Exploratorium vs. Creation Museum

It might seem that much of what we do at NCSE is reactive, involving an endless thrust and parry with creationists and deniers of climate change. Although responding to flare-ups is essential to winning local battles, it's not enough to win the larger campaign. For that, we promote the teaching of sound science in public schools, with which I have recently had a rewarding experience.

Last week I helped chaperone 200 seniors (including my son Michael) from Berkeley International High School (BIHS) on a combined science class field trip to the Exploratorium on San Francisco’s waterfront. This fabulously renovated hands-on science museum is described as “a twenty-first-century learning laboratory, an eye-opening, always-changing, playful place to explore and tinker.” For more than forty years the Exploratorium has put together creative, thought-provoking exhibits, tools, programs, and experiences that ignite students' curiosity, encourage exploration, and foster the enjoyment of learning.

On the BART journey to San Francisco I had the opportunity to speak with a number of young men and women about their interests and plans. These were seniors, excited and nervous about their SATs, their college applications and their plans for the future. Some were surprisingly vague at this stage in their senior year, but others knew precisely what they wanted to do. For example, one young woman declared that her goals include earning an undergraduate degree from historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, then concentrating on the sciences in graduate school and earning a doctorate in neuroscience or biochemistry.

As students disappeared into the cavernous, well-lit interior of the Exploratorium, I could see that they were very busy exploring the different exhibit areas on aspects of physics (e.g., optics, sound, motion, magnetism, etc.) and on biology, chemistry, geology and other sciences. There is a large area called the "Tinkering Studio" where visitors can put scientific concepts into practice. As I wandered around this magnificent exhibit hall, I wondered what it would be like if I lived in the Midwest and our school took students to the Creation Museum, opened in Kentucky in 2007 by Answers in Genesis (AiG). The two institutions have a few things in common: both are housed in large buildings, both have colorful exhibits, and both have explanatory panels. The similarities end there.

At the Exploratorium every exhibit allows visitors to manipulate different configurations of tools, materials, and apparatus to affect the outcome of a particular scientific inquiry. The panels push the students beyond a mere reaction of “hey, that’s neat” or “that’s weird.” Rather, each exhibit station asks the question “What’s happening here?” to draw students more deeply into the learning experience. They're urged to probe the scientific problem and to propose possible answers.

In contrast, the Creation Museum begins not with an invitation to a critical perspective or with the view that all hypotheses are provisional and subject to revision.  Rather, the AiG site presents the prospective visitor with the theme “prepare to believe” the biblical creation story. The home page proudly declares:

“The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Majestic murals, great masterpieces brimming with pulsating colors and details, provide a backdrop for many of the settings.”

NCSE has already published Timothy Heaton’s excellent review of the Creation Museum  (2007), so let me quote:

“This is a biblical worldview with a few scientific elements thrown in for show. The creation model presented in the museum represents a reconciliation that holds true to the Bible, but this does not mean that the fit is good or that the conglomeration is scientific. In the primary literature some creationists have willingly admitted the scientific drawbacks of their models, but the museum presents creationism as a fully developed, unified model that covers all the scientific and scriptural evidence. Untrained visitors will be deceived by this presentation. To be honest the museum needs to admit frankly that creationism is not scientific and that its attempts to incorporate scientific findings are meager at best.”

What became clear to me on this field trip is that there is an enormous difference in the nature of the student experience offered by Kentucky’s Creation Museum and that offered by San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The Berkeley High students were reminded that science is the great adventure of probing the foundations and systems of the world around us, that explanations are provisional in nature, and that when one theory fails you discard it and seek another. This approach is catergorically different from what students would derive from a “museum” that presents science as little more than dogmatic assent to a pre-packaged view of the world conforming to one particular prescientific text drawn from one particular religious tradition. I am confident that Berkeley High students and others who have fully probed the resources of the Exploratorium will enter adult life far better prepared both to understand and to appreciate the universe in which they have evolved.