Friday, December 29, 2006

Grand Canyon Creationism

Maybe it's because two of my brothers are geologists, but this story really strikes a nerve with me (hat tip to The Bad Astronomer):

According to this press release from PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), Bush White House appointees are suppressing real science in order to promote creationism. Specifically, at the Grand Canyon National Park, a book is on sale that says the canyon was formed in Noah’s flood. Also, guides at the park are not allowed to answer questions about how old the canyon is, despite scientists’ incredibly detailed and intricate knowledge of the formation mechanism, scheme, and history of the canyon (hint: some of the oldest rocks in the canyon are two billion years old).

This is akin to the National Institutes of Health refusing to discuss what causes epidemics because some religions reject the Germ Theory of Disease, or the American Psychiatric Association giving a "no comment" on psychiatry because Scientologists believe all mental disorders are caused by space aliens. Our Constitution guarantees that you can believe whatever arrant nonsense you want, but if we start bowing to pressure from religious groups to censor scientific facts, then ultimately we will be able to speak authoritatively on absolutely nothing.

It would be one thing if the official position of the National Parks Service were to say something along the lines of "Some religious groups believe the world is only six thousand years old. The vast majority of scientists who have studied the subject, however, have shown that it is much, much older." But that's not what they're being told to say. Instead they're being told they can't discuss the scientific evidence AT ALL!

The next thing you know, your doctor's going to be saying "No comment" when you ask her why your arm is hanging at a ninety degree angle. Some religions, after all, believe that pain is all in your mind, or that the physical is just illusion. Why risk offending those people, just because you happen to think your arm is, you know, broken?

I have been disgusted by a lot of what the Bush Administration has done over the last six years, but I find few things more unforgivable than the willful, deliberate destruction of the scientific method in favor of faith-based belief systems.


GeoPoet said...

As a geologist, it's obiously bad science with a very small contingent of scientists who back it. If it's cloaked in religious views (which appears likely), it shouldn't be presented as science. Similarly, a book that says science proves there is no God also does not belong on the education shelf (and I'm not saying there is one there). In short, all truth, scientific or religious, stands on its own without contradiction (per earlier blog on "reframing the evolution debate").

However, I tried to do a little research on this and I can't find any real proof that this is tied to the Bush Administration other than PEER's unsubstantiated charges. The fact no action was taken on the review is pretty normal for any big agency, and how many such policies are actually followed at these agencies? In any event, it hardly seems worth the while of anybody on Bush's staff; all in all the charge sounds kind of suspicious.

Sounds more like a book that got popular (it IS presented as an alternative view) and NPS is making money off it, so they're lax in removing it. I've been to lots of parks and often see inspirational type of books (kind of a fine line as you know), so not everything there is purely educational.

Hence, we ought to be careful that this isn't just another one of those "Bush is the evil empire" poor journalistic conspiracy jumps which, as usual, goes to extremes for the fear factor (e.g., Dan Rather, the 9-11 conspiracy, etc.). I mean, why make an accusation with no substance - not even a single call to Halliburton!

Of course, I could be wrong and there really is somebody in government pushing this with an agenda, but please - can't these professionals actually provide evidence of these conspiracy connections before they get passed around like this? Problem is, nobody ever publishes retractions or publicly says "Sorry George" or is slammed when they're finally uncovered for what they are. Too much profit in it most likely due to a ravenous audience. And I know - it happens on both the left and the right side of the political aisle.

It'll be interesting to see where the truth leads in this and what the full story is, that is if anybody really cares about the truth any more in this polarized environment.

Jeff Hebert said...

Similarly, a book that says science proves there is no God also does not belong on the education shelf

True, though completely immaterial to the point of this post, which is about a specific book in the Grand Canyon gift shop and a gag order on Park Rangers. What in the world does some mythical book about what supposed atheistic scientists are hypothetically saying in a nonexistent book shelf have to do with anything?

However, I tried to do a little research on this and I can't find any real proof that this is tied to the Bush Administration other than PEER's unsubstantiated charges.

I wait with bated breath to learn how this is actually Bill Clinton's fault :-)

Seriously, it's a government-run agency whose officials are appointed by the Executive Branch, aka The Bush Administration. This all happened while Bush was President, under the auspices of people his Administration appointed. Had it happened under Clinton, it would be just as proper to say it was tied to the Clinton Administration, no?

I have to admit, putting aside the political aspects of it, I find it boggling that you're not upset about this. A religious group is using a government office to spread scientific falsehoods to advance a Biblical worldview that the Catholic Church itself has said is both theologically and scientifically invalid, and in a field that you are an expert in. How does that not piss you off? Forget the politics, forget whether this happened under a Republican or Democratic administration, this is a terrible way to promote either good scientific literacy or cogent theology to the general public.

In any event, it hardly seems worth the while of anybody on Bush's staff; all in all the charge sounds kind of suspicious.

I don't think anyone's saying it's someone on his STAFF doing this (I'm sure Condi and the rest of the Cabinet have plenty on their plates to keep them occupied), but that it's a political hack appointed by his Administration further on down the org chart. You know, like George Deutsch, a Bush political hack who had to resign after trying to stifle the research of NASA scientist James Hansen because it would have undercut the political position of the Administration. Or the hack who tried to edit out any mention of the light from other stars taking billions of years to reach Earth because it cut against the Creationist grain.

On second though, it appears that in fact this sort of thing is not beneath notice after all. Hunh!

I hope you're right, and that the charges of someone in the Park Service deliberately stonewalling on the alleged investigation are false. The bottom line is, I want that book removed from the Grand Canyon gift shop, and I want the gag order (assuming there is one) that prevents rangers from discussion the best scientific evidence of the age of the earth lifted asap.

However, given the long and well documented history of the Bush Administration subverting objective scientific data to political goals (see this series of posts at The Bad Astronomer for starters), I think there's probably a fire under all this smoke. It's happened before, in multiple agencies, and given the fact that the President himself believes Creationism should be taught as science alongside evolution in the classroom, I don't think it's much of a stretch.

I've been to lots of parks and often see inspirational type of books (kind of a fine line as you know), so not everything there is purely educational.

An inspirational book is one thing. A book at the Grand Canyon saying that the Bible teaches the Canyon can only be a few thousand years old at most is hardly "inspirational". That's a book making a plainly incorrect statement of fact, for religious reasons, sold in a government run store, the employees of which are forbidden from providing information about the actual scientific data when asked.

How do you not find that appalling?

Jeff Hebert said...

Just as a follow-up, the best post on the Deutsch dust-up at NASA is here.

I mentioned something about editing out references to light years in that last comment, but that was incorrect. I was remembering (poorly) that Deutsch also wanted to add "Theory" to every reference to "The Big Bang" on NASA's web sites because he wanted to present a religious point of view.

Anonymous said...

I typed a whole message and I think I deleted it -- my last goof of 2006! Well, there's 30 minutes left, still time to err... After reading this post a couple of days ago, I e-mailed the park directly and asked the question about the materials in their bookstore. One of the things I've discovered at the newspaper is sometimes asking the question is enough to let them know that they can't get away with what they're doing. As long as they can get away with it, they do it. When you shine the light on the cockroaches, they usually scatter off to the safety of the dark cupboards. The fact that the question is being raised might be enough to rectify the situation. Then again, having visitors question and demand answers at the park will also do it. I think since this is not the case at all the parks, it could be one overzealous manager. One bad cop on a force gives the whole department a bad name -- I've seen it happen here time and time again. Because this is a government agency and site, it bears looking into with questions from journalists. What in the world are these writers doing anyway? Oh that's right ... Britney Spears, Brad and Angelina and where to find the latest game system. I also tried to find out who funds PEER, and I couldn't find it either. Full disclosure on both sides is warranted in any situation like this. That's the job of a good journalist. New York Times -- are you listening??? -- Denise

Jeff Hebert said...

I'll be interested in what the front desk has to say, particularly on whether or not they're actually barred from discussing the age of the canyon when asked. That's the most outrageous charge of all.

Jeff Hebert said...

A couple of follow up links:

This New York Times article from October of 2005 profiles two different rafting trips down the Grand Canyon, one from the guy who wrote the creationist book on sale in the gift shop, and the other led by the director of the NCSE.

This link goes to an evaluator of various charities, which is how PEER is classified since they're a non-profit. It doesn't have any detailed information about donors, but they're not a very big group, with total income of only $900,000 or so. They're a group of former public service employees whose mission is to protect current public service employees who want to blow the whistle on misconduct. So yes, they have an agenda, which is to ensure that government agencies do sound scientific research and that their employees are free to bring notice to unfair or unscientific practices without suffering undue harassment.

There was a bill introduced recently to pass into law such protections for environmental and scientific whistleblowers, prompted in part by the Deutsch NASA incident. Unfortunately that bill was defeated along straight party lines.

As far as I can tell, no one has called the actual Grand Canyon park and asked a tour guide or ranger there what they've been told they can and cannot say, which strikes me as a problem. Reading through PEERs other press releases, they're pretty clearly anti-Bush. Republicans will doubtlessly say that's proof we should disregard anything they say, whereas Democrats would say that these people are anti-Bush not out of Bush Derangement Syndrome but because they honestly think his policies are crap. Either way, the press release is clearly written to be as inflammatory and as anti-Administration as possible, so I think it's proper to treat it with some skepticism.

The only real basic piece of information in it that needs to be confirmed is the "gag order". Everything else is independently verified. The gag order itself is important because its existence is countered by data the NPS has on its FAQ on their web site, which does say the Canyon is millions of years old. So there's a contradiction there that needs to be cleared up, either the fact reported in the press release is false, or it's true and no one at NPS has bothered to go update the web site yet.

In any event, I'd like someone at PEER to provide a source for the gag order comment, and if they can't provide one they should have their feet held to the fire. I'll e-mail them today and try to remember to call them tomorrow.

Wow, real journalism, what a concept! Thanks Denise.

Geopoet said...

As I've stated, it's bad science and I clearly don't agree with their theory. The reason I'm not pissed about it is only because, as Denise and you have agreed with me, I've seen too many of these type of things get put into the press that are distortions of the facts and just try to get people torqued off. This story has some of those flags, like a "gag order?" and the political connotations. When the facts are in, then it's time for action. Now if somebody like Denise is on it, we'll get to it.