Guest Columns

Alternative Facts, Post Truth & The Great American Eclipse


Brice Particelli

History is filled with solar eclipse stories. One is associated with the start of a civil war in England, when an eclipse coincided with the death of King Henry I in 1135. Another is chronicled in the Islamic text Bukhari Sharif, following the death of Muhammad’s infant son in 632. The earliest in written record was in China, 2137 B.C.E., when astrologers Ho and Hsi got drunk and failed to predict one. To miss an eclipse was a bad omen, so the emperor cut off their heads.

One of the most famous was in 1919 when Arthur Eddington used an eclipse to provide evidence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. By comparing how starlight moves past the sun, versus how it travels at night, Eddington offered proof that gravity causes light to bend. It made Einstein a celebrity overnight, and the findings were reproduced again and again until it became an accepted theory.

During the 2017 eclipse, I was at the controversial Creation Museum, which uses selective science to claim that our 14-billion-year-old universe is, in fact, only 6,022 years old.

I was there in part because I have family nearby, and this place has always intrigued me, but also because as a professor my research in education has increasingly turned toward how we dupe and get duped by misinformation. In a society where phrases like “alternative facts,” “post truth,” and “fake news” abound, the idea of a place that mimics science education—imitating the exhibits, placards, curricula, architecture, and children’s programming of natural history museums—to promote an anti-science message was too interesting to ignore. And what better time to visit than when our country’s eyes are focused on a science-explained event—our moon passing between our planet and our star?

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Built in 2008 with $27 million—a significant amount of money in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky, the Creation Museum has seen more than three million visitors. With a petting zoo, ropes course, lagoon and gardens, and 75,000-square-feet of stone and glass structures, it bears resemblance to any large natural history museum.

Past an armed guard and a brontosaurus statue, the glass doors open to a grand hall with a thirty-foot Chinese paper dragon hanging above. An animatronic display of a child plays next to two velociraptors, and display cases hold imitation scrolls and swords of famous dragon myths, along with a guiding question: “Were Dinosaurs Dragons?”

The overwhelming answer is, “Yes.”

It’ll cost you $30 to get any further, and $5 to leave, paid to a talkative parking lot attendant.

These “Young Earth Creationists,” as they describe themselves, argue for a version of earth history that fits a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible. The earth, sun, stars, and humans were created on October 23rd, 4004 B.C.E. and a global flood killed almost everything in 2348 B.C.E., leaving only two of each kind of animal on a boat with eight people, including 600-year-old Noah.

From that starting point, the facility crams in a few selected pieces of scientific discovery. The supercontinent of Pangaea existed, sure, but it broke into seven continents during the one-year flood rather than over 200 million years. And when the boat landed, animals repopulated the earth on rafts of fallen trees—kangaroos to Australia, tigers to India, ocelots to Mexico, dragons to Denmark.

Science isn’t denied here, not exactly, but it is drastically manipulated, even putting poetry to work. Along the walls, exhibits explain that one-thousand-year-old children’s stories like Beowulf and St. George and the Dragon are proof that giants and dinosaurs roamed the earth in recent history. And because unicorns are mentioned in the King James Bible, they existed too. (Even though “unicorn” is just a creative translation of the Hebrew word re’em, a wild ox.)

It’s an exhilarating history built on the imagination of our fictions: The Flintstones, Godzilla, The BFG, Jurassic Park, My Little Pony.

In fact, one of the children’s books they publish depicts Noah battling a T-Rex in a Roman-styled coliseum. It is a fascinating bit of acrobatics that forces you to recall childhood lessons.

In case you missed it in school (which is surprisingly likely, you’ll see), scientific consensus tells us that the universe is approximately 14 billion-years-old, the Earth 4.5 billion, and dinosaurs went extinct soon after an asteroid strike 65 million years ago. Homo sapiens gradually evolved into our present form around 300,000 years ago, and by 4004 B.C.E. we were domesticating pigs in Europe, growing rice in Japan, farming squash in South America, and making wine in Western Asia. By 2348 B.C.E. there were expansive dynasties in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China.

To cram 14 billion years into 6,022 creates an exciting story, then, but this place’s power isn’t only in imagination. While it has absolutely no influence on scientific research, its focus on schools and families influences millions. Along with more than three million visitors to the Creation Museum, Answers in Genesis (AiG), the parent organization, puts out a steady stream of public speakers, curriculum, and video content. They’ve published more than 300 books, focused largely on children’s education, as well as a self-described “peer-reviewed technical journal” for their “researchers” to publish in (that no research organization considers peer-reviewed).

It’s a brilliant strategy, co-opting the educational and academic genres that scientists and science education professionals use, but using them to undermine those very groups.

And their influence is growing. They recently opened a second facility, called “Ark Encounters,” which cost $100 million to build and received land grants and tax credits from the state of Kentucky. It topped a million visitors in their first year and a half.

The sky is a grayish blue, but it doesn’t look like the moon is anywhere near the sun.

I’m on the back patio of the Creation Museum and it’s a few minutes before the height of the eclipse, but the frogs are still singing. The wind rustles the cattails below as if nothing is happening. There is no silence or stillness. It’s barely any darker, to be honest, and it’s easy to see how Ho and Hsi might have missed a partial eclipse if they’d been tipping a few. The sunlight swallows the moon.

There are perhaps two hundred people on patios and by the lagoon below and the crowd is growing. On the steps, a mother and her two daughters lie in the middle of the path, elbows down and legs up with their eyes to the sky, glasses on. Other families stand in small clusters, passing glasses back and forth.

I flew from New York for this, but I knew that we’d only get 92% eclipse. Other areas, like Western Kentucky, are in the path of totality. I could have just as easily gone there, but I wanted to be here, in this place.

While the scene is gray-blue, when I put on the eclipse glasses the world transforms. The sky becomes a backlit geometry project, a kid’s shoebox assignment—blunt shapes made stark by the tinted glasses. It is striking. On a deep gray backdrop, a black sphere sits in front of an orange one. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. Our moon, 220,000 miles away, passing in front of our star, 93 million miles away. It is a simple action on a grand scale—a toddler jumping in front of the camera—made all the more real because our sun gives us light, and life, and it is disappearing in the middle of a clear summer day.

For a facility that positions itself as a natural history museum, it’s surprising to see that they don’t have any educational programming. “Our astronomer is in Oregon,” the ticket agent apologized, but there aren’t even any signs, announcements, or special exhibits. There is nothing besides two customer service representatives standing quietly in the corner, handing out glasses as if they don’t have enough. There’s no mention of timing (2:27pm), or percentage (91.9%), let alone its significance, history, or relevance to the institution’s mission. It is the most talked about natural event of the year—dubbed “The Great American Eclipse” because it cuts across the continental United States—but there isn’t even a flyer.

On the patio next to me there’s an older man in a camo hat who doesn’t have eclipse glasses. I offer mine. He looks through them quickly, hesitantly, before passing them back. He’s from Mississippi, he tells me. He’s retired and he and his wife are passing through in an R.V.

“We’re wasting time,” he laughs. “No real rush.”

While we’re chatting, his wife comes over and offers him glasses. “They gave them to me inside,” she says, turning around before she’s arrived. “I’m going back in.”

“Are you sure?” he says, “Take a look first.”

“No, you do it.”

“This young gentleman offered me his. You should look.”

She looks quickly before handing them back, “I’m going back to the A.C. Take your time.”

It’s a sweet moment. Both are trying to do something nice for the other, but neither wants it.

After she leaves, the man inspects the glasses. “Oh boy,” he says, “these don’t have the little square thing.”

I ask what he means and he shows me the QR code on mine. “I heard that this is how you can tell if they’re fake. They can fake everything else, but not this.”

The news was filled with reports of companies selling unsafe glasses, but I don’t have the heart to tell him that there’s nothing difficult about printing a QR code. “They have the right ISO number though,” I tell him, “and they’re made by one of the NASA-approved companies.”

He furrows his brow and puts the glasses in his pocket. He doesn’t seem to trust that the Creation Museum has bought the right ones.

*    *    *

In 2007, a study published in the journal PLoS Biology found that 60% of high school biology teachers didn’t spend significant time on even basic understandings of evolution. This, despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences calls evolution “the central concept of biology.”

While the study found that community pressures pushed them to minimize evolution, the problem goes deeper. More than one in six biology teachers agreed with the statement that, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

One in six high school biology teachers doesn’t accept the central premise of the field they’re teaching. It should be of little surprise, then, that in a 2017 Gallup poll on human origins, 38% of Americans responded similarly, responding that, “God created man in present form.”

Americans have been taught to distrust evolution, despite the fact that it’s been settled science for over a hundred years. This puts the Creation Museum in the odd situation of being a fringe element in the scientific fields it purports to represent, while also fitting securely within a broadly held public view.

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On the morning of the eclipse I attended one of the Creation Museum’s hour-long lectures, “Noah’s Ark and the Flood” by Georgia Purdom, who has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Ohio State and directs AiG’s educational content and curriculum.

Her talk is in the auditorium, just past the bookstore, and there are at least a hundred people in attendance. I settle into a spot in the back as Purdom walks onto the stage slowly, unassumingly, as if walking into a college classroom where her students are on their phones. She is slow to smile, and her voice is nasal but welcoming. She says hello and starts a video promoting “our newest themed attraction,” as she calls it, “Ark Encounters,” a life-sized replica of Noah’s ark. The video is flashy and well-produced, and clearly designed as an advertisement.

After suggesting people visit, she sets up the problem, as she sees it, beginning with a poll AiG did of Christians 20 to 29. “Only 51% believe that the global flood and Noah’s ark are real events in history.” This is because the ark is “presented as fairy tale” by most churches, she says.

The rest of her lecture is delivered like a fun-laced lecture at a science education conference, but filled with slides designed to mock the concept of evolution and provide anecdotal evidence of creationism. She leads us through AiG’s design of their ark, including arguments over which animals would have made it (and why dinosaurs made the cut), and she tells us that “secular South Korean scientists” determined that their ark would have been seaworthy. She shows us a picture of a fossil of one fish with its mouth around another as proof that death was fast for the majority of fossilized animals. Most fossils are from a single event, she argues, from a flood in 2348 B.C.E. (Including fish, apparently….)

She then shows us a tyrannosaurus rex bone with soft tissue attached, said to be 68 million-years-old in a study published in Nature, arguably the world’s most respected research journal, before encouraging the crowd to laugh at their conclusions. “No way is this millions of years old,” she says, “Trust me, I’m a molecular biologist.”

Purdom then explains the stakes. The “end times” are coming, she tells us, and we want to be on the right side. “It’s not going to happen today during the eclipse, by the way,” she laughs. “And it’s not going to be flood next time. It’s going to be fire. And it could happen any time.” She pauses. “We have to be ready.”

But there’s a solution. “We’ve got to stop teaching our kids Bible stories , because they happened. The Bible is history. And we have plenty of resources out there for you,” she says, pointing to the bookstore doors, “so there’s no excuse.”

At the end, there’s no Q&A, but she’s available in the bookstore.

When I get to her, she’s talking to a college student. He’s just started studying science at a religious university but he’s frustrated by his “Old Earth Creationist” professors. They’re teaching “secular science” alongside the Bible, arguing for Intelligent Design, that God guided the hand of evolution. He’s frustrated, he says. “But it’s inspiring to watch you.”

Keep studying, she tells him, and stick to your faith, “We need more good people like you.” She offers her business card. “Call me or email me. I’m always happy to help.”

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The entrance to the main exhibit at the Creation Museum overwhelms your senses. After walking past the Chinese dragon and the animatronic child with her velociraptor friends, past the fudge station and the Stargazer’s Planetarium, you’re asked to pause for a movie at the “Special Effects Theater” (complete with shaking chairs and mist in your face), before walking down a cavernous walkway meant to look like sandstone canyons.

The canyon opens up to the first room where there is a replicated, full-sized dig site. A video above shows a Young Earth Creationist and a “secular paleontologist” working at the actual site. The Young Earth Creationist explains that facts can only be seen through two “different starting points,” either “Man’s Word” or “God’s Word.” He argues that science relies on interpretation rather than fact, so we must decide which of these “starting points” to believe.

The “secular paleontologist” (who is never really named) quietly nods in agreement.

The rest of the exhibits lead visitors through this choice. “Man’s Word” is equated with all of the scientific traditions of archaeology, paleontology, biology, geology, and more, and it leads to suffering and confusion. “God’s Word,” on the other hand, is equated with AiG’s understanding of how science and the Bible mesh, and it leads to salvation.

All knowledge is biased, they argue, so you must choose which bias to believe.

In their vision, the choice is black and white, Man or God, Science or AiG. There isn’t room for discussion. You can’t consider Intelligent Design; you can’t question how Biblical texts were collected, edited, and translated; and you can’t focus your faith only on the New Testament. Those approaches—the majority of Christianity—lead to a fiery hell. To doubt one word of the Bible is to doubt the entire religion.

Scientific studies are presented only to be mocked. Exhibits en-courage viewers to use their own powers of observation to come to their own conclusions, rather than listen to “experts.”

It’s a method that researcher P.J. Wendel, in the journal Science & Education, calls 19th Century object-based epistemology—an approach to evidence that is based on a time when objects were presented in museums without context, and viewers were asked to wonder. Scientific method, reproducible experiments, and peer review are ignored. It allows AiG to offer a singular vision that researcher Ella Butler, in the journal Ethnos, describes as “conspiracy theory epistemology,” where all data is approached with a conclusion in mind. If the facts don’t match, then they are ignored or belittled.

When I teach research methods, we talk about this approach as “confirmation bias”—a bias that occurs when we want to confirm what we believe, despite the evidence. It is one of the most common human biases, and it is why scientific method requires a skeptic’s approach that demands reproducible findings. It is also why we encourage hedging phrases like “indicates that” and “need for further study.” Good research is built on the idea that knowledge is endlessly perfectible.

The Creation Museum takes advantage of this. Any hedging or adjustment is evidence that people make up their own reality. For instance, an exhibit on the radioactive dating of rocks in the Grand Canyon uses the differences between dating methods on a rock (or perhaps several rocks in a similar area; it is intentionally unclear) to conclude that all dating methods must be wrong. If we can’t decide whether these rocks are 800,000,000 or 1,200,000,000 years old, they argue, then we might as well believe that it’s 6,022.

It’s an approach that should sound familiar in our “alternative facts” era. To accept facts that don’t fit your ideology is to show weakness. To embrace complexity is to accept defeat.

Even engaging in a discussion that uses these rules can be problematic. AiG earned their biggest boost in 2014 when Ken Ham had a highly-publicized debate with TV personality Bill Nye, titled, “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?,” which has had 7 million views on YouTube. The event concerned many researchers who were worried that Nye legitimized creationism by subjecting it to a debate, rather than leaving it to the scientific scrutiny that had negated young earth hypotheses centuries before—that he elevated Young Earth Creationism by fighting it. Nye, after all, was positioned as the representative for scientific consensus on geology, biology, history, archaeology, paleontology—hundreds of thousands of scientists replicating and furthering work across generations and cultures, while Ham represented at best a couple dozen unknown researchers whose work is only published in religious journals.

And the debate has become a powerful tool. AiG uses it constantly, picking apart Nye as a representation of all of scientific knowledge. He is mentioned constantly in their materials, and any question or hesitation he has is used to discredit all of science. Any change—even if it’s through new discovery—is used as proof that science is too flawed to trust.

AiG’s hand is presented as steady. Strong. Unchanging.

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“I don’t remember learning anything else when I was a kid,” Georgia Purdom tells me. “God created the world in six days.”

It is a month after my visit, and Purdom and I are talking on the phone. I’d asked her to talk because I needed to understand how some-one goes from a Ph.D. in biology to directing content at an anti-science organization.

It’s an easy answer, it seems. She’d been raised a young earther and stuck to her beliefs. Purdom attended public school, she tells me, but she didn’t encounter “the whole millions of years thing” until high school. Even then, “I don’t remember really engaging in it or thinking that much about it.” In fact, she tells me, “it wasn’t taught that much.”

It wasn’t until college that she began to engage with ideas of creation and evolution, she says, and she chose to attend Cedarville University, a religious university that teaches Young Earth Creationism. After graduating, she was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Ohio State, where her doctoral studies “focused on genetic regulation of factors important for bone remodeling,” her AiG bio says.

Ohio State couldn’t have been a comfortable place for a Young Earth Creationist, I say.

“I definitely had friends, and people I worked with every day,” she tells me, “but most of them weren’t Christians so you just didn’t develop those kinds of relationships. But I never really had any issues.” Besides, the research “didn’t have anything to do with how all of that got there,” she says. She isolated herself from the conversations. “That was a separate question. Once in a while, obviously, those types of conversations would come up among the graduate students, and even among professors with the students, but I knew enough not to get involved. I knew that if I stated what I believed there would definitely be prejudice against me, so I typically would just avoid those conversations, and not take part in them because I knew that it wasn’t going to go well for me.”

After completing her Ph.D. in 2000, Purdom took a faculty position at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, another religious school where Young Earth Creationism is embraced. While most tenure-track professors are expected to have a vigorous publishing agenda, Purdom’s peer-reviewed work dropped off after Ohio State. The research wasn’t what she loved, she tells me. “The lab science was a way to get where I wanted to be, which was to be a professor at college, and I love teaching.” After six years at Mt. Vernon, she took a position with AiG as they launched the Creation Museum. It allowed her to focus on science education, and she has been prolific since, with 25 books and videos attributed to her in their bookstore, and dozens of articles in Young Earth magazines.

“That’s where I’m more at home than in the pure research science,” she says. “You know, I like it, and I can do it, but this is my passion and my love.”

Purdom is now focused on developing Young Earth resources for young children. “I really see my role and my expertise, and ministry, in helping them understand that science supports God’s word. It confirms it,” she says, so that as these kids “continue to get older, they don’t doubt, and they stay strong.”

While Ken Ham gets the most press, Purdom is at the foundation of their educational outreach. She is Chair of AiG’s Editorial Review Board, which reviews everything they produce—dozens of books and videos each year, and she collects them into curriculum recommendations. She is also a speaker, visiting schools and churches to spread Young Earth Creationism from the perspective of a Ph.D.-holding scientist. She also co-hosts a twice-a-week Facebook Live program where she, Ham, and another AiG speaker discuss “science and cultural news.” As the only Ph.D. on stage, she is the sober one, pivoting when her co-hosts drift too overtly into hate as they mock homosexuality or climate science or universities. Purdom provides an air of legitimacy, acting as a symbolic link between outlandish comments and scientific competence.

Her latest project, she tells me, is working with a newly hired education specialist, hired to develop summer camps and science work-shops for younger kids. “I work a lot with her,” Purdom says, “trying to bring the museum to a whole other level in educating students.”

Their educational programs are expanding rapidly and Purdom talks about the future as open and expansive. She’s excited for the future.

*    *    *

It is 2:27pm and according to NASA’s tracker we are at exactly 91.9% solar eclipse. A sliver of sun peeks out as a tiny crescent above the moon.

I get restless on the patio and decide to walk around. I head to the lagoon path where the crowd has grown. There’s a man with a box-viewing device and I ask if I can take a look. “It’s pretty low tech,” he laughs. It’s an oversized cereal box with two holes on top. One has a piece of tinfoil taped on, with a pinhole to let in light. I put my eye up to the other hole and look where the sunlight hits the cardboard—a fuzzy crescent of light in the dark.

A few feet away, a couple stands beside a dog bowl filled with water, staring into it. I offer them my glasses.

“You want to try ours?” the man asks. “It’s not as good.”

There’s a leaf floating in the bowl. I ask him what they’re doing.

“Just stand right here,” he says, holding my shoulders until I’m where he wants me, “and look into the bowl.”

I do and I’m immediately blinded. He’s set me up to look at the sun through a reflection. I’m looking at the sun, but magnified through water. I jump away as quickly as I can.

“Oh, I see what you’re doing.”

“You just have to kind of squint a little,” he says.

“I’m not sure that water makes it safer,” I tell them. I know it doesn’t, but I say it softly, and they don’t believe me. They hand me the glasses back and continue on, staring at the sun through squinted eyes. I walk away quickly, in fear of having to witness two people’s public blinding. I imagine others saying, “but you were with them. Why didn’t you stop them?” as the couple gets rushed out, bloody-eyed and screaming.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that dramatic. Retinas don’t have pain receptors, so if we aren’t educated beforehand we don’t know that we’re hurting ourselves until it’s too late. In fact, Isaac Newton temporarily blinded himself during an eclipse. He watched it through a mirror and was blind for three days, then suffered from months of afterimage blurs. There wasn’t much literature on eclipse safety at the time, so maybe he didn’t have access, or he simply ignored what he read. Today there are studies, histories, advice columns, newscasts, and warning labels. We live in an age where information access isn’t an issue. We just have to listen to the right people.

In fact, I can’t help but look at this place and attribute its power to this increasing information access. Purdom was able to isolate herself growing up in a pre-internet age, sure, and her public school teachers clearly failed her, but the opportunity for this place to create that same ideological hardening in a new generation is only growing. The Creation Museum was launched at about the same time as the most popular social media sites, and the same year as the iPhone. Print-on-demand capabilities have sky-rocketed too, allowing anyone to print as many books as they can afford.

Information and production access is generally a good thing, but it has also created hardened silos. All an organization needs is funding, and a good sense of the platforms that have cultural power. Mimic the structure and language and you can replace anything with your own ideology. Use the recognizable and symbolic aspects of museums or science education, for instance, and you don’t even need the science. You’ve got a “museum” that schools can fund trips to and buy classroom sets from. Or, of course, use the symbolic forms of “news,” and you can create your own reality.

The mother and daughters on the stairs stand up. The eclipse has begun to wane and the mother says, “Let’s see if anyone else wants to see.” She and her daughters walk around, offering their glasses. When she’s thanked, she responds, “God be with you.”

It’s a surprising scene. Hundreds of humans are scattered around the walkways, patios, and porches, all standing in tiny circles, looking to the sky. If you didn’t know what was going on, this would look like some strange silent ritual.

Descriptions of eclipses before our current understanding vary. In Western Africa, the Batammaliba believed a solar eclipse was the sun and moon fighting. It was people’s job to encourage them to stop by re-solving their own conflicts. In Viking lore, an eclipse happened when one of the two wolves who chased the sun across the sky caught it. In China, a dragon ate the sun. And for the Navajo, the sun died and was reborn. The time was spent indoors for prayer and contemplation on the balance of the natural world.

It is human nature to explain the unexplainable with story, but today we know what an eclipse is. This knowledge allows us to consider the grandness of our cosmos—planets and stars and galaxies spinning around each other.

It is to consider our own planet, spinning on an axis every 23 hours and 56 minutes, our moon orbiting our planet every 27.3 days, and our planet orbiting our star every 365.25 days. For an eclipse to happen, these objects must line up perfectly above.

But it is also to consider a bigger universe. It is our solar system, sitting on the outskirt arm of a swirling galaxy so wide that it takes 100,000 years for light to cross. It is to consider a universe in which our galaxy is one of 200 billion others within our observable universe.

It is to consider the vastness of what we can’t observe, and to wonder how much more we might learn. It is a humbling existence, and an awesome thing to ponder as we watch our moon pass between us and our star.

It is an overwhelming idea—our tiny home among such splendor.

It is a beauty that is almost unimaginable.