Rock Of Ages, Ages Of Rocks

ROCK OF AGES, AGES OF ROCKS…. An interesting controversy at the Grand Canyon has been percolating for three years now, and the issue, unfortunately, remains unresolved.

First, a little background. In August 2003, the National Park Service approved a creationist text, “Grand Canyon: A Different View,” to share bookshelves with legitimate books at park bookstores and museums. In this case, the “different view” meant an unscientific approach, touting a literal reading of scripture to explain the Canyon’s formation. The book argues, for example, “[A]ccording to a biblical time scale, [the Canyon] can’t possibly be more than about a few thousand years old.”

The decision to promote the book didn’t go over well. Scientists who work at the Grand Canyon were outraged, as was the academic community — the American Geological Institute and seven geo-science organizations sent letters to the park and agency officials asking that the book be removed. Their objections were rebuffed; the book stayed.

Three years later, the problem appears to be slightly worse.

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.'”

The National Park Service promised a high-level policy review of the issue three years ago. Apparently, that never occurred. What a surprise.

There are a couple of angles to this story. It’s absurd, for example, that scientists working for the National Park Service can’t answer questions from visitors about the age of the Canyon. A practical “gag rule” to hide accurate information from the public is just indefensible.

As for the book, creationists offer two basic arguments. Neither is particularly persuasive.

First, they argue that it’s a diversity-of-thought issue. A spokesperson for the Institute for Creation Research, which publishes the book in question, said three years ago, “As long as all sides are presented, I don’t see any problem with it.”

I understand that this argument strikes many people as fair. The state-sponsored bookstore should, the theory goes, feature books with real information alongside books with wrong information. It’s about having a sense of “balance.”

It’s also misguided. If the purpose of the bookstore is to offer visitors texts with accurate information that they can rely on, then creating a theological “balance” is an unattainable, and ultimately unnecessary, goal.

Does every possible idea deserve the official imprimatur of the National Park Service? Will the NPS save space for The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s ideas about the origins of the Grand Canyon, or are fundamentalist Christians the only lucky group? (In 2003, Grand Canyon officials rejected 22 books and other products for bookstore placement while approving only one new sale item — the creationist book.)

Just to be clear, the point isn’t to censor the books based on pseudo-science. If a private business, whether it be Amazon.com or a religious bookstore, wants to sell books that offer “alternative” ideas about the age of the Grand Canyon, that’s up to them. That said, there’s a difference between private enterprise and state sponsorship. National parks should offer the public reliable information, not religious conjecture.

Second, proponents of “Grand Canyon: A Different View” insist that there’s a legitimate debate about the actual age of the canyon. That’s true. Some scientists believe the Colorado River carved the Canyon 5 million years ago, others say 6 million. Some believe the rock formations are 2 billion years old, others may say 2.5 billion.

But the fact that there’s some disagreement among scientists doesn’t mean the floor is now open to any and all ideas as equally legitimate explanations. No matter how heated the debate between two scholars who want to argue between the 5 million and 6 million year old models, both believe the idea that the Canyon is 10,000 years old — or perhaps even younger — is utterly ridiculous.

I realize the Bush administration’s assault on science is well-established at this point — there’s even a great book available on the subject — but do we really have to wait until 2009 for this nonsense to stop?