Friday, January 05, 2007

Canyon Finale

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

David Barna
Chief of Public Affairs
National Park Service
Washington, DC

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.


Anonymous said...

Don't resort to hyperbole. The park's bookstore door has been open for "alternative" folklore views on the Grand Canyon's formation for years now. And there hasn't been a rush from Rastafarians or anyone else.

Banishing non-science from the bookstore isn't a very enlightened attitude. The Hualapai indians have their creation myth tied closely to Grand Canyon. Shall we banish books that describe those myths? How would that serve the search for knowledge?

Allen said...


I agree that including books by the Pastafarians would indeed expand our knowledge... about myths. Myths are enlightening from an anthropological standpoint because they tell us what the canyon means and has meant to people through the ages. I don't have any trouble with these materials being present as long as they're not being presented as scientific fact. If there's room for that stuff (and if there aren't throngs of people rushing the gates) then... why not?

Except of course that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will smite those who doubt him. Do not mock Flying Spaghetti Monster.


Good post. Thanks.

Jeff Hebert said...

The government has to remain neutral on issues of religion, and if they're going to let in one religious document, they're going to have to let in any religion that requests it. Otherwise, the government is in the business of endorsing religion, which is prohibited in the Constitution. They have to either accept all public exhibitions of any religion, or none.

Thus, if the bookstore wants to sell this creationist book and the Indian one, they can. But you have to be open to the Pastafarians doing so, or the Scientologists (the Canyon was formed by alien nuclear explosions), or whatever other cockamamie idea someone comes up with.

And of course, the Creationist book was inserted just two years ago, so it's inaccurate to say that there hasn't been "anyone else" trying to get their book in -- the Creationists did.

Personally, I would prefer it all be removed, since our national parks should (in my opinion) be a place for learning and education about science and fact.

As I said, if it's in the "Inspirational" section and the employees are giving out actual factual information, I don't have as much of a problem with it. I just think they're opening a can of worms that frankly is better left shut.

Ranger X said...

The National Park Service ISN'T selling this book. It's being sold by a PRIVATE, non-profit association, the Grand Canyon Association. The NPS approved it, but doesn't sell it. Ironically, funds from its sale at the Grand Canyon support educational programs that use science and discuss evolution. Banning books is not the answer.

Jeff Hebert said...

That's a bit of a quibble, isn't it? It's being sold in a gift shop on the grounds of the Grand Canyon, in the Grand Canyon book store. The fact that another entity runs it on behalf of the NPS is fairly irrelevant.

People keep saying "Banning books!" as if the books are forbidden from being sold at all, anywhere. That's not what anyone is arguing. The NPS rejected either all or almost all of the other twenty some-odd books brought up for approval when this one was accepted, does that mean all the other nineteen whatever books are "banned"? That's a bit silly.

I think people are missing the larger backstory on this. The Discovery Institute has been pushing for Creationism to be taught in public schools as science for a long time. When people like Phil Plaitt and I hear about a book like this, being sold where it was originally, we see it as just the latest skirmish in a longer, broader conflict. The protestations of "Oh, we're just teaching the controversy" resonate with us because it's the same argument used to take evolution out of school textbooks or to actually try and change the very definition of what science is. People who don't follow the creationism-evolution wars and aren't aware of the history hear the story of this book and think "well, those mean ol' scientists just want to oppress anyone who has a different point of view."

Add into that an Administration that has demonstrably proven over the last six years that they are amenable to reshaping scientific consensus around their political and religious agenda, and you begin to see why those of us on the side of good science education didn't have a problem believing the story as initially presented. The Creationists who are backed by the DI have made it their goal -- stated in the Wedge Document -- to undermine science education and turn American science into Christian science, which by nature would never conflict with the Bible in any way.

So while in general, yes, I am a big advocate for freedom of speech and for free access to books of any sort, I don't think a public park funded by the government is a good place to sell a book that makes an ongoing argument that we know to be false. I don't have as big a problem with it now that it's being sold in the Inspirational section, and as long as any religious text about the Grand Canyon someone wants to sell gets accepted too, but I still think in general it's a bad idea for the reasons I've now stated multiple times.

Anonymous said...

This all depends on how you define "truth" and "falsehood." The creation myths of the (arguably) dominant Christian culture and of the Hualapai contain capital T truths, while simultaneously being factually incorrect.

I'm not going to go so far as to say the myths are factually incorrect, either, since I wasn't there. :)

I'm not trying to be relativist on this, but rather am advocating for an approach that gets to the meaning behind knowledge, whether scientific or religious. If we can "prove" (test?) that the canyons are 14 million years old or whatever, so what? What meaning does that have for visitors, indigenous peoples or Pasta-Rastas? It's just a factoid, "true" as it may be.