Grand Canyon tapdancing by NPS

PEER, a website devoted to promoting environmental responsibility by public institutions, notes that three years after promising to review the literature on display at the Grand Canyon National Park after creationist literature was on offer, nothing has happened.

In fact, the National Park Service has refused to say anything about the age or formation of the canyon, due to pressure from Bush appointees. It seems geology cannot be allowed to interfere with the religious supporters of the Bush gang.

Hattip to John Pieret.

Update: The Sacrameto Bee gives some of the background and developments in an editorial.

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This debacle is fast approaching the point where satirizing it will be impossible, as it will eventually be indistinguishable from the auto-satire they so consistently provide.

I was at the canyon last january and looked for the creationist book, but couldn't find it. Maybe it was sold out (a disconcerting thought). If I recall correctly, I did see a poster with geological time scales.

I don't know why people are so willing to blame the Bush Administration for such follies. Oh, unless because of actions like this (the Administration wants to censor the US Geological Survey, also part of Interior).

Later information indicates that some are continuing as usual in the NPS (and I would expect existing pages and publications to be used anyway for a while). However, of the 22 publications that were considered in the past 3 years for inclusion for sale at NPS sites, only the creationist book was approved, I am told by back-channels.

Ranger X is right; the book stores at national parks are always run by private, independent associations. The cooperating associations do have to meet the same general standards as the NPS itself. This would require that the bookstore only offer as science things that can in principle be shown to be scientific (with peer-reviewed science journals explicitly put forward as the basic standard) and not endorse any religious explanations; but since the book is not offered in the science section of the bookstore, and since it's OK to acknowledge the existence of religious explanations as long as they are not endorsed, and since the book is not offered in the science section of the bookstore (for which the NPS has been attacked from the other side), it's not so clear as one might think what rationale the NPS could put forward for forcing the book to be yanked from the shelves.

What I find puzzling is that no one seems to have picked up on the need for evidence for pressuring by the Administration in this particular case. The National Park Service is a massively bureaucratic organization; you can't exert pressure from the top without leaving some sort of paper trail. If pressure were being applied, people should be able to point to changed regulations, management policies, etc. Rather, the evidence given is just that of some internal controversy over whether the book must be pulled due to the Park Service's scientific mandate or can be sold due to the fact that the Park Service doesn't restrict acknowledgement or explanation of non-scientific theories (including religious accounts and mythologies) as long as they are not endorsed.

I've been following this story too but now a thought strikes me for the first time. In an ideal world this is exactly how I'd like the NPS, as an agent of the government which stands proxy for all or us, to behave. Just as I am suspicious of being told the canyon is thousands of years old and the result of a single event I also feel a twinge of doubt when a much larger but equally round number is offered confidently up. I would that they instead provide me with a broad range of information relating to any and all relevant ideas. Then, as a functional and informed person I can make up my own mind for myself. Inasmuch as it is a private vendor offering the books I take further comfort in knowing that the NPS and the private sector can act together (not necessarily intentionally) in such a way that there seems to be a fair chance for people in general to learn and decide for themselves. Just the sort of thing one would expect to see in a republic.

Has anyone else thought as much? Or am I only seeking solace from the madness?

Oops. Shortcut trap there in the last post. My name is not "c" as you can now see.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 04 Jan 2007 #permalink

"Information relating to any and all relevant ideas". Is the folk traditions of native and imported religious belief relevant to answering the (scientific) question of the age of the Canyon? I think not. The Republic permits you to go find religious answers like Deloria or the creationist book - that is proper. No censorship of ideas is legitimate. But the authority of the NPS, and the backing authority of geology as a science, ought not to be presented as viable explanations when they are simply not. Your own constitution specifies that the government ought not to promote any particular religion. Here is a case in which it is doing precisely that. Yes, the bookshops are commercial, but the books on sale are approved by NPS staff.

If you read the article linked to by John's update, you'll find answers to some of the questions raised in previous comments.

For example, although the bookstores might be run by a private company, the books sold there required approval "by a 5-member panel of the National Park Service and Grand Canyon Association". Items are evaluated for "support of interpretive themes, accuracy of information and appropriateness".

As for where the orders came from, "When Joe Alston, Grand Canyon park superintendent, attempted in August 2003 to stop the sale of the book within the park, he was overruled by headquarters in Washington, D.C."

In any case, much of this is explained in the original news release from PEER, so I recommend reading that.

Thanks, John. Your are correct concerning the propriety of any federal agency giving a pass to religious literature. I agree that strict neutrality is a constitutional requirement as well a a rational one. And it is unsatisfying that the NPS will not respond responsibly to questions about the state of scientific inquiry into the age of the canyon.

Of course, when I was first introduced to Mormonism by a well-intentioned (and non believing) parent I didn't know about the golden plates found in northeastern America. I was actually intrigued by the stories presented on a felt board in our own living room. Shortly after I heard about the plates and my twelve-year-old brain went into rejection mode. Mostly due to the non-public nature of such a powerful tool for missionary work. Surely such a wonder would be shown to convince the unconverted. Once my skepticism was obvious, the elders stopped coming around.

I suppose I was just projecting my own experience onto others. Still, I can imagine similar processes going on in other minds and can't help but feel that the selection of books offered at the canyon all provide useful information; if not about the age of the canyon, then about the ways that people explain things to themselves and each other.

However, you are right about the improper role taken by the NPS. Thanks for nudging my thought process. And thank you for your blog.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 04 Jan 2007 #permalink


You are quite right that neither endorsement of religious opinion nor presenting as science what is not science are allowed. But neither is clearly an issue here, which is why there is a debate: the bookstore does not offer the book as science, but places it on the same shelf that discusses Native American mythology, and the offering of a book in a bookstore is not generally taken as an endorsement of everything, or even anything, in the book. One of the most important things NPS bookstores are supposed to do is to provide accurate scientific information about the park phenomena; they are also, however, supposed to provide accurate cultural information about how the park phenomena have been and are viewed, which is why they provide Native American perspectives as long as they are clearly distinguished from scientific ones. There is a good general argument for pulling the book, namely, that it is likely to be taken as scientific even if it is not stated to be such by the bookstore or the park; but the NPS needs a clear rationale for taking such an action in terms of its mandates and regulations. Whether it has such a rationale is precisely what is being disputed internally. It's not a clear case, but a messy one, as policy cases often are.

As for why the book was approved in the first place, and why Alston was overruled, the reasons for this in particular have to be looked at; if there is a case for pressure from the Administration, the evidence needs to be brought forward and not left to insinuation. This is not the sort of topic on which lazy investigation is helpful.

Pressure from upper echelons need not leave behind a paper trail. A phone call from the right officials can be just as effective and said phone call does not always consist of a spittle-flecked, one-sided rant from the official. These things can be subtle but the message is still VERY clear. I know of what I speak.