Is the Ark Encounter economically viable?

From a few of the comments on my post about my visit to Ken Ham’s Ark Park, people seem to think I’m arguing for the long-term success of the fake boat. Short answer: I don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

It’s got a fair number of attendees. This is from a one-day sample, so I can’t possibly make any extrapolations, but what I saw were a lot of Christian family groups who looked like they were there on vacation, several buses full of evangelical church kids in matching t-shirts, and a scattering of older couples who were there like pilgrims visiting a shrine. It’s far more popular than other creationist museums I’ve visited, which are typically anemic and a bit shabby. Answers in Genesis has the flashy PR angle down cold, and is getting people to travel to the Ark Park as a tourist destination. That’s a plus for them.

Attendance really is comparable to what I see at real science museums, like the Franklin Institute or the Science Museum of Minnesota or OMSI. That’s remarkable considering they’re almost an hour away from Cincinnati and it’s a drive with virtually no other attractions. Location matters, and they’ve plunked this thing down in a crap location; if you relocated the San Francisco Exploratorium to this nowhere place in Kentucky, it would wither and die. The Ark Park is doing OK, because they can rely on religious fervor to motivate visitors.

However, that parking lot has got to be immensely embarrassing, because it is so dang immense and relatively empty. They clearly anticipated crowds that are an order of magnitude larger than what they’re getting. Maybe they’re anticipating a lot of growth? I don’t think they’ll get it.

Here’s why: there’s nothing there. When I compare it to real museums, it’s solely on the basis of attendance, because the content is pathetic — the Creation “Museum” has equivalent or more content, and the Ark Park just spreads the same stuff out over more square footage. There’s a lot of “tell, don’t show”: big pictures on the wall that explain verbosely what their interpretation of the Bible is, accompanied by…nothing. It’s bad pedagogy that only affirms what true believers already believe. If you’re not a believer already, it’s painfully dreary and dull; Ol’ Ken won’t be winning any souls for Jesus, but he will be reassuring those already on his side that science and American culture are agin’ ’em, and so they better join together.

What about the satisfaction of those attendees? They liked it! I doubt that many came out of it as I did feeling like they were ripped off. A few anecdotes: I was listening to what other people were saying (I was there solely as an observer, so I did not start any arguments, tempted though I was). I’m walking down the long, long, long ramp that winds through the center of the building, and there was an elderly couple walking along. “This is magnificent!”, he said to his wife, and she agreed. Yet all there was to see was this gigantic wooden ramp that was like a blown-up cattle chute, with us as the cattle. They’d clearly gotten the message that was hammered at us constantly about how big the Ark was, so that bigness became sufficient.

On the third deck, a woman bustled by, clearly anxious to just leave, and her teenaged son was trailing behind. “Mommm! Slow down! I’m trying to learn something here!” I spun around in place, looking at what there was to see. The ramp. A bright colorful poster of something or other on the wall. A small room space with a diorama in it. It was as close to an intellectual dead zone as I’ve seen. I don’t know whether the kid was simply using a buzz word — “learn” — to manipulate his mother, or whether he was sincere in wanting to think about the content. This was the point where I was most tempted to intervene and take the person aside who professed to want to learn and explain to him what he really needed to know about this place.

That was depressing, to see someone who at least claimed to want to learn who’d sought out this terrible place that was only teaching ignorance.

It also highlighted something else about the place: where were the docents? Most museums have volunteers who will help explain anything on display, or have experts who will do demonstrations. I saw nothing of the kind here. There were a couple of places where there were bottlenecks, with guides who were there to shepherd groups along; there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs. Otherwise, everything was designed to stand alone, which might explain why there so many walls of text splattered about. It’s all so ideologically focused in a narrow way, so it might also be difficult to get volunteer guides who don’t say something heretical now and then.

I expect the attendees stroll out of there to register high satisfaction ratings, in the majority. That’s a problem for AiG. You know that giant parking lot that maybe they hope to expand into? They’ve already captured the audience that is made giddily happy by trudging for 45 minutes through a maze of wooden boxes with amplified pig noises squealing at them. You don’t need substance to appeal to them at all. You could just bus them out to a completely empty giant wooden box, and if you told them it was Jesus-approved, they’d nod and check off the biggest number in the Likert scale of the satisfaction survey. This isn’t just a phenomenon at religious sites, of course.

It is a problem for growth though. Adding more exhibits or longer ziplines or carnival rides will increase their expenses, but won’t draw in more people beyond their already pre-satisfied crowd of Jesusites. The baseline has been successfully acquired. What do they do to make it grow? I have no idea. I don’t think they do, either.

Another concern for AiG. I, too, own a big wooden box called a house. It’s nowhere near the size of Ken Ham’s big wooden box, but maintenance is a non-trivial expense — we’re especially aware of that this summer, because we’ve hired a contractor to redo all the big wooden siding and replace the rotting-out boards in the big wooden deck. My pocketbook is already aching, so I’m a little bit sensitive to this sort of thing. I looked at the already seriously weathered shell of the Ark, and I wondered what happens when all those boards expand and warp in the cold and the heat, and what their maintenance costs will be. I’m also confident that those costs will grow over the years, and that AiG, given their desperate desire for raw overwhelming BIGNESS, have probably cut corners in quality somewhere (which is evident in the paltry content). Just the fact that they proudly proclaim that they have built the largest wooden structure in the world should tell you that they’re at the extreme end of what you can do with this kind of construction.

So I repeat: I don’t know if the Ark Park is economically viable. It might be cruising along just fine right now — that’s entirely possible, given reasonable attendance — and they might even get significant repeat business, because their fans are definitely devoted. But I know nothing about their expenses, it’s not exactly poised for real growth, and it’s got nothing in the interior that ought to make science museums concerned about competition. It’s a shrine to stupidity, which has a built-in strong audience in America. And which makes Ken Ham rich.

An alternative history

Slacktivist buys a book — a somewhat surprising book nowadays. It’s a book on evangelical Christian ethics that has no problem with abortion.

In 1975 — two years after Roe — Zondervan Press published a book for white evangelicals in which Norman Geisler wrote: “Abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.” And nobody freaked out. Nobody even imagined freaking out. This was simply a restatement of what most white evangelicals believed — a belief that was widely held because it has the advantage of being true.

It’s still true, of course, but white evangelicals are no longer allowed to say so. That’s a huge change.

Actually, I shouldn’t say it’s that surprising. There were also Christian science textbooks from that era that thought evolution was a fine idea, and that the Earth is clearly billions of years old (there still are!). Just imagine an alternate history in which American Christianity hadn’t been derailed by anti-woman, anti-science derangement — it would have short-circuited a lot of the motivation behind the atheist movement, and might have produced a 21st century America in which the conservatives wouldn’t have been driven by a fanatical version of right-wing Christianity.

Unfortunately, nowadays “Christianity” and “rabid religious fanaticism” are in the process of an ongoing merger.

Socialist progressive atheists are more Christian than capitalist regressive bible-thumpers

Katha Pollit tells it like it is. I’m also tired of all the news stories that tell us that we have to empathize with Trump voters, that it’s our fault that Trump won, that gosh, this dumbass who voted for a racist psychopath is just a down-home salt-of-the-earth fella. We know all that. But really, it’s time to stop the one-sided efforts to humanize people who dehumanize the rest of us.

But here’s my question: Who is telling the Tea Partiers and Trump voters to empathize with the rest of us? Why is it all one way? Hochschild’s subjects have plenty of demeaning preconceptions about liberals and blue-staters—that distant land of hippies, feminazis, and freeloaders of all kinds. Nor do they seem to have much interest in climbing the empathy wall, given that they voted for a racist misogynist who wants to throw 11 million people out of the country and ban people from our shores on the basis of religion (as he keeps admitting on Twitter, even as his administration argues in court that Islam has nothing to do with it). Furthermore, they are the ones who won, despite having almost 3 million fewer votes. Thanks to the founding fathers, red-staters have outsize power in both the Senate and the Electoral College, and with great power comes great responsibility. So shouldn’t they be trying to figure out the strange polyglot population they now dominate from their strongholds in the South and Midwest? What about their stereotypes? How respectful or empathetic is the belief of millions of Trump voters, as established in polls and surveys, that women are more privileged than men, that increasing racial diversity in America is bad for the country, that the travel ban is necessary for national security? How realistic is the conviction, widespread among Trump supporters, that Hillary Clinton is a murderer, President Obama is a Kenyan communist and secret Muslim, and the plain-red cups that Starbucks uses at Christmastime are an insult to Christians? One of Hochschild’s subjects complains that “liberal commentators” refer to people like him as a “redneck.” I’ve listened to liberal commentators for decades and have never heard one use this word. But say it happened once or twice. “Feminazi” went straight from Rush Limbaugh’s mouth to general parlance. One of Hochschild’s most charming subjects, a gospel singer and preacher’s wife, uses it like a normal word. Equating women who want their rights with the genocidal murder of millions? How is that not a vile insult?

Somehow, the idea that the tolerant side is the side that tolerates Nazis annoys me.

I’m also tired of people who preach their goodness (because God) but don’t practice it. In particular, the Ryanesque theology that equates Jesus Christ with Ayn Rand. Capitalist Christianity has gone down an evil path.

These statements from Arrington and Marshall are rooted in the same religious idea: that the poor and sick — or at least a subset thereof — supposedly deserve their plight, and healthy and more financially secure Americans shouldn’t be forced to care for them.

This theology has incensed many progressive Christians of late, but it didn’t appear overnight. It’s the result of a decades-long campaign by conservative lawmakers, intellectuals, and theologians to craft a theology that rejects longstanding Christian understandings of society’s needy.

But they love Jesus! Therefore we’re supposed to sympathize with them. That’s the game skin-deep Christian exploiters have been playing for centuries.

Belle Plaine gets a new ornament

A small town in Minnesota put up an exclusively Christian memorial to veterans in a city park — only Christians have fought in our military, apparently. The FFRF got on their case, and they initially backed off, but then under local pressure they decided to put it back up, but with a new compromise. They decided to call the park a free speech zone where anyone can put up a monument, just so they could allow this one religious symbol to stand in a civic space.

And somewhere, a Satanist’s eyes glittered with joy and anticipation.

Belle Plaine is now getting a lovely black steel cube with inverted pentagrams on it for their park. Good choice. Some of the citizens don’t seem to understand the first amendment and have defaced secular signs before, so it’s going to be tough for them to do much of anything to a heavy, squat, metal block.

I kinda want one for my lawn now.

Neuralink and the delusional world of Muskians

I know, I’m getting a reputation as that guy who hates Elon Musk (I don’t, I hate hype), but his latest is just too much bullshit. He has bought a company called Neuralink, which has the goal of creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). OK so far. These interfaces are cool, interesting, and promising, and I’m all for more research in this field. But Musk gets involved, and suddenly his weird transhumanist-wannabe fanboys start hyperventilating. I double-dog dare you to read this puff piece, Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. It begins roughly here, with the claim that Musk is going to build a Wizard Hat to make everyone super-smart:

Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.

The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around—but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked. I feel like I took a time machine to the future, and I’m here to tell you that it’s even weirder than we expect.

But before I can bring you in the time machine to show you what I found, we need to get in our zoom machine—because as I learned the hard way, Elon’s wizard hat plans cannot be properly understood until your head’s in the right place.

I dared you to read it, because I’ll be surprised if anyone can plow through it all: it goes on for almost 40,000 words (I know, I pulled it into a text editor and confirmed it), and that doesn’t count all the crappy little cartoons scattered through out it. When the author says you cannot properly understand it without putting your head in the right place, he means you have to start with sponges and be lead step by step through a triumphalist version of 600 million years of evolutionary history, which is all about a progressive increase in the complexity of brain circuitry. It’s an extremely naive and reductionist perspective on neuroscience and intelligence that presumes that all you have to do is make brains bigger and faster to be better, and that computers extend the “bigger” part but are limited by the speed of interfaces, so all we have to do is improve the bandwidth and we’ll be able to battle the AIs that Musk thinks will someday threaten to rule the world.

All the verbiage is a gigantic distraction. It’s virtually entirely irrelevant to the argument, which I just nailed down for you in a single sentence…without bogging you down in a hypothetical history of flatworms and a lot of simplistic neuroscience. He summarizes Elon Musk’s glorious plan in yet another crude cartoon:

It is accompanied by much grandiloquent noise and promises of planetary revolutions, but what needs to be asked is “How much of this is real?”. The answer is…pretty much none of it. We are currently in the little blue ball at the lower left labeled “starting point”, and Musk has bought a company that is doing tentative, exploratory research on building BMIs (I guess that this whole field is new enough that they are all, by default, “cutting edge”). Everything else in the diagram is complete fantasy. Elon Musk has bought a company, and is cunningly trying to inflate its value by drowning the curious in glurge, techno-mysticism, and making shit up, which, because he has this mystique among young male engineers, will probably succeed in making him more money and fame, without actually doing anything in the top two thirds of that cartoon.

I do rather like how the third step is “BREAKTHROUGHS in bandwidth and implementation”. You could replace it with “And then a miracle occurs…”, and it would be just as meaningful.

Let’s add a little more reality here: Musk has a BS in physics and economics, and started a Ph.D. in engineering, which he dropped out of. He has no education at all in biology or neuroscience.

Another shot of reality: he’s buying this company in collaboration with Peter Thiel’s venture capital company. You remember Thiel, right? Wants to prolong the life of old rich people by transfusing them with the blood of the young? Libertarian acolyte of Ayn Rand who is now advising Trump on policy? If you think this is a recipe for a post-Singularity paradise, looking at the people backing it ought to tell you otherwise.

So why are these filthy rich people getting involved in this nonsense? Let’s ask Elon.

Fear and ignorance, like always.

They’ve imagined a huge, shadowy existential risk which does not exist yet — you might as well drive your decisions by the possible threat of invasion by Mole People from Alpha Centauri (oh, wait…they also fear aliens). They don’t know how AIs will develop or what they’ll do — nobody does — and they lack the competencies needed to guide the research or assess any risks, but they’ve got a plan for generating all the benefits. These guys are as terrifying to me as the Religious Right, and for all the same reasons.

They have fervent worshippers who will vomit up 40,000 words based on inspiration and wishful thinking, and then wallow about in the mess. It’s possibly the worst science writing I’ve encountered yet, and I’ve read a lot, but still, take a look at all the commenters who want it to be true, and regard grade-school and often incorrect summaries of how brains evolved to be informative.

He didn’t rise, and he probably didn’t exist in the first place

Happy Easter! Skip church and instead go read this essay on why Jesus is a myth.

The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.

The things you can learn from Inside the Vatican

It’s a Catholic magazine, and Anthony Barcellos sent me a scan of their letters page. It’s very enlightening.

The things I learned from this sample:

  • Catholics are old.

  • Many of them are in prison.

  • I have succeeded in my crusade to drive them out of my university.

What caught Anthony’s eye was this letter:

MAGAZINE IS “VITAL” FOR CATHOLIC STUDENTS

The University of Minnesota in Morris, as well as the main campus in the Twin Cities, is 98% atheist. That is why Inside the Vatican is vital. I was the only Catholic professor there, now retired, so I know whereof I speak. I wish to give this gift subscription to the few Catholic students at UM-Morris.

Maria Louisa Rodriguez

Morris, Minnesota, USA

I do not know who Maria Louisa Rodriguez is — she may have retired before I got here. But there are a few errors in her letter. Catholicism is the single largest religious denomination in Minnesota, with about a quarter of the population, and while universities do have their demographic biases, I rather doubt that we’d be able to exclude Catholics that thoroughly, especially since we don’t have any filters in admissions that would discriminate.

I wish I could say specifically that I know Catholic students, but since I don’t attend the church, and I never ask any of my students what they do on Sundays, I don’t know. Also don’t care. It’s not as if I would put a question on an exam about it.

I do happen to know that a couple of faculty members are Catholic, so I guess we’ve been backsliding since those halcyon, Catholic-free days immediately after Ms Rodriquez’s retirements.

I’m also curious about what’s going on in the UMM Newman Center, this lovely building just off campus, a few blocks from me. Apparently all the photos on that page of students there are photoshop fakes, their schedule of Catholic-associated events are a lie, and the coordinators are all making it up when they claim to be students.

Uh-oh. Maybe the lesson I should learn is that the old jailbirds who write in to Inside the Vatican are all making crap up.

Time for the War on Easter!

I didn’t even know we were fighting over that one, but apparently we are. It’s an unexpected front. You might be wondering what deep article of Christian faith we’re going to be battling over. That too is unexpectedly trivial.

The war is to be fought over eggs.

The latest manufactured moral outrage came courtesy of the Archbishop of York, whose bandwagon was soon jumped on by none other than the Prime Minister. The cause of their holy indignation? Cadbury and the National Trust have had the temerity to advertise Egg Hunts, rather than Easter Egg Hunts. Well, there go hundreds of years of Christian-appropriated pagan religious tradition down the plughole!

It’s hard to believe, but the fanatics are up in arms over those totally biblical symbols of Jesus from deep antiquity, chocolate eggs.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu said Mr Cadbury, a Quaker who founded the firm in 1824, was renowned for his religious beliefs and would not condone dropping the word Easter.

He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output”.

“To drop Easter from Cadbury’s Easter Egg Hunt in my book is tantamount to spitting on the grave of Cadbury,” Dr Sentamu added.

A spokesman from the Church added: “This marketing campaign not only does a disservice to the Cadburys but also highlights the folly in airbrushing faith from Easter.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the issue reflected “commercialisation gone a bit too far”.

Are all the party leaders idiots over there? Even the prime minister, Theresa May, is whining about it. Doesn’t she have anything better to do, like preparing for the coming war with Spain?

P.S. Cadbury, the guy whose grave we’re supposed to be spitting on, was a Quaker. Quakers don’t actually celebrate Easter.