Wednesday, January 17, 2007

They Suck at Geography Too.

PZ Mayorzsh has been steadily mocking the new creationist "museum" set to open in northern Kentucky, and has noticed a rather strange claim that appears in all of the news articles written about it. Here is the original form of the claim, as recorded in this article in The Guardian:

It [the museum] is strategically placed, too - not in the middle of nowhere, but within six hours' drive of two-thirds of the entire population of the US.

So the museum is within a 6 hours' drive of 2/3rds of the population of the entire US? I don't think so.

Below is a map of the United States, upon which I drew a circle with a radius of approximately 360 miles with the creationist museum in the center. 360 miles is about the maximum one can drive in 6 hours, assuming that you drive in a straight line (no bends in the road), you maintain a constant 60 mph speed, and you don't make any stops.

The idea that 2/3rds of the population of the United States lives within that circle is absurd. Everything to the west and southwest of St. Louis is outside of it, including the entire states of California and Texas, plus the whole population of 20 other states (23 if you count Arkansas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, whose borders just barely touch the circle). Everything to the south of Atlanta is outside of the circle, including the entire state of Florida. And everything to the northeast of mid-Pennsylvania sits outside of it, including Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston.

If you add the populations of California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington, and New Jersey -- all states that are outside of the 6 hour radius -- that alone makes up more than 1/3rd of the country. Plus you've got an additional 24 states and several major cities. I mean, it's just not even close.

Now The Guardian is a UK paper, so its writers might be forgiven for knowing nothing about American geography. But they almost certainly didn't come up with this particular talking point -- instead it was fed to them by the creationists. It's not that getting their geography wrong is a major defect in and of itself, it's that it demonstrates a serious lack of knowledge or concern about even the most basic, easily checked facts. And that gives us a good idea of what's likely to be found in the museum.

Strangely enough, in spite of how easy it is to refute this claim, it hasn't gone away. Instead it has evolved. Now instead of the museum being within a 6 hour drive of 2/3rds of the country, it's within a "day's" drive of 2/3rds of the country. That's still awfully hard to swallow. Although in this case "day" has the virtue of being undefined, so they could take it to mean 24 hours of non-stop driving, in which case, yes, 2/3rds of the country probably falls within that range. So does Mexico. However, when we think of a "day's" trip, most people would be thinking about a maximum of about 600 miles, and of course this isn't going to be in a straight line. When I drove from South Carolina to Denver, it took me two and a half days, and that was some pretty hardcore driving. (I drove all day, stopped only when necessary, and didn't have any screaming kids in the car.) On my first day, I made it from around Greenville, SC to southern Illinois. On my second day, I made it from southern Illinois to the western edge of Kansas. Those distances are not much bigger than the radius of the circle I have drawn, so if we assume a realistic day of driving, we're just barely widening the circle and not adding that much more of the US population. It's still downright nuts to say that 2/3rds of the population lives within a day's drive of northern Kentucky.

A better question here is, how "strategically placed" is this creationist museum? In terms of nearby people, not very. You've got the populations of Ohio and Indiana nearby, plus a few major cities that are realistically within driving distance -- Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, etc. However, to the immediate south and east you've got the sparsely populated (and hard to drive through) region of Appalachia, and to the immediate west sits thinly populated farm country, and while these area may contain the creationists' prime constituency, the people living there may not be able to afford the admissions fee. If you wanted the museum to be close to a lot of people, shifting it to the northeast by a couple of hundred miles would have been the smart thing to do.