Thursday, February 15, 2007

Creationist Controversy Re-ignited At Grand Canyon

As some of you may know, a controversy regarding the sale of a certain book at Grand Canyon National Park has existed on and off for the last few years. The controversy was re-ignited on December 28th, 2006, when a group called PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) issued a press release from their headquarters in Washington D.C. Many "facts" were wrong in this press release and although they denied this for a number weeks, they finally retracted many of their most egregious errors. The group has publicly apologized for getting their story wrong. However, the details of the controversy are interesting to explore.

The book is entitled, "Grand Canyon - A Different View" - a very apt title indeed! In it, author Tom Vail and other creationists explain how, within a ONE YEAR TIME PERIOD, all of the strata of the Colorado Plateau were deposited, half of it completely eroded away, and the entire Grand Canyon was cut in addition to that! Again, all in ONE YEAR. Of course, this is not really possible given the evidence at hand but creationists believe this by starting with a conclusion (there was a Biblical flood) and then look for the small bits of evidence on the landscape that might prove it's true (the Grand Canyon had to be cut by this flood). This is not science. It never has been and never will be. However, the question presents itself - do only science-based books need be sold at Grand Canyon? Within the book stores at the canyon, other Native American "creation legends" are sold and placed within the inspirational section of those book stores large enough to have themed sections. And that is where Tom Vail's book is sold. Some vocal scientists have decried the presence of this book at Grand Canyon. I do not.

Now I do not subscribe to a creationist view of the earth. I am a tried and true geologist and the evidence seems overwhelming to me that a geologic origin is responsible for the magnitude of earthly beauty we see before us. However, I do believe that the creationist controversy has been fueled in part, by some scientists desire to completely ignore, stifle, and dare I say, censor (?) the creationist view. All under the mistaken premise that if we engage creationists we somehow validate their view of earth history. This possibly wrong assumption has allowed creationist a "free pass" so to speak and they have seized on the "non-debate" and have gotten their message out quite effectively. All without any follow-up by scientists.

I believe that as scientists we are educators by default. Science suffers today because it is not valued by society proportionate to its rewards. For this reason, we must engage the public at every opportunity to inform them of the beauty and magic of science. Tom Vail's book is harmless with respect to it's presence on the shelves at Grand Canyon book stores. It is not a big seller and it is placed well away from the 20 or so other great geology books available at the canyon. Yet some scientists yell and scream that this caters to creationism - without taking the time to fully understand how creationists got so powerful in the first place.

I believe that this "controversy" provides an excellent way to engage the larger public in a discussion about what exactly is creationism, or science for that matter. Viewed in such a way, people can look at the evidence for themselves and decide which story holds up to close scrutiny. Do geologists really believe that their story won't hold up against creationism. Of course not - but they behave as if it would. The idea is not so much to win everyone over to "our side" but to begin a discussion where ideas can be presented and made to stand on their inherent strengths or fall on their weaknesses. True, we cannot debate science vs. faith but we can respond intelligently to an audience that wants very much to hear our side. Censorship is not the answer. Ironically, sales of Tom Vail's book generates income for the non-profit Grand Canyon Association, which turns it's income over to the park to fund many worthwhile science projects within the canyon.

For a real geologic view of how the Grand Canyon formed, look at my book, "Carving Grand Canyon". It is a bestseller at the park (10,000 copies sold in just 20 months). It has won numerous awards including a National Outdoor Book Award - 2006. It engages readers to look critically at the evidence and doesn't attempt to stifle discussion with those who hold other views. The answer to this controversy is not to back away from creationists but to engage them! Certainly the status quo thus far has done nothing to quiet the other side.