DINOSAURS

How Kentucky’s $2 Million Dinosaur Ark Became a Mecca for Modern Creationism

A Q-and-A with the filmmakers behind the documentary ‘We Believe in Dinosaurs’

A full-grown Tyrannosaurus rex would have been one of the more frightening creatures to come across in the wild, but a baby T. rex? Adorable. The hatchlings “were about the size of very skinny turkeys, with ‘arms’ that were longer in proportion to their tiny bodies than in adults. And each baby T. rex was covered in a coat of downy feathers,” according to LiveScience

The 21st-century advancements in paleontology have been remarkable, including the recent discovery that a single-celled organism dubbed LUCA (or last universal common ancestor) originated 3.9 billion years ago, only 600 million years after Earth was formed, and long before baby dinosaurs scampered about in the Jurassic period (roughly 199.6 million to 145.5 million years ago).

There is, though, another school of thought that believes dinosaurs existed, but insists it was only 10,000 years ago, and agrees that baby T. rexes were small because it’s how they fit on Noah’s Ark. Yes, the same giant ship you remember from Sunday School that saved eight people and all types of animals while God was busy wiping out humans for their wickedness. In 2016, to honor Noah and to spread the literal word, the fundamentalist ministry Answers in Genesis (AIG) gave unto the world a 170-yard-long, 51-foot-tall replica of the magical boat. At the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky, kids can come inside the vessel, get up close with the animal statues and learn the most important question to ask any secular scientist who claims T. rexes roamed the planet more like 150 million years ago: “Were you there?” 

Filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross of 137 Films were at least there for the unveiling of the Ark Encounter. The massive floating zoo serves as the centerpiece of their documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs, which airs on PBS and starts streaming at Independent Lens tonight. 

The Ark Encounter is the latest evolution in “anti-science” or “bullshit” (depending on your preferred designation from gentle geologist Dan Phelps), from the evangelical Christians behind the Creation Museum, a powerful group with millions in state tax dollars to prove it

Phelps appears throughout the film to do battle on behalf of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, to say nothing of science and reason, against AIG founder, CEO and visionary Ken Ham (seen here indoctrinating a large group of children into the “Young Earth Creationist” cult), who calls out Phelps by name online. The film also introduces a fascinating self-described “reformed creationist” named David MacMillan, a charter member of the Creation Museum who blogs about his sheltered experiences growing up; members of the jovially combative Tri-State Freethinkers, who proclaim the Noah story promotes genocide and incest; and some townspeople with big dreams for local revitalization, like the congenial folks at Elmer’s General Store, where lucky customers got a side of live bluegrass with their pie. 

I recently spoke with Brown, Ross and producer Amy Ellison about science, propaganda, religion and that poor unfortunate misrepresented Allosaurus.

At its heart, your previous film The Believers (currently streaming on Amazon Prime) is scientists debating one another about the scientific method, overselling of results, rushing concepts into the public sphere, etc., as it relates to cold fusion. What was it about that particular high-minded subject that grabbed your attention?
Brown: It came out of The Atom Smashers, which is basically a prequel to Particle Fever, which is about the discovery of the Higgs boson. Our film was about how the search for Higgs boson was short-circuited in the U.S. by decisions the Bush administration made. It got all of us interested in the inner-workings of the scientific world, the politics and behind-the-scenes stuff, and Monica came across the story that became The Believers

Ross: When we were making The Atom Smashers, I asked George Bush’s science advisor, “Why don’t scientists have a eureka moment?” As filmmakers, we wanted them to jump around when they had a major finding. He said, “No, you’ll find scientists are very cautious. They don’t want a cold fusion moment.” The Believers is about two scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, who in 1989, claimed to have figured out cold fusion, which would have been a monumental discovery. We were intrigued by the relationship between science and the public and among the scientific community itself. As a society, we’re at a moment where we need science to help solve major problems, but scientists don’t agree on everything all the time, nor should they. The Believers is a look at scientific ethics, how scientists view each other, and the question of who owns science?

Ellison: The film was prescient in how science is revealed to the public because Ponds and Fleischmann were the first scientists to rush their announcement out in a press conference. Prior to that, everything had to be thoroughly vetted and peer-reviewed; universities and scientific institutions were careful about major announcements. But when there are patent possibilities and you want to lay a claim on information as soon as possible because of the money-making potential, a major press event is a great way to get attention. It’s become, then, a much more public process. 

It’s the perfect segue to We Believe in Dinosaurs, because garnering publicity for creation “science” seems essential to the mission. Is that how you were able to get such unfettered access to the Ark Encounter? Did they put their trust in you?
Brown: People assume the world of creationists is secretive and that we had to penetrate their fortresses to get the film made. In fact, AIG is completely open and totally willing to talk to anyone who wants to engage — whether it’s non-believers, the secular news media or anyone who will listen — full well knowing most people don’t agree with their worldview. They want to tell everyone about their beliefs because they have so much confidence that they’re right. Whenever we wanted an interview or a tour, it was no problem. AIG has an enthusiastic, sophisticated PR/media outreach department. They produce clever ads and their design team puts out beautiful materials. They’re very forward-facing. 

Ross: Some of our footage and the interviews came from media days. We were alongside the Guardian, the New York Times and TV crews from all over. AIG has major reach and knows how to get headlines. I’ve been told by people in L.A. that they saw a billboard for the Ark Encounter, or a TV commercial up in Michigan. 

Had you thought about doing a film on the Creation Museum prior to the building of the Ark Encounter, or was its completion the impetus?
Ross: We didn’t know for sure it would be completed when we started; there was some speculation on the project. We were interested in the Creation Museum mainly because Young Earth Creationism doesn’t solely remain in the church. AIG brought out their theories through a public museum that looks very sophisticated, just like a natural history museum you’d find with mainstream science. They want to compete with institutions like the Smithsonian. It was fascinating to us, but we needed a story. The building of the ark provided one. 

Everyone you interviewed in the film seems sincere in their beliefs, with the exception of Ken Ham who gave me a Jim Bakker vibe. What is he really all about?
Brown: I hesitate to comment on Ken personally because we didn’t really get to know him, but he certainly is the figurehead and the driving force behind Answers in Genesis. It’s his vision. What I can say is people often ask if he really believes the things he says or if he’s just a shrewd businessman. But those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. In the film, Dan Phelps calls him a propagandist, which is also accurate. Ham is a fervent believer with business acumen and a message for the secular world, which makes him a particularly powerful force. He’s gotten everything at AIG done almost single-handedly, which is remarkable.

Ross: AIG is also very secretive about their financials. Phelps has dug into it for years, but it’s difficult to find salaries, official attendance records or what kind of money is being made off of book and merchandise sales. We know Ham has family members employed in the organization, but we really don’t know a whole lot about the deeper financial questions. 

Brown: I’d add that Ham is quick to defend AIG, the Creation Museum or even creationism if he feels they’re being attacked. They want their followers to believe they’re under siege from secularists, so there’s an intensity in the way they respond. They position themselves as David to the mainstream science Goliath.

Ellison: It’s a key part of their fundraising techniques. We call ourselves storytellers, but Ham is an expert at this particular narrative, which gets results. 

While filming We Believe in Dinosaurs, did you have to separate the right-wing politics of the evangelical movement from the creation science, or is that even possible?
Brown: It’s absolutely all one thing; there’s no separation. Creation science is part of the core belief system, so if you attack the science, you attack the religion. They don’t distinguish it in any way; creationism is part of their identity. In fact, they say the argument with the secular world over evolution isn’t science versus science, or even science versus religion. It’s religion versus religion. 

Ross: The bubbles, divisions and straight lines we put between groups in the U.S. right now, how divided we are, is echoed in the film. The idea that Christianity is being threatened, and thus, the need for religious freedom is parallel to what’s going on nationally. 

Ellison: In the film, local Baptist pastor Chris Caldwell says the followers of AIG believe that if any part of the Bible is called into question, then the entire Bible can be called into question. It’s a literal fundamentalist interpretation that also pushes over dominoes of other American institutions. If evolution is wrong, then mainstream science is wrong, and everything that follows from there, further sowing seeds of division. 

One of the things that’s hard for me, as a non-believing secularist viewer of the film, is that no matter how kind and decent the AIG people in it are — and trying to take a live-and-let-live approach to their creationist worldview — is knowing the evangelical community is the staunchest of Trump supporters. How did you approach politics in the film?
Brown: We knew from the outset we didn’t want to make a film about religion. It’s obviously intertwined, but our goal was continuing the theme in our films of examining America’s strange relationship with science. We didn’t want We Believe in Dinosaurs to be a look at how problematic religion can be in society, but it’s around the fringes of the film. 

Ross: David MacMillan says when he was young, he went to Answers in Genesis because they provide answers. Like a lot of evangelical Christian kids, he was homeschooled and all of the texts and materials were provided by AIG. He thought he knew more than secular scientists because he had easily digestible and understandable answers. As David says, you feel smart and empowered. But he was curious for more, and once he started researching on his own, he came to realize AIG’s science just isn’t right. We Believe in Dinosaurs is a story of science denial, in the same vein as global warming deniers or anti-vaxxers. Belief in science is at a low ebb right now. If we can’t even agree on the theory of evolution, which we need as a predictive tool of medicine to help develop the next antibiotic, where are we headed? 

The ark itself is stunning, an incredible display of craftsmanship, even if some of the dioramas have a fundamentalist Chuck E. Cheese vibe. So it must have been a thrill from a filmmaking perspective, because the movie has some incredible shots like the one dinosaur being loaded onto the Ark for the first time…
Ross: He’s got this look on his face like, “Save me!”

Brown: The visuals do a lot of the film’s heavy-lifting. There’s a close-up of an ape’s face in the workshop. It’s beautiful, but also heartbreaking, knowing what it’s being handcrafted for. Or the Allosaurus fossil, one of the best in the world, ending up in the Creation Museum. My only solace is knowing the fossil lasted millions of years, so in another million years it will end up somewhere else. 

So that is a real fossil — how did AIG end up with it?
Ellison: There’s a donor named Michael Peroutka who has a family foundation that supports conservative causes. The skeleton was found on private property, and Peroutka held onto it for years before donating it to the Creation Museum. On the day it was unveiled, Peroutka spoke and said had they not found a museum to display the Allosaurus “righteously” — saying it was wiped out in Noah’s flood — he considered reburying it. He didn’t want the dinosaur to fall into the hands of evolutionists. 

Ross: AIG maintains that a youth group, on a dinosaur dig for Young Earth Creationists, found the Allosaurus, but the entire story has been called into question. The saga of the fossil is a film in itself.

I thought creationism boiled down to the Bible saying God made the world in seven days, end of story. I was unaware of all the geological studies behind Young Earth Creationism. They have answers for everything. Are they changing minds with their “evidence”?
Brown: They are. At the end of the film, we quote a 2017 Gallup poll that said 38 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. The 2019 statistic is 40 percent, the first time the percentage has gone up in a long time. 

It’s interesting how thorough and deeply researched the scientific explanations creationists believe bolster their case are. You can’t stump them with any scientific question, they have an answer for everything in their papers, journals, experiments, etc. The staff scientists at AIG provide explanations that sound science-y and that they believe are true. It’s not just that they have faith, they’re convinced their worldview is scientifically provable and historically accurate. 

Ellison: A lot of the so-called evidence comes from poking holes in mainstream science as it exists now. They take advantage of an important aspect of science in that things can’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, only disproved. It’s an element of the scientific method, continuing to hypothesize, observe and experiment to say what something isn’t, not what it is with 100 percent accuracy. “It’s a theory, not a fact,” is a lever AIG uses to lift up their version of things. 

Ross: The difference is when I went to Catholic grade school, I was never taught that the Bible needed to be proved. You had faith, you didn’t need facts. We went into the film with curiosity, but I didn’t really know a whole lot about creationism and using science to prove Biblical stories was confusing. 

Brown: One of the telling moments in the film comes at the Ark Encounter opening when Ken Ham encourages everyone to chat with their PhD scientists — they have a handful, one of whom went to Harvard — saying that “you won’t understand them,” but still ask questions because they’re brilliant and trustworthy. A lot of visitors don’t know how to talk scientifically, so someone with a PhD, even in a totally different field, validates creation science. 

Last question, it’s been almost four years since the Ark Encounter opened, has it been successful and has Williamstown seen any benefits?
Ross: The people of Williamstown are the heart of the film. We went back a year after the Ark Encounter opened, and unfortunately, the town looked the same, except Elmer’s General Store was out of business. People had high hopes the arc it would revitalize their town. It hasn’t. 

Brown: It would be one thing if it was simply dashed hopes, but the county sold AIG the land for a dollar, gave them cash, issued bonds and provided tax breaks that will benefit the Ark Encounter for 30 years. And of course, the Ark Encounter is motivated to keep all the guests captive on their property. They’ve put in their own restaurants and will probably add a hotel. 

Ross: Phelps recently emailed us — he discovered last year’s attendance was slightly down. Ken Ham counters by saying he gives away lots of tickets to school kids that aren’t counted and other people have yearly passes; so we don’t know exactly how well it’s doing. 

Ellison: The Ark Encounter is definitely not failing. They opened a conference center with a large auditorium, a petting zoo and more places to eat. However, they haven’t constructed the enormous Tower of Babel or the Walled City, which Ham touted as part of his grand plans.