Paleontologists take issue with creation-based museum

2009-10-18T00:00:00Z Paleontologists take issue with creation-based museumDONNA HEALY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 18, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Here's what several paleontologists who do fieldwork in Montana had to say about a creation-based dinosaur museum:

Mary Schweitzer is a paleontologist at North Carolina State University who continues to return to her home state of Montana to do fieldwork. She is also research curator at the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

When she found remnants of soft tissue in a T. rex bone excavated in Montana, creationists used her find to argue that soft tissue couldn't possibly survive millions of years.

"I haven't been to the museum. But I think the whole subject of a creation-based museum combines really bad science and really weak faith," she said.

"It's a misunderstanding of what is a science to begin with. ... If you're doing science, you have to play by certain rules. They're trying to rewrite the rules of science and call it science."

Just because something is not capable of being evaluated scientifically, doesn't mean it's not real, she said.

"I'm a very strong Christian. My faith means everything to me," Schweitzer said.

She believes God has a grand purpose for life on Earth.

"What means the most to God is faith," she said. "He's never, ever going to be proved by scientific means. … God doesn't need our help proving his existence. I don't think Christians have to be afraid of anything that's out there in the realm of scientific study.

"Faith and science support each other very well, if you let God be God and science be science," she said.

Asked about her own scientific discovery of remnants of soft tissue in a dinosaur's thigh bone, she said that until fairly recently scientists assumed DNA degrades quickly. But, in 1983, a researcher did DNA testing on a sample of dried flesh from a subspecies of zebra known as a quagga. The quagga became extinct 125 years ago.

Using her find to support arguments of a young Earth is "the erection of a false idea, that soft tissue can't be preserved," she said. "We don't know much about how tissue degrades in bone."

David Varricchio, a paleontologist on the faculty at Montana State University, Bozeman, said the museum may be a sad reflection of the failure of the public and politicians to support science education.

"You could call a place like that a temple of ignorance, that is kind of how I would describe it. It's an erroneous portrait of evolution," he said.

Varricchio cites the existence of multiple drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis as an example of evolution in modern life.

"I guess I kind of feel like anything that denies the science that explains that is a very serious thing," he said.

An understanding of the development of fossil fuels depends on a correct understanding of geology, he said. It seems ironic that people would use fossil fuels in their car to drive to a museum that denies the underlying science involved in developing that fuel.

"The idea that man and dinosaurs co-existed, that was laughable in the 1840s," Varricchio said.

Some scientists avoid talking about evolution because it offends some people, he said.

"I don't think in the long run it does us any good."

Insects evolve in response to insecticides. Weeds evolve in response to pesticides. Deadly viruses evolve.

"If you don't buy evolution, then good luck with your kid not getting swine flu or something more serious," he said.

Kristi Curry Rogers, a paleontologist on the faculty at Macalester College, is a media spokeswoman for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology on dinosaur evolution. She is also a research associate with the Science Museum of Minnesota at St. Paul. Rogers does fieldwork in the Missouri Breaks as well as other locations.

People typically go to a science museum to learn something about science. At traditional science museums, the public can get really cutting-edge information, she said.

"This is the opposite of a science museum. It's really misleading to the public. … It does a disservice to what the rest of Glendive is about."

Glendive is one of the best places in the world to connect with the fieldwork being done by paleontologists, she said.

"I just feel like couching this as a science museum is a travesty," she said. "It is essentially an organization using the disguise of science museums, and there is no science inside that building," she said.

Although she has not visited the museum, the museum's Web site makes its mission clear, she said.

"Making science an enemy to belief systems is really a problem," she said.

People are better off visiting Makoshika State Park or the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum, museums that interpret fossils in the light of the latest scientific data, she said.

Some of the evidence on the age of dinosaur bones comes from radiometric dates, absolute dates based on the half-life of isotopes.

"We have good, sound evidence from the fossil record that the large bodied dinosaurs, what we usually think of as dinosaurs, went extinct 65 million years ago," she said.

Since paleontologists now tend to agree that birds descended from dinosaurs, technically the descendants of dinosaurs are still around.

Paleontologists explain the mud and shale of the Hell Creek Formation as evidence of rivers and their flood plains on the edge of an inland seaway that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico.

"There is no evidence for any sort of catastrophic flooding during the formation of the Hell Creek Formation," she said.

The shared ancestry between man and other creatures is "what makes life so beautiful," Rogers said.

"We have a long and deep connection to everything from dinosaurs to primates to bacteria."

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