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« My Stance, and I'm Sticking With It | Main | Classical Symposium »

October 13, 2004

Monkey Shines in Arizona

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I was in the process of writing up an entry and then realized that it was somewhat germane to Michael's post below on the election, so let me launch this post with that political issue in the background.

So, to start the ball rolling, here's my little quiz:

If you ask the Park Service about the age of the Grand Canyon, what will its answer be?

According to this press release from Public Employees for Environmental Responsiblility (PEER), "the Grand Canyon National Park no longer offers an official estimate of the age of the Canyon."

This curious stance is, according to PEER, the result of high level finagling in the upper levels of the current Administration that would seek to place "creation science" on a level playing field relative to geologic explanations.


A book presenting a creationist explanation for the Canyon appears on the website of the Grand Canyon Association. And it is for sale at bookstores at the Canyon, this over the objection of the park superintendent, who attempted to block its sale.

And in that regard, here's a succinct little memo making fairly clear that the Park Service is in fact obliged to employ "sound science" in its interpretive programs, and that the NAS itself has weighed in on the subject of creationism, arguing (no surprise?) that it cannot be deemed sound science because it is not based on empirical observation and cannot be verified.

PEER argues that there's a "faith based parks intiative" a-brewing. Sounds like they may be on to something.

So what to make of this?

I tend to avoid hard-core ideologues of most persusasions. Truth be told, though, I've been harder this election year on lefty ideologues than righties. In part that's because I am a Blue Stater myself, and my strong desire to reform Blue excesses causes me to come down harder on political correctness than, say, prayer in schools. But it's also the case that--this year anyway--I thought the curdling of left ideology presented a dangerous aspect that was not immediately present on the right. That is, better Pat Robertson than Michael Moore--at least the former does not present a clear and present danger. So went my reasoning at any rate.

But this kind of stuff gives me pause. It's one thing to nod silently when a school district somewhere pushes a creationist agenda. That's local politics, and it is hard to do much about it. But I sure don't think the Feds ought to get in the game.

So what ho, Blowhards? Am I being a meanie by opposing the sale of one teensy little bookie at the Canyon to people who would appreciate its contents? Would a libertarianish Blowhard--even one who thinks creationism bad science--argue to let let the market sort this one out?



posted by Fenster at October 13, 2004


You assume that creationism and science are contradictory. That one is legitimate and the other illegitimate. I'm not sure I believe that. But this book is silly. Let'm publish it. As long as it's clear on the book that the ideas within are disputed by most scientists.

There's an article on the cover of Wired magazine that I haven't had the chance to read yet. It's entitled the "The Crusade Against Evolution", which undoubtedly relates.

Posted by: lindenen on October 13, 2004 6:04 PM

To what extent do people believe that the mere presence of a thesis in a book in a National Park bookstore is an indicator of either the underlying worth of that thesis or its endorsement by the Park Service or the Government as a whole?

First, let me say that I have little time for "creation science". In fact, about a month ago I got into a tedious (though civil) discussion that directly involved estimates of the age of the Grand Canyon. Let's just say that I don't find the "young earth"/creationist arguments to be consistent with the available evidence.

That said, I don't know that I consider the gift shops/bookstores at National Parks to be necessarily a part of the Park System's "interpretive programs". I'd be willing to bet that there are books in those same bookstores about local reports of ghost sightings and haunted houses. (I say this because I've seen these books in nearly every such bookstore I've ever been in.)

And what about books that consist of retellings of other cultures' mythology? I'd also bet that you could find books of Apache, Navajo, and Ute mythology in those same stores.

I say, "Let a thousand fallacies bloom." (Or something.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 13, 2004 6:07 PM

For what it's worth as a non-scientist, "intelligent design" I can buy. I think evolution indiputably explains a lot of things but the guaranteed absence of the divine is not one of them. Hard-line blind watchmaker thinking is compelling but also hard to prove, especially cosmically.

But that's a different thing from stating that the Grand Canyon is 6,000 years old, as the book on sale reportedly does.

Even the great blowhard Fr(i)ederich March keeled over at the end of Inherit the Wind trying to support that proposition.

And in this regard, here's Robert Wright wrestling with hardline Dangerous Darwinian Daniel Dennett--Wright maintains he gets Dennett to backtrack on the blind watchmaker stuff. Sounds good to me, maybe--but the Grand Canyon is older than 6,000 years.

Posted by: fenster on October 13, 2004 6:13 PM

oops, here's that Wright cite:

Posted by: fenster on October 13, 2004 6:14 PM


OK for the sake of argument let's concede that the sale of a book in a NPS bookstore is purely commercial--that is is outside the Service's "interpretive program."

But if it is true that the Service no longer ventures an estimate as to the age of the canyon, and if this reluctance is due to the lurking presence of political creationism, would that not give you pause? Wouldn't you agree at the least that, when the Service ventures an interpretation, it is obliged (perhaps even under statute) to "take sides" in favor of the scientific consensus?

Posted by: fenster on October 13, 2004 6:22 PM

Fenster: "Wouldn't you agree at the least that, when the Service ventures an interpretation, it is obliged (perhaps even under statute) to 'take sides' in favor of the scientific consensus?"

I would indeed, at least when there is a clear consensus. Note that I consider the order of magnitude of the age of the Grand Canyon to have such a clear consensus.

It might be polite to include a disclaimer when there is a substantial minority opinion, perhaps of the form, "Xers dispute Y". Given the significant slippery slope involved here (how many is a "substantial minority"?), I'd be fine with omitting that, however.

How, then, shall we determine what constitutes a clear consensus?

Fenster: "[I]f it is true that the Service no longer ventures an estimate as to the age of the canyon, and if this reluctance is due to the lurking presence of political creationism, would that not give you pause?"

It would.

As a counter hypothetical, if it's true that the Northern Spotted Owl is a genetically indistinguishable sub-species of the Spotted Owl and if it's true that at least one other subspecies of the Spotted Owl is not threatened (California Spotted Owl), would it give you pause to find the Northern Spotted Owl reported as a Threatened Species as a result of the lurking presence of religious environmentalism?

I find them equally reprehensible. And note that it's not hard to find other examples of anti-scientific influence on the Interior Department. To only complain when Christian special pleading is successful is hypocritical, and I say that as a non-Christian with essentially no sympathy for creationist argument.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 13, 2004 7:07 PM

One of my all-time fave reads as a kid was a comic book depicting the saving of various national monuments , dams, and, yes, even the Grand Canyon by the Man of Steel. He reversed the stream of the river or clashed boulders together or blew some clouds together in a heap or something else of an imaginative and physically impossible caliber. I'm hoping that copies of that specific "Superman" comc are also available at that National Park Service bookstore. Perhaps next to the creationist version of the Grand Canyon. You know, keep all the fiction books together, all the scientific books together, all the postcards together.....

Posted by: DarkoV on October 13, 2004 7:30 PM

Sounds to me like Derrida has some allies here: "All ideas are equal."

Posted by: David Sucher on October 13, 2004 9:06 PM


Heck, you're not being mean, you're just being a Blowhard. You got a license to behave like this, man!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 13, 2004 11:24 PM

Maybe, in the interests of respect and equal time, the Park Service could be required to peddle an entire shelf of books on the subject of the history of the Grand Canyon -- all presented as myths, each one given equal weight and respect. The Navajo version, the creationist version, the Conquistador version, the scientists' version ...

Now: who gets to decide which subjects deserve a shelf? And who decides which myths deserve a place on these shelves?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2004 11:26 PM

There is no reason to decide as all ideas are simply someone's opinion.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 13, 2004 11:50 PM

Having spent a fair share of time in the Bible Belt, I wonder where the Creationist nuts are coming from. For some reason I've encountered more Creationist propaganda in my current secular environs than anywhere else. If I weren't too skeptical of being a counterconspiracy theorist, I'd suggest that atheists were getting kicks out of making fun of Christians.

Posted by: . on October 14, 2004 8:59 AM

Fenster, I not sure you know what "intelligent design" means in its current usage. I am a scientist and I consider the issue of the existence of God outside the realm of scientific pursuit, which I believe is what you are saying. Intelligent design, however, is an attempt to claim that the existence of God can be demonstrated given current scientific results. It really chaps my hide because it deliberately twists several key scientific principles in an attempt to convince ignorant people that evolution is a flawed theory.

Should the Grand Canyon bookstore not carry ID books? I don't know. I don't like ID, but this seems like a small battle. There are many who worry about the rise of Christian religious fundamentalism in the US, but I don't see it.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on October 14, 2004 11:24 AM


I may well have used the ID term too loosely. I did not understand it as a claim for God as much as a challenge to those who use evolution to assert the lack of one. But I think you are right that ID proponents are not just into casting doubt, but into making positive assertions.

Personally, I don't think you can divine the divine from any observable biological evidence, and we probably agree on that. If biological evolution proceeded by chance, Dawkins-style, there's still no reason to conclude that God didn't preside over the process. And conversely, if biological systems are deemed too "irreducibly complex" to have chanced themselves into being, that's no argument on the face of it for the existence of God. We could all be part of an intelligently designed scientific experiment in an otherwise random and pointless universe.

But this begs the more interesting question your post suggests. Is ID "science"?

I defer to you, as the scientist. There's no question that creationism is not science since it makes, as far as I know, no real scientific claims--it makes its claims on faith. But ID purports to proceed using the scientific method.

If this effort is a sincere one and simply comes to a different set of conclusions than the mainstream, how is this different from any other scientific dispute between a majority of researchers who hold one view and a minority who hold another on the same evidence?

But your suggestion seems to be that it is not real science, but bogus ("it deliberately twists several key scientific principles in an attempt to convince ignorant people that evolution is a flawed theory.") I take it then that your view is that ID claims to scientific method should be stripped away, and that it should be understood not as a "different theory", but as the faith masquerading as theory. And that there are no sincere researchers out there who have legitimately come to a conclusion that evolution by design is a more reasonable proposition than evolution by chance.

As far as your nonchalance about the impact of the religious right: I hope you are right. I have myself considered the religious right more of a benign-to-positive matter in the tapestry of American life, which both requires and feeds on a diversity of ideas and beliefs. I do get shaky, though, when they get in my face, and if the park service ends up agnostic as to whether the Canyon is 6,000 years old or not, I start to sweat a little.

Posted by: fenster on October 14, 2004 2:10 PM

I haven't read up on ID lately, but here is what I remember from the past that leads me to label it "not science":

Scientific theories must be falsifiable. Currently, there is no one conducting scientific research on ID: that is, developing a hypothesis, determining an experiment to test it, conducting the test, and analysing the results to see if they are in accord or not in accord with the specific hypothesis and the overriding theory.

Instead, what ID proponents tend to do is cherry-pick examples from the work of others where they see flaws in evolutionary theory. They don't provide very compelling arguements from a scientific point of view, though (see for example). The main goal is to create doubt about evolution, but the method obscures how progress is made in science. The hardest critics of evolution are scientists themselves, who subject the theory to observational and laboratory tests all the time. That's how theories grow and evolve themselves. The preponderance of evidence now is in favor of evolution and until ID advocates develop their own theory and start testing it as harshly as scientists do their own, there is no scientific (as opposed to religious, aesthetic, or other) reason to prefer ID.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on October 14, 2004 5:21 PM

Oh, and I misspoke in my first post. Nowhere does ID state that God must have designed our biological system, just an intelligent agent. This is to allow ID to be taught in schools, as courts have ruled that traditional creationism is a religion not a science.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on October 14, 2004 5:27 PM

I find it disturbing that so many reasonable and intelligent people are willing to tolerate ignorance. Where are these nuts coming from anyway? I have lived in the Bible Belt my entire life and it seems like it's only been in the last decade that being a Christian meant believing that several-thousand-year-old fairy tales equal scientific fact.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 15, 2004 8:49 AM

While I'm impressed at how fair and reasonable everyone is on this topic, I have to agree with Lynn that there's -- dare I say? -- too much tolerance on display here.

I find 'creation science' intolerable, not because I'm agnostic, but because it's just not science. Dodging the age of the Grand Canyon -- merely the latest example -- is a pathetic insult to anyone with a belief in learning and curiosity. Or didn't God give us brains to use?

Posted by: Scott D on October 15, 2004 9:24 AM

Part of the reason I don't find belief in creation science so surprising is that a preference for comforting belief over reason is pretty widespread. It isn't just creationism, it's astrology and crystals and westerners embracing Feng Shui, a belief that you can eat as much as you want and still lose weight, etc.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on October 15, 2004 11:16 AM

You mean you can't eat as much as you want and lose weight? Damn.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 15, 2004 12:08 PM

I find 6000-year-Christianity, UFOlogy, Feng Shui, Wicca, organic foods, etc. annoying. I don't find my annoyance sufficient to prohibit (or even vaguely support prohibiting) any of that sort of thing.

I don't support teaching any of it using my money, of course.

Note that I might (for which read "have and will again") subject especially annoying practitioners to ridicule and less annoying practitioners to reasoned argument, but the libertarian position is to support your freedom to be a fool as well as my freedom to call you one.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 15, 2004 1:08 PM

What gives me the creeps is not so much that there's a little creationist pamphlet at the Grand Canyon as that the well-thought out and interesting scientific estimates of the Canyon's age are eliminated.

Not everyone who visits the Grand Canyon (especially kids) even knows that geology exists as a science, and I think it's important for them to get an introduction to it.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 16, 2004 5:57 AM

My take (speaking as a conservative Christian) -- put the cross back on the Los Angeles County seal and put the geology back in the Grand Canyon visitor's center. Removing the one in the name of separation of church and state is just as silly as removing the other in the name of Christianity.

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 16, 2004 3:39 PM

What's next? Will park rangers and docents be forbidden to discuss snake-bite because, you know, snake handlers might be offended by the idea that reaching under rocks and annoying the rattlers is dangerous?

Greetings campers, feel free to wander off the trails in 110-degree heat with no water and no plan - the Lord will provide!

Posted by: j.c. on October 18, 2004 8:15 PM

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