Muddy the waters: Ken Ham, Greg Gianforte, and the creationist assault on science in Montana 

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The comment was not a one-off. Ham and his fellow speakers are eager to take on a news media they regard as part of the secular regime that embraces evolution and rejects fundamentalist Christian values. Just as Snelling had discouraged attendees from reading "skeptic" science websites, Ham latched onto the Trump administration's "fake news" angle of attack to accuse secular media of lying "through their teeth." And Ham is glad to see that the rest of the country is finally catching onto the media's tricks.

"I just want you to know, the media is doing to politics right now what they've done to us for years," he said.

Still, Ham was happy to chat with me when I caught up with him. He told me that AIG has always had a welcoming attitude toward secular media, and that in interviews he does his best to simply "tell you the truth."

Not everyone who listens to Ham feels the same way. Between lectures I approached a man named John, whom I had seen during the earlier hike. Before I could ask him any questions, John asked me if I agree with Ham's positions. I told him I don't. As we continued chatting, I learned that he's trained as an engineer, but recently began homeschooling his five kids after one of their public school classmates came out as transgender. John declined to spell his last name for me when I asked. He's never read anything good in the Missoulian, he says.

The Missoulian didn't cover the conference, but two other reporters were there alongside me. Doug Miller and Jesse Wanskasmith were handing out copies of the first two issues of their new newspaper, the Mountain Christian Journal.

They too are concerned about fake news. The news page in the Journal's first issue, published in February, contains an article about the German government censoring "fake" news on Facebook and a column purporting to reveal how crowd size estimates at Trump's inauguration were manipulated by the media. The paper also contains a "'Fake' News" page that, in the first issue, featured an article asserting that before leaving office, Barack Obama created a "ministry of truth" to censor information the government doesn't like. In the most recent issue, the Journal published a graphic critiquing a recent edition of the Independent, calling one of my stories "a disgusting montage on bestiality" (see "How Chuck Tingle turned monster erotica into performance art," Feb. 9) and tagging part of another, also by me, as a blasphemous attack on Christianity (see "Lawsuit opens a window on faith-based addiction treatment," Feb. 9).

click to enlarge Lecturers ended their talks by clicking through slides showing the books they offered for sale in the lobby. In addition to hosting a radio show that’s broadcast on more than 900 stations and commissioning a 510-foot model of Noah’s Ark, Ken Ham is a prolific author. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Lecturers ended their talks by clicking through slides showing the books they offered for sale in the lobby. In addition to hosting a radio show that’s broadcast on more than 900 stations and commissioning a 510-foot model of Noah’s Ark, Ken Ham is a prolific author.

Miller, the publisher, wears a cowboy hat and a Bluetooth headset. In addition to starting the Mountain Christian Journal, Miller says he organized a creation conference at Missoula's former World Theater in 2014, partnering with the Glendive museum to do it. With dinosaur fossils on display, his conference was more focused on science than Ham's Answers in Genesis event, which he summarizes as "more about how societal change has tried to nullify the work of creation scientists." But he launched the Journal for the same reason that motivates Ham's evangelism: He thinks Christianity is under attack, and too many churches are softening their message to grow their ranks. Miller embraces the idea that there's a spiritual battle for control of the country.

"We actually believe the other gods out there, like Allah, are demon gods," he says.

The Journal is his attempt to fight back, both as a forum for evangelical Christians and a way to hold the apostate church and the mainstream media accountable.

As we shake hands, Miller and Wanskasmith ask me when my story is coming out. They want to know because they're planning to write a rebuttal.

After Bill "the Science Guy" Nye debated Ken Ham in 2014, Daily Beast columnist Michael Schulson called the spectacle a "nightmare for science," arguing that Ham won the debate the moment Nye decided to participate. ("When you exist on the cultural fringe and make your living by antagonizing established authority, there's no form of media attention you don't love," Schulson wrote.) Ham has since claimed that the attention the event drew fueled a surge in donations that allowed him to finally construct his Kentucky ark, and at the Lake Missoula conference he was selling DVDs and books about the debate.

Nye is back this spring with a new Netflix show in which he takes on climate change deniers, overpopulation, sexuality and other science topics that are entangled in the culture wars. He does so in a way that a National Review critic recently described as "bitter, angry, shouty, conspiratorial, vulgar, wheedling, given to absurd hyperbole, and blithely eager to wreak punishment on his enemies."

"The new show (supposedly aimed at adults, but still written at a grade-school level) uses occasional references to science to introduce simple political advocacy, broken up by bad jokes and interludes of actual screaming," columnist Kyle Smith wrote.

In Missoula, Brit Garner has been thinking a lot about how scientists can respond to assaults on their work delivered from the highest levels of government. Garner, a Ph.D student in wildlife biology at UM, co-hosts the Youtube series SciShow Psych with Hank Green, a spinoff of the popular science video series that explores the mysteries of the human mind in an accessible and engaging way.

In March, Garner helped form the Missoula Interdisciplinary Science League, a group designed to carry forward the ideas embodied in the national March for Science. MISL hopes to "celebrate critical thinking" through monthly events and other means that go beyond just protesting the current administration, like scheduling chats with scientists at breweries.

"Science and scientists are under direct attack right now," Garner says, but "to protest doesn't get the job done. Science is about discourse and discussion."

When Garner heard that a creation conference was coming to campus, she headed to the library. Down on the first floor of the UC, she and a couple friends set out a collection of children's books on science, as well as some coloring books, and invited passersby to explain why they enjoy science on a whiteboard—"to have this little piece of positivity that was tied to science," she says.

Garner didn't know it, but Ham would incorporate—and perhaps mischaracterize—their silent demonstration into his next lecture. He mocked the size of the "protest" and told the crowd that the protesters were coloring in coloring books "because they believe that was more intellectual than what we are doing here."

"I can't guarantee that people weren't doing what he says," Garner says, "but I can definitively say it wasn't us."

click to enlarge Montana creation scientist Michael Oard co-founded the Montana Origins Research Effort, a group that researches Noah’s flood and produces conferences in Montana. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Montana creation scientist Michael Oard co-founded the Montana Origins Research Effort, a group that researches Noah’s flood and produces conferences in Montana.

Garner's idea that science can win trust through discussion, not confrontation, reminded me of some old photos I had come across while helping out at the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka. Life Magazine featured Ekalaka in a 1954 issue, noting that fossil excavation, "usually a specialty for experts," had become a "community hobby" in the dusty village of 900 people (today, the population is closer to 350). The story included photos of locals hauling femurs across the prairie and gathered around a hadrosaur skeleton the local high school teacher (and longtime museum curator) had assembled in the school basement.

A similar spirit has imbued recent efforts to improve the museum. For the last four summers, museum staff have hosted a "Dino Shindig" that draws hundreds to attend lectures by world-class scientists, watch demonstrations at the museum and, yes, search for fossils in the countryside. In March, the Shindig was named "event of the year" at the Governor's Conference on Tourism and Recreation. It's also designed to be accessible to and affordable for locals, a chance for residents in one of the state's farthest-flung corners to participate in the scientific search for truth.

At the creation conference, the search for truth was simpler. Rather than concluding their presentations with time for questions, Ham and the other presenters just clicked through slides showing books for sale in the lobby. And on the conference's last day, I spotted the woman I had talked to earlier—Michelle, who had come wanting to learn more—chatting in the foyer. She had a shopping bag in her hand.

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