Saturday, January 13, 2007

Who to believe?

Today's Doonesbury comic strip references a story that the National Park Service is not allowed to tell visitors the estimated age of the Grand Canyon for fear of offending Creationists. Here's the strip:

(If you can't read it, click on it to see a larger version.)

I hadn't heard about this issue, so I did some digging. It apparently came out at the end of last year. I found a press release for the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) online. Here is a part of the press release:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

According to their website, "PEER is a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values."

Here is their full press release:

So, with the idea that the National Park Service is suppressing the age of the Grand Canyon, I did some more digging in the National Park Service web site. I found this information:

The Grand Canyon is considered one of the natural wonders of the world largely because of its natural features. The exposed geologic strata - layer upon layer from the basement Vishnu schist to the capping Kaibab limestone - rise over a mile above the river, representing one of the most complete records of geological history that can be seen anywhere in the world. Geologic formations such as gneiss and schist found at the bottom of the Canyon date back 1,800 million years.

Later on the same page:

Did You Know?

The Cambrian seas of the Grand Canyon were home to several kinds of trilobite, whose closest living relative is the modern horsehoe crab. They left their fossil record in the mud of the Bright Angel Shale over 500 million years ago.

The page is here:

So, on the one hand you have a press release — quoted by a number of liberal, anti-administration, and skeptic blogs — saying the National Park Service has been told to keep the age of the Grand Canyon a secret, and on the other hand we find the age listed on the National Park Service's own web site.

Who to believe?

It's possible that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It appears pretty clear that a Creationist book is sold in the book store at the park (assuming PEER is correct with that). Could it be that someone took that book as an issue and then added the part about the National Park Service suppressing the age?

On the other hand, given the Bush administration's other scientific pronouncements — a desire by the president to teach the Intelligent Design, and his vetoing of the stem cell bill — this approach is not hard to believe. Here is a quote from a February, 2005 post on the web site:

The voice of science is being stifled in the Bush administration, with fewer scientists heard in policy discussions and money for research and advanced training being cut, according to panelists at a national science meeting.

Speakers at the national meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science expressed concern Sunday that some scientists in key federal agencies are being ignored or even pressured to change study conclusions that don't support policy positions.

The page is here:

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, we shouldn't be left reading about this on comic strips and blogs. The news media should investigate and discover what is really happening. But we don't hear about it. Instead, the news is full of celebrity gossip. David Beckham, an English soccer icon, has been signed to the L.A. Galaxy soccer team for a contract worth $50 million over 5 years and possibly worth 5 times that with endorsements, etc. This I hear about in a segment on CNN that went on for two minutes, explaining how Beckham and his wife Victoria — known to pop music fans as Posh Spice — will be the next Hollywood "power couple". Apparently knowing about Beckham is more important than deciding whether or not the Bush administration is suppressing science.


Michael said...

For what it's worth, Harper's and Time both wrote about this in 2004 ( and (,9565,783829,00.html). There seems to be no shortage of evidence that the book in question is being sold at the Grand Canyon bookstore. The question then becomes one of whether or not rangers and other park employees are "prohibited" from talking about the canyon's age.

Though the PEER release you cite doesn't provide sufficient detail, if you read the Time article cited above you'll eventually learn that what PEER is complaining about is that a memo was blocked that would have expressly authorized rangers and guides to answer questions from the public by reference to scientific data without having to discuss creationism. In the absence of guidance, the staff seem to have interpreted this as a failure of the NPS to support them, so they refuse to discuss the topic at all.

This issue brings up charges of censorship by creationists, but I'm not sure that "censorship" is the correct term. I'd use "discrimination" -- as in, the NPS should use some discrimination in determining what constitutes a "science" book.

Michael said...

Should have put those URLs into proper format. The Harper's article is here and the Time article is here.