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In this week’s eSkeptic, geologist and paleontologist Dr. Donald Prothero discusses the latest creationist challenge to science in the form of banning park rangers at the Grand Canyon from telling people how old it is!

Dr. Donald R. Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 21 books and almost 200 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts.


The Grand Canyon (photograph by Dave Dyet)

The Grand Canyon (photograph by Dave Dyet)

Creationism in Our National Parks

by Donald Prothero

If you thought that censoring talk about global warming and suppressing the free speech of government scientists was bad enough, last December the government reached a new low. According to documents released on Dec. 28, 2006 by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Bush administration appointees will not allow rangers at Grand Canyon National Park to mention that the earth is more than a few thousand years old. “In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” said PEER 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.’” I have been unable to confirm this report in my own enquiries among rangers and on the NPS website, but perhaps the order is still being considered at the NPS and has not yet been forced on the rangers.

This is just the latest step in a creeping introduction of religious fundamentalism to our National Parks. Under the “faith-based” initiatives of the Bush Administration, the National Park Service (NPS) is now creating “faith-based” parks by placing crosses in numerous places, and Biblical verses on the plaques overlooking the Grand Canyon. These plaques were reinstated by Bush appointees after the NPS director had them removed on advice of lawyers in the Department of the Interior. In August 2003, the creationist book Grand Canyon: A Different View, by Tom Vail, was introduced to the Grand Canyon bookstore. It promotes the absurd idea of young-earth creationists that every layer in the Grand Canyon (PLUS its subsequent carving) can be explained by Noah’s flood. There were national protests from geologists, all the relevant scientific organizations, and NPS personnel (including the entire NPS geologic staff), and Park Service Superintendent Joe Alston blocked its sale. But Bush appointees at the NPS headquarters intervened and overruled Alston. NPS Chief of Communications David Barna then told Congress and reporters that there would be a review of the issue, but no such review was even requested, even after 3 years — and the creationist book is still on sale in the Grand Canyon! And it is clear that the Bush appointees in the NPS are pandering to the religious right. According to an NPS spokesperson Elaine Sevy, speaking to a Baptist news agency, “Now that the book has become quite popular, we don’t want to remove it.”

The political bias of the process is even more starkly revealed by the way in which the NPS policy approves books for sale in its parks. The policy clearly states that the books are supposed to reflect only the highest quality of science and support approved interpretive themes. According to records, Grand Canyon officials rejected 22 other books for placement on the shelves in 2003, and approved only one — the creationist book. In 2005, the NPS approved Director’s Order #6, section 8.4.2, which states that “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 [and] Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes.”

This raises even larger, more troubling issues. It’s already bad enough that only a minority of Americans have even a limited understanding of evolution, and a majority still believe the creation story is literally true. It’s worse that creationists have effectively destroyed the teaching of evolution in science classes around the country by pressure on school boards and textbook publishers, even though the courts have ruled against them every time. Now their attack is focused on geology and the age of the earth, making one of our most essential sciences highly vulnerable. If creationists managed to put their bizarre notions of geology into place, do you think that we would have another new oil discovery, or find any more precious minerals or groundwater? Not likely! Their first attack is naturally in a place like Grand Canyon, which is so popular and so clearly shows the immense span of earth’s history, but who’s to say where they’ll strike next? Many of the national parks, such as Petrified Forest and Dinosaur and Badlands and John Day Fossil Beds, also display an impressive record of fossils changing through time in way that cannot be explained by the Bible. According to PEER Director Ruch, “As one park geologist said, this is equivalent of Yellowstone National Park selling a book entitled Geysers of Old Faithful: Nostrils of Satan.”

For further details…
Take action on the issue

For those of you who wish to take action on this issue, we recommend contacting:

Ms. Mary Bomar, Director
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20240
202-208-3818
Mary_Bomar@nps.gov
US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
354 Dirksen Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510
202-224-4971 (phone)
202-224-6163 (fax)
US Senate Subcommittee on National Parks
(a subcommittee of the above)
354 Dirksen Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510
202-224-4103 (phone)
202-224-4340 (fax)

Express your concern to a committee member and request that hearings be held to discuss this unconstitutional practice. Contact your local representative using the following list of Democratic members of the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

  • Jeff Bingaman (NM)
    * Ranking Member *
    202-224-5521  
    website
  • Daniel K. Akaka (HI)
    202-224-6361  
    website  
  • Byron Dorgan (ND)
    202-224-2551  
    website  
  • Bob Graham (FL)
    202-224-3041  
  • Ron Wyden (OR)
    202-224-5244 
     website  
  • Tim Johnson (SD)
    202-224-5842 
     website  

The Amazing Meeting 5

final reminder:
James Randi’s Amazing Meeting 5

January 18–21, 2007
The Riviera Hotel
Las Vegas, Nevada

Tickets are still available! Online registration for the Amazing Meeting 5 closes on the January 14th. Also, tickets will be sold at the door of the event.

READ more about the event and REGISTER

Recordings of past Amazing Meeting conferences are available to order from www.randi.org. For those of you attending this year’s Amazing Meeting, come by and visit us at the Skeptics Society table. See you next week!

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