OK, I think we're about ready to wrap up this Grand Canyon kerfluffle once and for all. The short version is, the PEER press release is completely misleading about the "gag order", as I covered before. Science magazine apparently will have a write up of all this in a couple of weeks, and the National Parks Traveler site has a great summary as well.
To sum up:
- The National Park Service provides in the gift shop at the Grand Canyon a book that espouses the Creationist view of the Canyon's formation, namely that the Earth is only 6,000 years old or so.
- After complaints from its own as well as outside scientists, the book was moved from the general science section to the "Inspirational" section, along with some Native American stories about how they believe the Canyon was formed.
- PEER issued a press release that pretty much baldly states that the NPS' official position when asked about the age of Grand Canyon was for Park Rangers to say "no comment". It has now been determined that this accusation is completely untrue.
- My conclusion is that PEER wrote a deliberately misleading, inflammatory press release to generate political heat which pretty much took me in, at least for a couple of days.
I'll have some closing thoughts at the end, but the final piece to the puzzle I want to pass along is the press release from the National Park Service itself, which they've granted permission to be distributed:
Recently there have been several media and internet reports concerning the National Park Service’s interpretation of the formation of the Grand Canyon.
The National Park Service uses the latest National Academy of Sciences explanation for the geologic formation of the Grand Canyon. Our guidance to the field is contained in NPS Director’s Order # 6 and requires that the interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and history of the Earth must be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism.
Therefore, our interpretive talks, way-side exhibits, visitor center films, etc use the following explanation for the age of the geologic features at Grand Canyon. If asked the age of the Grand Canyon, our rangers use the following answer.
The principal consensus among geologists is that the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself is probably less than five to six million years old. The result of all this erosion is one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.
The major geologic exposures in Grand Canyon range in age from the 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist at the bottom of the Inner Gorge to the 270 million year old Kaibab Limestone on the Rim.
So, why are there news reports that differ from this explanation? Since 2003 the park bookstore has been selling a book that gives a creationism view of the formation of the Grand Canyon, claiming that the canyon is less than six thousand years old. This book is sold in the inspirational section of the bookstore. In this section there are
photographic texts, poetry books, and Native American books (that also give an alternate view of the canyon’s origin).
The park’s bookstore contains scores of text that give the NPS geologic view of the formation of the canyon.
We do not use the “creationism” text in our teaching nor do we endorse its content. However, it is not our place to censure alternate beliefs. Much like your local public library, you will find many alternate beliefs, but not all of these beliefs are used in the school classroom.
It is not our place to tell people what to believe. We recognize that alternate views exist, but we teach the scientific method for the formation of the Grand Canyon.
I hope this explanation helps.
Chief of Public Affairs
National Park Service
Registered Professional Geologist (AIPG #6528)
Licensed Geologist (North Carolina # 129)
My personal preference is that the Park Service sell no book on site claiming an origin for the Canyon that we know scientifically to be untrue. That's bad for science education in general. Furthermore, if they're going to allow in some religious texts, they're going to have to allow in all religious texts that petition for inclusion, and that's going to get unwieldy real, real fast. What if the Pastafarians want to include a book about how the Grand Canyon was formed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster's noodly appendage?
Having said that, if the books are put in a section that's clearly separate from the scientific stuff, and if the NPS employees are instructed to give out the scientifically accurate information during tours and such, I'm not nearly as pissed off as I was when I read the first PEER press release. Well, wait, that's not true -- I am just as pissed off as I was, only now I'm pissed at PEER. Their poorly written, misleading, deliberately inflammatory piece of propaganda put me in a bad spot and took focus away from the real issues. They hurt the efforts of people who are trying to uphold good science education, and that really irritates me.
This will be the last post from me on this subject, since I don't think there's anything left to say at this point. I've learned a lot from this episode, particularly about the need to keep your skeptical senses carefully honed at all times, especially when it comes to information that seems to support your pre-existing prejudices.