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Why We Need the University of Wyoming Geological Museum

Due to state funding cuts, the University of Wyoming Geological Museum was recently closed down. This is a crying shame, especially since good paleontology museums are as important as ever when it comes to helping the public understand science. Indeed, a recent opinion piece in Rock Springs, Wyomin...

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A sculpture of an Allosaurus skeleton in Wyoming. From Flickr user ukslim.


Due to state funding cuts, the University of Wyoming Geological Museum was recently closed down. This is a crying shame, especially since good paleontology museums are as important as ever when it comes to helping the public understand science. Indeed, a recent opinion piece in Rock Springs, Wyoming's Daily Rocket-Miner underlines precisely why such institutions are so sorely needed.

In an article titled "Dinosaur, Founding Fathers point to God's role as creator," Pastor Richard Carlson presented himself as a dinosaur expert. According to Carlson, scientists who have spent their lives digging through the rock, closely scrutinizing fossilized bones, and presenting their findings to the public and peers have it all wrong. Instead, dinosaurs walked the earth with humans less than 6,000 years ago, Carlson says, presenting himself as more of an authority on fossils than any professional paleontologist.

Carlson attempts to support his case with some garden variety young-Earth creationist nonsense. He claims that recently discovered remnants of soft tissues of the kind that have been found from a Tyrannosaurus and a Brachylophosaurus point to a young Earth. 

What Carlson misses is that the existence of degraded soft tissue structures in dinosaur fossils does not tell us how old these fossils are. Paleontologists use techniques like radiometric dating and biostratigraphy to determine the age of fossils, not the state of preservation of a particular fossil. Fossilization can vary widely in different settings and it is a mistake to consider something to be geologically young just because it is well preserved.

While paleontologists carefully study the rocks and fossils themselves to investigate the past, Carlson takes a more dogmatic approach. He insists that exceptionally preserved fossils could only have been formed recently, probably within the last 6,000 years. What he does not tell you, however, is that this oft-cited date for the beginning of the world's creation (according to young-Earth creationists) is nowhere to be found in the Bible. It is an interpretation based upon a narrow reading of a religious text, centuries-old religious scholarship and a disavowal of anything that runs counter to Carlson's preconceived notions.

It comes as no surprise that Carlson is not so much concerned with science as in defending his particular religious beliefs. So threatened is he, in fact, that he insists that there is no real paleontological or evolutionary science. Instead, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists are simply zealots bent on destroying religion. Carlson writes:
It is not because of science that these evolutionary scientists oppose God. They are ever-seeking to devise a means scientifically to deny the existence of the very One who created them and who gives them breath. Such science or "science so-called" is ultimately a false religion concocted to deny the existence of our Creator.
I'm sure this would be news to many paleontologists, especially the ones who are Christians. Rather than provide any positive evidence for his claims, Carlson resorts to calling anyone who disagrees with his worldview an atheist. 

I wish I could just write off Carlson as a lone crank that could be safely ignored, but there are many people who would agree with his Dinotopia-like vision of history. That is why good paleontology museums, like the one at the University of Wyoming, are so important. When it comes to evolution and paleontology, the public needs to hear from paleontologists, not pastors who are threatened by the fact that the history of the Earth does not match their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

Fortunately, it looks like steps are being made towards re-opening the University of Wyoming museum (now called the S.H. Knight Geological Museum). According to a recent article in the Laramie Boomerang, the museum will be re-opened on a part-time basis, although without a secretary or curator. The next step is raising enough funding to restore these positions so that scientific work and public tours can be started up again, and if you want to help in these efforts please visit the Keep Laramie Dinos website.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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