asserted that "The search for extraterrestrial life is really driven by man's rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!"
The most striking aspect of this sentence is that in just 21 words Ham was able to make so many major scientific and intellectual blunders. Let me point out just the three most obvious. First, the modern theory of evolution, both that allele frequencies in a population change over time and that descent with modification has occurred among the Earth's biota, in no way rests on the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrial life.
Second, science proceeds by disproof rather than proof. While a great experiment or careful observations can yield data that demonstrate that a scientific hypothesis is incorrect, no experiment will "prove" a scientific theory. Scientists always have to be open to the possibility that a better, a fuller, explanation for the data before them might be offered.
Third, it is an amazing act of hubris to declare an entire field of scientific investigation to be driven by "man's rebellion against God." Ham refers to those who are searching for extraterrestrial life as "secular scientists" ignoring the obvious fact that the field of astronomy, like all human endeavors, is populated by both religious and non-religious individuals. While no additional refutation of this point is really necessary, let me draw your attention to a single, impressive example that demonstrates just how inane Ham's conclusion is.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) recently announced the 2014 winner of their Carl Sagan Medal. Their choice was Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory. In their announcement, the AAS noted that, "As a Jesuit Brother, Guy has become the voice of the juxtaposition of planetary science and astronomy with Christian belief, a rational spokesperson who can convey exceptionally well how religion and science can co-exist for believers."
Guy has published numerous popular books on astronomy and, with Father Paul Mueller, another astronomer working at the Vatican Observatory, will release his latest book in October. The book, entitled Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? And Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory, is one that Ham might want to read.
The book's eponymous question is particularly pertinent to Ham's essay in that he clearly proffered an answer:
the Bible makes it clear that Adam's sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam's sin, but because they are not Adam's descendants, they can't have salvation... Only descendants of Adam can be saved... An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race--human beings who are all descendants of Adam.
Oddly enough, in a follow up essay, Ham has taken umbrage at news reports that he declared that aliens, if found, would be going to hell. But isn't that exactly what he said in his original essay?
Similarly, he is aghast that people have claimed that he called for a halt to the search for extraterrestrial life. Why such a claim should trouble him so is unclear since he began his original essay by saying, "I'm shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life." And he went on to add, "I do believe there can't be other intelligent beings in outer space because of the meaning of the gospel." I can only assume that upon reading the responses generated by his original essay he became embarrassed and tried to re-craft his position.
It's worth noting that Ham's original essay ended not with his version of the gospel or with an additional crazy conspiracy theory about God-hating secular scientists. Instead it ended by focusing on what I believe his operation is really about: money. He encouraged readers to purchase materials from his store "to help teach people the truth about aliens and UFOs." As I've written before, when examining Ham and his theme park, you need to follow the money.