Dinosaurs are fascinating to kids and many adults. If an organization is looking to generate an audience, bringing in a speaker to lecture about dinosaurs is one sure means to succeed. This fall I had the opportunity to attend two public lectures about dinosaurs both of which were aimed specifically at kids. The first, “Dinosaur Accoutrements,” was a public presentation at the Northeastern Ohio Medical School by Dr. Jack Horner of Jurassic Park fame but more importantly a scientist who has discovered and named many species of dinosaurs from the western USA. The second talk, “Dinosaurs for Kids,” was by Bryan Osborne of Answers in Genesis (AiG), an organization dedicated to the promotion of Literal Six-Day Young-Earth Creationism. This talk was part of a two-day AiG conference hosted by a large church in Marlboro, OH.
Comparing these talks is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. As you can imagine, each speaker and their hosts had very different reasons for promoting dinosaur education for kids. I have already written some about the stark contrasts of AiG’s and conventional science’s interpretation of the origin and extinction of the dinosaurs (Where did all the Dinosaurs go? Ken Ham’s Climate and Human-Induced Extinction Hypothesis And Dinosaurs and Humans Living Together? The LSDYEC Apologetic of Ken Ham). Below I explore some more of the differences in these speakers and their agendas.
The public has many misconceptions about dinosaurs
Both speakers began by noting that the public perception of dinosaurs included rampant misconceptions. Dr. Horner showed pictures of reptile-like dinosaurs attacking each other. Why do these images feel familiar? Horner said it was because their depiction in movies creates and reinforces these perceptions. Dr. Horner was science adviser on the recent “Jurassic World” movie and made it clear he was free to offer advice but that didn’t mean that Spielberg had to take his advice and clearly he had not if the conclusions of Dr. Horner’s talk about the appearance and behavior of dinosaurs were any indication of what advice he provided.
Bryan Osborne also blamed popular culture for creating an incorrect understanding of dinosaurs. But his concern was not so much what dinosaurs looked like but when they lived. He was concerned that books and movies portrayed dinosaurs as having lived millions of years ago even though dinosaurs don’t come with “tags on them telling us how old they are.” He was also concerned that Christians have propagated a false understanding of Noah’s ark and dinosaurs. He showed an image of a “bathtub” Noah’s Ark and made what I thought was a good point: Christians have taught their children to see Noah’s Ark as a cartoon rather than a real event. Osborne believes this has contributed to some Christians’ perception of the Flood story as mythical. He then went on to talk about the real size of the ark and how all the animals, even the dinosaurs, could have easily fit on the ark. This led to an appeal to come visit the “Ark Encounter” that Answers in Genesis is building which will show the world the real dimensions and feasibility of the ark rather than the cartoon ark.
Ironically, Osborne then proceeded to give an entire talk on dinosaurs in which virtually every image he presented was a cartoonish rendering of both dinosaurs and other biblical figures and events. I found it rather jarring to have heard Osborne admonish the use of comic images of Noah’s ark but then attempt to explain how dinosaurs could have survived a global flood on Noah’s Ark, lived with man for a period of time and then gone extinct all while portraying these events in the same type of cartoonish and fake manner.
Learning about dinosaurs
Dr. Horner’s talk emphasized an appreciation for the amazing diversity of sizes, shapes and features of dinosaurs. But more than just a pretty slide show, Dr. Horner’s talk was as much about how the process of doing science can help reveal the characteristics including behavior of dinosaurs.
Dr. Horner’s talk centered on the question: what did the “accoutrements” that dinosaurs had mostly on their faces really look like and what might their function have been? Accoutrements are those extra features that we see on animals such as the comb on a chicken or huge feathers on a peacock. On dinosaurs that would include items such as the horns, frills, vertical plates, feathers, combs and so forth. After his introduction he spent almost 30 minutes demonstrating how scientists go about finding and interpreting evidence regarding the appearance and function of horns, frills, combs and other facial features. In brief, he believes the preponderance of evidence supports the idea that many, if not most, dinosaurs were adorned in brilliantly colored accoutrements and those features were mostly likely used for display, like they are in living birds, rather than defense or aggression.
Dr. Horner’s’ talk directly addressed what dinosaurs were like as real organisms that lived in a real place in time. Even though he was speaking mostly to elementary school children he wasn’t afraid to show them real data and he spoke about different interpretations of that data. The images of the dinosaurs included many original fossils and life-like recreations based on inferences from those bones and other trace fossils. He gave a real sense of how scientific discovery is made, how scientists go about testing ideas and then he presented what he thinks is the best interpretation of that data to date. I know quite a bit about dinosaurs but some of the data he presented was new to me as well so I was thrilled to come away from the talk thinking it was really helpful when I had thought going in I was just taking my kids to hear about dinosaurs.
Bryan Osborne began his talk by telling the kids he loves dinosaurs and that Answers in Genesis loves dinosaurs as well. “Dinosaurs are a creationist’s best friend” we were told. He showed a picture of a snow-rex he and his wife had made one winter to demonstrate how much he likes dinosaurs. But after proclaiming his love for dinosaurs he seemed to treat them solely as a problem in need of an answer rather than amazing products of God’s creation worthy of study. Osborne provided virtually no information about dinosaurs themselves other than there were a lot of them and they came in different sizes. Almost every single picture of a dinosaur from his talks was in the form of cartoon caricatures rather than a dinosaur in a life-like setting.
The impact of the talks on kids
I can sum up the impact that these two speakers had with a few comments made by my seven-year-old daughter. A few days after Osborne’s talk I asked her “so what did you learn about the dinosaurs last week?” My daughter’s response: “that dinosaurs have accoutrements and they were colorful like birds.” My youngest son then chipped in that they were probably used as displays. This was the take-home message from Horner’s talk but that talk had been a month earlier. I then reminded her that she was thinking of an earlier talk and that we had just gone to another talk about dinosaurs. Then she responded “oh yeah, we learned they lived with man and they faded.” Faded was one of the “F” words that Ken Ham came up with that is supposed to be a catchy way to remember the history of dinosaurs: Fearless (before the Fall of man), Fallen, Flood, Faded, Found and Fiction (how scientist make up stories about their origins and age). Faded referred to the fact they all went extinct after the Flood.
I think the take-home message of Osborne’s talk was that the Bible, properly understood, requires that dinosaurs lived with man and since the Bible can’t be wrong about this we must believe that dinosaurs roamed the Earth very recently. Furthermore it isn’t necessary to believe the Bible first because there is plenty of evidence that man and dinosaurs lived together (see my article: Dinosaurs and Humans Living Together? The LYSYEC Apologetic of Ken Ham) and therefore you should believe the Bible. This second message is the reason they see dinosaurs as witnesses for the Bible and therefore a “creationist’s best friend.”
My daughter got the part about dinosaurs living with man and she understood they were extinct. But she doesn’t seem to have learned much else. When I prodded her a bit further she remembered some of the other “F” words though she was unclear why they were important.
My daughter is only seven, I wouldn’t expect her remember all of the points from either talk but I was struck, and my daughter confirmed for me, that Osborne wasn’t there to teach the kids anything about dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs were simply a vehicle for promoting the evangelical mission of Answers in Genesis. My daughter wasn’t exposed to how we learn about dinosaurs other than to be skeptical of what science says. Rather she was simply told how they must fit into the Bible and this included them living with man.
I find that many, though not all, YEC talks are devoid of any real sense of the wonder of discovery. This is because for Ken Ham there is really nothing truly important or even interesting to discover. He already knows where dinosaurs came from, when they lived and how they died. That there were a bunch of varieties is nice but since that variation is the result of Adam’ sin and the degraded genetics that resulted from that act there is nothing especially awe-inspiring about them.
Accessibility to Speakers
Dr. Horner came out before his talk and interacted with kids waiting in line to get into the auditorium. He spoke for about 50 minutes but then took at least 20 minutes of questions from the kids. It was really fun, he was asked about his favorite dinosaur, about specific features of a number of different dinosaurs and a bunch of questions about their extinction. When he was done he spent another 10 to 15 minutes posing for pictures with kids.
The Answers in Genesis conference was led by two speakers. I only heard Bryan Osborn speak but I did get to hear parts of four of his talks. In each case there was no time set aside for questions and even between sessions almost very few people talked to the speakers and none were kids at least as far as I was able to observe. Osborne’s talks includes extensive pitches for the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter with each talk ending with a several minute sales pitch for various books and how to donate money to the Ark Encounter. Rather than address questions, Osborne stated that they have a great selection of books with answers to all of your questions that could be bought as they leave.
Qualification of the speakers
Dr. Horner is a bona-fide expert on dinosaurs and a science advocate. It is understandable that the public would be interested in hearing him speak and having a chance to speak to him. Bryan Osborne is not a dinosaur expert and is using dinosaurs solely as an apologetic tool. There is no curiosity about learning about dinosaurs rather just trying to explain them within a young earth context. Despite beginning his talk by saying that he and Answers in Genesis love dinosaurs there was little in the talk to leave anyone with a greater sense of awe of dinosaurs of part of God’s creation. As I said before, they seemed to be nothing more than a problem in need of solution rather than a truly wonderful part of creation that we should explore.
Bryan Osborne is a paid speaker with no background in science. His entire talk was derived directly from the writings of Ken Ham and other staff members. He has very good speaking skills and knew how to work both an adult and school-age audience very well. To get a feel for how he speaks one only needed to close one’s eyes and realize that he sounds like Ken Ham without the accent. Most of his lines are taken directly from Ken Ham and other AiG speakers and he delivers them almost the same cadence as Ken Ham.
Because Osborne has no science background he is not prepared to deviate from a script. I have also found that even Ken Ham cannot deviate much from a script because he is not familiar with the original literature from which most of his examples come. Rather, Ken Ham and Bryan Osborne rely on a couple of staff scientist to distill the scientific literature and produce simple slides with easy to understand messages. As a result their talks often feel like a long series of memes on a Facebook news feed.
It struck me that because so many of the AiG speakers, including Ken Ham himself, have so little familiarity with their subject material, they run a great risk of unconsciously exaggerating what are already very dubious claims to begin with. Osborne’s talk includes some of these exaggerations. He stayed right on script most of the time almost repeating word for word lines from Ken Ham’s articles and The Answers Book but there were several times he used his own descriptions of scientific findings. When he did he frequently overstated the significance or strength of particular pieces of evidence or simply misspoke about the facts.
In some cases the exaggerations were right there on the slides. For example when providing evidence that dinosaurs lived recently he claimed that thousands of un-fossilized dinosaur bones being found in Alaska that are like “cow bones.” I wonder if he knows the specifics about what he was reporting. He is referring to a report that some dinosaur bones were found by a group of creationists in Alaska. That report has never been published even in a creationists’ journal and no evidence has ever been produced to substantiate their claims. Osborne’s words were exaggeration of an unsubstantiated tale but he presented in such a way that I am sure everyone in the room would assumed that he was suggesting that secular scientists had found such bones and they were well-known.
Despite the problems in his talk, I don’t think Osborne realized that he was exaggerating or that his examples were frequently devoid of persuasive evidence. As I said before, it was apparent he hasn’t studied the original scientific literature. He has read and uses materials provided by AiG. Osborne’s talk is not unusual, this same pattern happens with many of the AiG speakers. They present these talks over and over again and they lose track of what the facts are if they are not spelled out on directly on their slides. Exaggeration becomes inevitable when you are speaking about evidence for which you have no first-hand knowledge.
Comparing apples to oranges
In the end both speakers were very good at what they do. But what they do are very different things. I think that almost anyone could have learned a lot from Dr. Horner’s presentation even if they believed that he was wrong about when dinosaurs lived and that some evolved into birds. The kids at Dr. Horner’s presentation walked away genuinely excited about dinosaurs and what they had learned. I felt like many of the kids at Bryan Osborne’s lecture were less enthusiastic after it was done because they thought, not surprisingly, that a dinosaur talk would be filled with lots of stuff about dinosaurs themselves. Unfortunately, aside from being told how to explain dinosaurs in the context of a young Earth there was nothing else to be discovered about dinosaurs from Bryan Osborne’s lecture.