The well-known young earth creationist (YEC) organization Answers in Genesis has recruited Dinosaurs for its new museum billboard campaign, and science educators around the country aren't taking kindly to the new ads. They say the ad campaign lures unsuspecting young people with an interest in dinosaurs into a place where they'll be taught a religious message, not a scientific one.
If you're unfamiliar with YECs, they're the folks who reject Darwinian Evolution and argue that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old. They draw weird looks from just about everybody with a cursory understanding of biology, it's true. But as a former fundamentalist Christian and current science writer, I think everybody needs to lay off the panic button for two reasons: YECs are no threat to science, and the scientific community has bigger problems than a relatively unimportant school of religious thought.
Communicating with the general public, and preventing them from embracing ridiculous ideas, is a problem for experts in many fields.You can take your pick of any number of examples (more on that below). But this isn't a problem for evolutionary biologists. The people with the motivation and expertise to carpet bomb YECs are out there. Not one reputable university, outside of a handful of Christian colleges, teaches the creation view. And, no scholarly journal will publish anything even coming close to endorsing it. On the rare occasion that such a paper accidentally passes peer review, the blogosphere rains down hell in response. It's also worth noting that young people brought up to believe in a young earth are often disabused of such a notion by the time they reach college. Put another way, YECs have been blacklisted by academia, as they often point out themselves.
Secondly, and I speak as a former insider, the people who adopt a young earth perspective aren't on a rampage against science. They've been taught a simplistic interpretation of the book of Genesis for most of their lives, so they're naturally skeptical of any theory that challenges their long held beliefs. Sure, they go to court over high school science curricula, but they lose almost every time. And many Americans tell pollsters they believe the earth is young, but that doesn't mean much on its own.
Americans harbor a lot of weird ideas. Many of us believe psychics are legitimate, that the moon landings were faked, and that Shakespeare didn't write the works we credit him with writing. Big deal. People can believe weird things. The real problem begins when these promoters of raisin cake science start influencing policy and the direction of scientific research. The YECs can't even convince other Christians that they are correct.
But we need to look beyond the practical limitations of creationism. Scientists, educators, and anybody else interested in spreading science literacy need to prioritize their problems. There's also a large selection to choose from in this category. The amount of fraudulent research published is embarrassing. The federal government subsidizes the production of food that kills people. And there are moronic celebrities telling parents to withhold life-saving medicine from their children. These issues, only a few among many, deserve the attention of the scientific community more than any group of religious crazy people.
Instead of fretting over the machinations of Christian fundamentalists, scientists should keep doing good science, and the rest of us should help promote their work. Let's quit worrying about billboards and similar distractions. As long as they're not harming anybody, let people have their weird ideas. They can wait until we solve more pressing problems.