Sunday, June 10, 2012

Did dinosaurs live with people?

A few days ago I learned of the most recent Gallup poll, showing support for young earth creationism holding at 46%.  It has stayed around that level since they started the poll in 1982.  This is shocking to me, even though I know it shouldn't be.

When I was a kid I was really interested in dinosaurs.  I had tons of models of them, and liked to read and study about them.  One thing I can remember is wondering if people and dinosaurs were ever around together.  At the time (and now) I thought that would have been pretty dang cool to see dinosaurs around.

Fortunately for me, my parents taught me how to do research.  They would take me to the library and we would check out books about dinosaurs.  In that way I learned about paleontology, fossils, the age of the earth, the various geographic eons and how they all contained different plants and animals.

  As a result of an upbringing that helped me to study and find the answers to my questions, I never was able to buy in to the young earth viewpoint even at churches where that was the norm.  My early experience with dinosaurs helped me by giving me an understanding of how the scientists learn about the world.  Of course the intricacies of it were lost on a 6 year old, but the gist was clear.  Different things show up at different times in the past in predictable patterns.  Scientists learn about these things by careful excavation of the layers of the earth, and by specialized ways of finding out how old they are.

This stuff still fascinates me.  If any of the above is news to you, I would highly recommend taking an anthropology class, or geology, or at least reading some books on the subject.  It is incredibly cool, and it has been great looking at it all again now that I am older.  I am learning so much more while also connecting to something that has fascinated me since childhood.

What if, instead of going to the library and picking up some basic textbooks about paleontology, my parents had given me a book like this one (by noted creationist Ken Ham):

Note the people, primates, fruit trees and dino's all hanging out together.  Note the 2 clearly carnivorous dino's eating from said fruit trees.  This book also claims to answer the questions I had about dinosaurs as a kid, but comes to drastically different conclusions.  I would have learned that the conclusions of the scientists were unreliable because they relied on faulty presuppositions.  I would have learned that any science that deals with the past can't be verified because it can't be repeated in current experiments.  I would have learned that dinosaurs and humans did coexist, peacefully even, before the fall.

Growing up, this viewpoint on scientists would have tainted my whole worldview.  The early distrust of science in certain evangelical circles is reinforced by the insularity of the evangelical subculture I would have been raised in.  Most of the people I grew up with would probably believe the same things I did.  By the time I encounter a different viewpoint on human origins or fossils or dinosaurs, it will sound so ridiculous as to not even warrant the time of day.  If I do hear some good arguments for the "secular" view, I can always go to Answers in Genesis to remind me that my viewpoint is the right one.  This is a classic example of confirmation bias, something that everybody in the world needs to watch out for, and that we can never entirely eliminate.  It would have been possible to go my whole life without ever directly encountering the "secular" viewpoint on this subject.  Overall, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to change my views on these things, regardless of how smart I was.

Outside my hypothetical dream childhood, this is the situation a significant portion of Americans grow up in.  The shock I feel at those statistics in the Gallup poll is completely unwarranted.  It is only by an accident of birth that I grew up in a family that valued learning as much as mine did.  As a result, I am trying to do better at understanding the root of these anti-science attitudes instead of just dismissing them.  I want to know what makes these beliefs so strong and what could change people's mind on the subject.

I know that my viewpoints on a lot of subjects has changed in the past few years, and one of the reasons has been my regression to a child-like desire for knowledge.  I really started studying in earnest again, and allowed myself the freedom to accept the truth, even if it didn't agree with me.  I think if I hadn't had that spark encouraged growing up that I would not have been so willing to change my mind in the present.