Saturday, May 26, 2007

There's a Huckster Born Every Minute

A 21st-century equivalent of the Cardiff Giant is set to open this week in Kentucky.

Back in the 1860s, an intricately carved gypsum statue of a large human was planted on a farm near Cardiff, New York. When it was dug up by unsuspecting workmen (who had been directed by the spot to dig a well by the people who planted the fake), it became an immediate sensation. Thousands of people traveled to see the "giant" and paid as much as a dollar a head to see it (an extraordinary amount for the average person in 1869).

When P. T. Barnum asserted (correctly, it turned out) that the giant was a "fake" -- he was displaying his own phony giant, asserting that it was real -- one of his competitors told a newspaper that "there's a sucker born every minute." That phrase has, ever since, been inaccurately attributed to Barnum himself, even to the point that it became the theme of a song in the Broadway musical, Barnum, almost three decades ago.

What has this got to do with Kentucky in 2007? One of the reasons the Cardiff Giant was such a successful hoax in the 1860s was that, as notes, "many an evangelist at the time had been preaching that there were giants in the earth." People were inclined to believe in the hoax because people they would otherwise trust planted a suggestion in their minds that it might be true, just as huckster George Hull could plant the fake giant and wait for the right moment to bring it out of the ground.

Now, according to Sunday's Washington Post, a group of extreme anti-intellectuals from the evangelical movement are set to open a "Creation Museum," in Petersburg, Kentucky (near Cincinnati), which cost $27 million to build, a "museum" that is every bit as much a hoax today as the Cardiff Giant was in its time:

The Creation Museum, a project of the socially conservative religious organization Answers in Genesis, mocks evolutionary science and invites visitors to find faith and truth in God. It welcomes its first paying guests -- $19.95 for adults, $9.95 for children, not counting discounts for joining a mailing list -- just weeks after three Republican presidential candidates said they do not believe in evolution.

Opinion polls suggest that about half of Americans agree. They dismiss the scientific theory that all beings have a common ancestor, believing instead that God created humans in one glorious stroke. Similar numbers say the world's age should be counted in the thousands of years, not billions, as established science would have it....

The Creation Museum is located for easy access near an interstate and an airport on 49 acres of rolling hills where woolly mammoth roamed until about 10,000 years ago. Designed to inspire Christian belief, the facility was largely built with contributions of $100 or less, although three families gave at least $1 million each, said Mark Looy, an Answers in Genesis co-founder.

To put together a museum with pizzazz, the planners recruited Patrick Marsh, the designer who created the "Jaws" and "King Kong" attractions at Universal Studios in Florida. The exhibits, backed by dozens of professionally produced videos, keep the action lively, and the content coming -- "to create something of a 'Wow!' factor," said Looy, who expects 250,000 visitors the first year.

Set aside for a moment the shocking statistic that millions of Americans are either willfully or unsuspectingly ignorant enough to think that the universe is only a few thousand years old. The blame for that should most likely be laid at the feet of the government schools. (Though that does not fully explain those otherwise intelligent politicians who wish to lead our country, but whose egos are bigger than their brains.)

Fortunately, there are some distinguished scientists ready to speak out against this fraud. Physicist Lawrence Krauss pulled no punches in a commentary during Friday's edition of the National Public Radio program, Marketplace:
... if you want to renounce modern science as flawed, then an intellectually honest approach would be to also renounce technologies such as airplanes, cars and even radios that work using precisely the same scientific principles that tell us the earth is well over 6,000 years old.

But that's not the approach the Creation Museum takes. It renounces knowledge, but has spent lavishly on creating the illusion of science.

So, they've created a museum that appears scientific, but that simply lies about the science instead.
Krauss, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University, concludes, rightly in my view (as I have written elsewhere):
Religion doesn't have to be bad science. And, similarly, bad science shouldn't be defended simply because it might have a religious basis.

While religious tolerance is important, there should be little tolerance for promoting or consuming such religiously motivated scientific fraud.
He also laments, however, that
Alas, such scientific fraud is not subject to legal intervention unless there is a financially injured party.

But what of the intellectual injury to thousands of young children who might visit the museum — built to be within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population — and who come out confused about science, the very thing that can give them a competitive edge in the modern world.
I think Dr. Krauss concedes too much when he says this fraud "is not subject to legal intervention."

At $19.95 a pop for adults and $9.95 for children, with an expected quarter-million visitors in its first year, surely we can find some intelligent tourist willing to plop down a couple of Hamiltons or a Jackson to tour the exhibits, only to emerge disillusioned and disappointed at the lies told to him, with a willingness to pursue a class-action lawsuit on behalf of himself and all the thousands of others who were subject to the high-tech Answers in Genesis con game.

Anyone heading to Petersburg, Kentucky, this summer? If so, I might be able to find you a good plaintiff's lawyer.


Anonymous said...


While I agree with what you have written, I also agree with the following excerpt from the Catholic New Advent Encyclopedia:


To what extent is the theory of evolution applicable to man? That God should have made use of natural, evolutionary, original causes in the production of man's body, is per se not improbable, and was propounded by St. Augustine (see AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, SAINT, under V. Augustinism in History). The actual proofs of the descent of man's body from animals is, however, inadequate, especially in respect to paleontology. And the human soul could not have been derived through natural evolution from that of the brute, since it is of a spiritual nature; for which reason we must refer its origin to a creative act on the part of God.


God always uses what He has created to bring about what He wants. He made the Laws of Physics, Chemistry and Biology. With those Laws He made man - just not in the literal way that fundamentalists think.


Paul P.

Anonymous said...

US President Tim Kalemkarian, US Senate Tim Kalemkarian, US House Tim Kalemkarian: best major candidate.

MB said...

Plaintiff's lawyer? Forget that. What I'm taking to Petersburg is magic beans or the title to the Brooklyn Bridge. These folk'll make me rich!

Anonymous said...

About your article title...I believe W. C. Fields said, "There's a sucker born every minute" That's not the complete line, though--the complete line is: "There's a sucker born every minute...and a con man every 59 seconds."