Faith-Based Geology

Resolving a flood of nonsense at the Grand Canyon


Grand Canyon Village, Ariz.-Did Noah's flood create the vast chasm that is the Grand Canyon 4,500 years ago? Tom Vail's controversial little book, Grand Canyon: A Different View (2003) claims that geology tells us that this is so. Selling Vail's book at Grand Canyon bookstores affiliated with the National Park Service (NPS) has created quite a stir. In fact, I heard most recently about the controversy at The Amazing Meeting 5, a conference put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation last week.

Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education told an audience of 800 self-described skeptics that selling Vail's book in government sponsored bookstores amounted to endorsing bad science and should be stopped. National Park Service Director's Order #6 seems relevant here. That order states: "The interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and 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…. Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes." However, the very next line may contradict the foregoing insistence on best scientific evidence: "Programs, however, may acknowledge or explain other explanations of natural processes and events." Could "other explanations" perhaps include how Noah's flood created the Grand Canyon?

In December, the advocacy group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), issued a press release that claimed that Park Service personnel were forbidden to tell visitors how old geologists believe the canyon to be. Eugenie Scott acknowledged that PEER was wrong and that rangers and park service personnel can and do tell visitors what the best scientific evidence says about how the canyon was formed and how old it is. Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society also pointed out that PEER's press release amounted to a lie about what park personnel are allowed to say about the geology and age of the canyon. (I too confess to being misled by the PEER press release.) However, when the Grand Canyon park superintendent tried to block the sale of Vail's book in park service affiliated bookstores, he was overruled by NPS headquarters.

So I went in search of the book while visiting the Grand Canyon this week. I found it at the Grand Canyon Village park bookstore shelved in the "inspirational" section. As I was buying it, I asked the clerk what she thought about it. "We're not allowed to say anything about it," she said covering her mouth with her hand in the "Speak No Evil" monkey fashion. "Oh come on," I cajoled, but the clerk refused any further comment. Later I went in search of it at the other south rim Park Service bookstore at Desert View. In this much smaller bookstore, Vail's slender Flood geology volume was mixed in among the other photo books. Again, I asked this clerk what she thought, and she smiled and replied, "All I will say is that it's got some really beautiful photographs."

Vail's book is nicely illustrated with photos showing the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon. As for text, it is mostly selections from various young earth creationists including Ken Ham and Duane Gish. Vail's method of interpretation is made crystal clear when he writes: "Unlike secular geologists, creationist geologists don't need to speculate about history because we accept the eyewitness accounts of past events, preserved in a reliable written record-the Bible."

Why are Vail and other creationists so anxious to reject the findings of geology and paleontology? "If we can't believe the accounts of Genesis, which are foundational to the entire Bible, why would we believe the rest to be truth? If the Word doesn't really mean 'in six days,' then maybe it doesn't really mean 'thou shall not,'" declares Vail. As a young earth creationist, Vail also makes clear that "in Genesis a 'day' is a day, which means a literal 24-hour period of time." Vail also insists that the earth is only about 6000 years old.

Biblical exegesis of the sort represented by Vail's flood geology clearly has an audience. About an hour after I had purchased the book, my wife and I were contemplating the awesome view at Moran Point. While leaning on the railing, we overheard a man tell his wife, "What He thinks is seven days may be a whole lot more days to us." "He" was pretty clearly the Christian creator God of Genesis. Interestingly, Vail admits that accepting his biblical view of the age of the earth is not essential for salvation. "The gates to heaven will not be closed to us for believing in millions of years," he writes. "But it is important! Why? Because adding millions of years to the Bible undermines the authority of the Word of God."

The bulk of the book consists of shoehorning in various creationist interpretations of evolution and geology (e.g., mutations cannot give rise to new species because that process can't produce new information) and noting that geologists have not explained everything about the origin of the canyon. But make no mistake about it–Vail's book is not in any sense a scientific work. For Vail and the creationists he cites it is impossible that the any evidence could ever contradict his "theory" that Noah's flood carved the canyon. Since his claims are unfalsifiable, they are not scientific.

For the most part, the park affiliated bookstores offer many genuinely interesting books on the geology of the Grand Canyon. I highly recommend Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery (2005) by geologist Wayne Ranney. He discusses a number of unresolved scientific issues about just how the canyon was formed, but notes that most of the current evidence is that Colorado River began sculpting the canyon about 6 million years ago.

The Park Service has a formal approval process for all books that are sold in its affiliated bookstores. In 2003, twenty-three other books were turned down when Vail's creationist text was approved for sale. The existence of a formal approval process that is not based on just commercial calculation implies that the mission of park affiliated bookstores is primarily to educate visitors about the Grand Canyon. By approving this book, it would seem that the NPS is violating Director's Order #6 against "appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes." NPS officials may think that placing the book in the "inspirational" section where books on Native American legends and creation myths are also shelved may get them off the hook. However, unlike books on native creation myths, Vail insists that he is making scientific claims about how rock layers are laid down, fossils formed and the canyon carved.

Whatever decision the Park Service ultimately makes about Vail's book, it will necessarily smack of political pandering. Perhaps there is another way out of this controversy. Why not get the Park Service out of the business of approving books for sale? Instead just let private bookstores inside the parks decide what they want to offer. The good news for the scientifically-minded is that as far as I could tell none of the park's private concessionaires carry Vail's book.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.