Homegrown anxieties for Canada’s secular media

By Alexandra Boutros

Canada is getting its first Creation Science Museum in the small town of Big Valley, Alberta. TheBig Valley Creation Science Museum opens its doors to the general public this week, offering displays of fossils, DNA strands and, the big draw, dinosaurs. These displays are meant to validate a literal interpretation of the Bible that posits the earth was created in 6 days 6000 years ago (see Big Valley’s Youtube intro). When the inevitable media interest followed, a friend emailed me with the subject line, “Creationism is coming to Canada.” But while creationism garners much attention in the U.S., creation science has also been visible in Canada for some time—chapters of a loose association being found in each province, including French-Canadian Quebec —and has been making headlines since the late 1990s.

As in the U.S., many Canadian media reports on creationism contain an anxious undercurrent about the potential reach of creationism’s influence in public institutions, particularly public schools. Canadian news reports on the opening of the Big Valley Creation Science Museum this past week have been filled with sound bites from scientists who fear that the general public will get confused by what they see, that they will take for fact what is clearly myth. A paleontologist with the University of Calgary explained to Canada’s CTV news the potential danger of Alberta’s Creation Science Museum: “People go to that and they don’t have the adequate background to see the problems and the logical flaws in what they are seeing.” By this logic—prevalent in media reports on the new museum—the average museum-goer simply does not have the “adequate background” or scientific education to be critical of what they encounter at Big Valley.

That’s a pejorative stance, to be sure. But more than that, it’s a stance that implicitly makes recourse to inaccessible, specialized and scientific knowledge to both shut down argument and to advocate the need to protect the general public from creationism. That makes for a rather unassailable position and indeed, the scientific community has refused offers to engage in public debate with Canadian creationists. Science, it seems, does not want to talk to creationism.

But creationism is certainly talking to science. Creationism, at times, mimics the very structures that deny it. Certainly, building a museum challenging evolution looks like one form of mimesis. While scientists often refer to what creationism does as “junk science,” the fact that creationism utilizes the structures and discourses (if not necessarily the methods) of science in a bid to circulate its beliefs should tell us as much about the role of science in our culture as it does about the role of religion. Science is often wielded within the media as an authoritative voice the pronouncements of which have to be taken on faith. Once upon a time it was the ritual experts who occupied this role.

Creationism’s blend of science and religion recalls nothing so much as a mash-up—that species of music composed entirely from other pieces of music, mixing strands and segments from disparate genres. Mash-ups juxtapose things that shouldn’t go together but are nonetheless made to occupy the same time and space, creating something rather compelling, if only because you keep trying to tease apart the disparate strands.

The Big Valley Creation Science Museum is, perhaps not coincidentally, located a mere 60 km from a museum that offers similar displays to the public, contextualized within the framework of evolutionary science. The new Creation Science museum calls out to the nearby Royal Tyrell Museum, which houses a large collection of dinosaur fossils. On its website, the new museum describes itself as “a scientific and biblically based alternative to the evolutionary view of earth history as presented by the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.” This direct engagement with scientific institutions of read as strategic attempts to co-opt the power and authority of dominant discourse to make a point.

While this co-option may be bothersome or even worrisome for some within the scientific community, their responses in the media do not always read as equally strategic. Any insistence that the Big Valley Creation Science Museum will dupe the public into unintentional (and implicitly irrational) belief belies the well-worn fear that religion will inevitably lead us astray and away from progress and modernity – the idea that religion is not the domain of critical thought. Here H.L. Mencken’s monkeys of the now famous Scope’s trial of 1925 raise up their peculiar heads once again.

Alexandra Boutros is a scholar of media, technology, and communication. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media.