Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Wall of separation, part deux

The nation's newly ascendant religious conservatives continue to wage their war against science, this time at the Grand Canyon:

Park bookstores at the Grand Canyon now sell the book "Grand Canyon: A Different View," which contradicts science, saying the Grand Canyon was formed by the great flood from the Bible story of Noah.

The book was written by a "born again" river guide who writes that his view of the canyon's being millions of years old changed after he "met the Lord. Now, I have 'a different view' of the Canyon, which, according to a biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

Letters to the park service from leaders of the scientific community protest the inclusion of the book alongside those based on science.

"The book is not about geology but, rather, advances a narrow religious view about the Earth," wrote seven presidents of scientific organizations — including the Paleontological Society, American Geophysical Union and Geological Society of America — in a December 2003 letter. "We urge you to remove the book from shelves where buyers are given the impression that the book is about Earth science and its content endorsed by the National Park Service."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former newshound, Jonathan "W" Potts, wouldn't you say that barring the publication of controversial texts, especially religious ones, would be unconstitutional? As you know, the courts have not only held that governments should NOT work to favor one particular faith, but they can't legally bar those of faith from using public facilities, including demonstrations and book sales.

In this case, so long as the park service doesn't endorse only one view of the canyon's creation, they MUST allow the book to be sold. Maybe the Apache or the Buddhists or the Moslems can write a counter-myth to the one that's being peddled, and the bookstore can vend that, too.

To me, "A Different View" is pure crap. But I would like to think that even pure crap has a place alongside good, solid works of science.

Maybe I'm just funny about the prospect of censorship by a public agency.

7:49 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I don't recall saying that it was unconstitutional, nor do I even venture to say that it should be removed, though certainly that would be my preference. Rather, what I said was this fits an anti-intellectual agenda that is implicitly endorsed by the present administration. The other question that is raised is whether the average customer at the park service bookstore understands that the government is not endorsing the book merely by selling it. Perhaps some kind of written disclaimer would be in order.

8:04 PM

Blogger Ms. K said...

Or maybe next to the "Information" section they should have a little "Fairy Tale" bookshelf full of children's books about the Grand Canyon and it can be placed appropriately on that shelf.

Nah, seriously, I'm not for censorship either, but the general public should NOT be getting the idea that the government is endorsing the book.

8:51 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

> Perhaps some kind of written disclaimer
> would be in order.

"Warning: Items in this bookstore may offend those who think that dinosaur fossils are only about 4,000 years old, or that 'The Flintstones' is a documentary. And don't forget to visit our snack bar!"

9:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Choosing not to sell the book doesn't constitute censorship, Anonymous. The Park Service bookstore doesn't need to offer every screed written about the Grand Canyon any more than its Web site needs to provide bandwidth for every family who visits the park to post pictures of their vacation. Blocking the book's publication or preventing others from selling the book would be censorship.

Selling the book is endorsing it -- as a theory or as a good read or as an excellent Christmas present.

And as long as A Different View is the only crazy-ass myth represented on the store's shelves, a hypothetical willingness to sell other crazy-ass books too is irrelevant. It's like a journalist who uses one biased source for a story and afterward says, "Well, you know, the other side was free to call me any time and tell me what they thought." -- Geoff

10:01 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, it would be unconstitutional. There's a three part test that determines whether the federal agency would be "endorsing" a particular religion. I won't bore you with the details (Allegheny County played a key role in the confection of the standard, by the way), but if the Park Service already has accepted for sale at its shop a particular book, and its policy is to sell other books of various religious arguments, then it cannot now disband sales of it based on the notion that scientists dislike it.

The Parks Service, however, could disband sales for other reasons -- it doesn't fly off the shelves; it violates standards of local decency; it's a stolen product; it violates copyright law; etc.

I'm not sure, JP, that in this case the book's sale reflects the religious beliefs of Gale Norton. More likely, it seems it's the brainchild of a park guide who found religion and the Service wanted to offer the perspective of one of its own. Maybe it was a favor to a longtime worker there.

It certainly wasn't printed by the U.S. press in Pueblo (which, unless it was a reprint of a particular historical document, would be a violation of the bright line standard).

Damn that lawyering! It's cursed me to actually knowing about the common law and the Constitution!

I guess what troubles me is this notion that somehow whatever a bunch of scientists (or fill in the blank, engineers, politicians, cops, journalists, bloggers) thinks becomes gospel if they bitch loudly enough about it. I don't like accepted knowledge from any institution, much less an appeal to censorship, and that includes scientists (as Thomas Kuhn could certainly discuss).

Let the Bushies wage war against science. I somehow imagine science can take care of itself. Anyone who would believe "A Different View" isn't going to be persuaded anytime soon by Gould, Watson or Leakey.

I would liken it to your kind tolerance of W Catsup. I don't suppose you use the product on your pommes frites at home, nor does the CMU canteen stock the conservative condiment. But you tolerate its banner atop your work because you're a soul not given to censorship.

Or because Blogger sticks it there and you have no choice.

10:41 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

It's always fun to be condescended to by someone unwilling to post their name. In any case, the point is less about this particular instance than it is promoting a culture in which science and intellectualism is degraded in favor of religious dogma. It has serious consequences, and it impedes our ability to maintain the kind of dynamic, well-educated society to which we've grown accustomed.

The idea that faith and reason can't mix is odious when it comes from the anti-religious left or from the fundmentalist Christian right. I have no problem with people believing that the Bible is literally true, and they have every right to promote their beliefs. But don't imply that those beliefs are science.

12:06 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

No such trespass was intended, JP. I did not condescend, nor do I plan to do so in the future. And I whole heartedly defend your W Catsup peddling. I don't like catsup anyway, so I won't be the one buying your product.

If you branch out to other condiments, I might give them a try. Potts' Pickles? Jonathan's Jelly?

Perhaps even the National Parks Service will reach out to you and offer these victuals at their numerous food huts along the mighty Colorado. And what will you say with a group of scientists declaims the nutritional value of Potts' Pickles, suggesting, say, a more complete and balanced menu could be had with Boston lettuce? Or cabbage?

Perhaps at that point you can find some of that good old timey religion and give us Jesus Jelly or Moses Mustard or Solomon Sauce and Gale Norton will call off her book-sellin' police.

12:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you mean the 3-part test established in Lemon v Kurtzman and further defined by, among others, Allegheny County v ACLU, about the creche downtown. I don't find that stuff boring, but I understand I'm in the minority. You're right, Anonymous, that removing the book would open the Park Sevice to litigation, because they started selling the book to begin with, though I'm not convinced that they'd lose. Or even be sued in the first place. The law is pretty elastic. You're saying it's unconstitutional does not make it so.

In any case, Jonathan's point seems to be that the book should not be sitting on the shelves next to disciplined, scholarly work, masquerading as a type of science. My point was that it should not sit there as the sole representative of dissenting viewpoints. Jonathan seems to say that the book should not have been there in the first place and to want to use its presence as a platform for talking about the denigration of science and intellectualism under this administration. I think that's fair enough; in fact that devaluation of science has resulted in cases of unambiguous censorship, in publications actually produced by the federal government.

I think it's a reasonable guess that the book is on the shelves as a favor to a guy the people at the Park Service liked. I sympathize with that, but I also think they should have given more thought to the decision. There is a much more careful system of vetting, for example, at the Warhol Museum's gift shop, and they haven't got half the issues to contend with. -- Geoff

1:32 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd take a case wherein the Parks Services rescinded sales of a controversial book because a group of scientists objected to its overt religious argument.

My saying that would be unconstitutional would be proven thus in federal court.

There is nothing the author could do, however, if the Parks Service were to, say, move the tome to a more appropriate location, perhaps under "Religion," or "Conjecture" or "Other Curious Notions."

By saying that, however, I see a blue-ribbon commission being named by Gale Norton to develop regulatory guidelines on the taxonomy of books within the National Parks Service gift shops.

Followed by a U.S. Senate hearing overseen by Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills (or wherever). Leglislative guidance, buried in a pork-laden Highway Bill, follows.


So, the best compromise for the tempest in a teapot controversy would be to move the book to a more appropriate shelf, as determined by Dewey, but perhaps with more prominent signage. Scientists would be happy, sort of. Jesus-loving River Guide would be happy, sort of. Gale Norton would be happy (is she ever happy?), sort of.

I won't speak for God or the Grand Canyon, but maybe they would be happy, too.

2:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, JP, Happy Thanksgiving! I forgot to add that.

2:45 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

And to all of you as well. Thanks.

3:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boy Scout update:


Now, I'm not the sort of guy who buys into most WSJ editorials, seeing as they're to the right of the Trib and, well, that's right off the deep end.

That said, I found the author's perspective compelling, and I'm a former member of the ACLU. The jeremiad against the Boy Scouts seems odd. Are there not more pressing problems then kicking the kids out of a park they've used since 1918?

I wasn't a Boy Scout, which seemed to me a corps steeped in homoeroticism anyway (what, those uniforms? Creepy scoutmasters? Jamborees? I've never heard a straight man even mention the word "jamboree").

I was in the Boys' Club. For fifty cents per annum I could play pool in the basement of a ramshackle brick edifice with a bunch of truants dodging their juvenile court POs. Smoking was expected.

Oh, yeah, and I boxed there, too. Nothing like the chance to beat the living crap out of guys you don't know but really don't like anyway.

I never got to spar with Boy Scouts. They must not have a merit badge for getting the shit beat out of them. My inner city high school didn't have scouts, either. When I went to the mall, however, I spotted them, much like an exotic blond species of teenagers, preening in their green uniforms.

They looked like junior versions of Kevin Bacon or Mormons. Spooky.

Despite this paen to Hemingway juvenalia, I would like to stand up and defend the creepy Kevin Bacon-like Boy Scouts. Scouts seem to do far more good in the world than bad, and they shape the lives of millions of American boys who, otherwise, would likely be on glue-sniffin' crime sprees.

In this case, the ACLU sees themselves as prosecutors against the narrow-minded, exclusionary policies of the Boy Scouts (ironically, against openly gay scoutmasters. Come out of the closet, BSA).

Well, every DA has prosecutorial discretion. You don't need to charge everyone with a crime all the time. You pick and choose your cases. ACLU, isn't there bigger game loping across your legal veldt?

Police brutality? Racist school systems? Death row appeals? The First Amendment?

Or is the most important domestic threat to our freedoms the Boy Scouts?

12:57 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

At some point, the ACLU needs to weigh the value of victory in this instance versus the damage they do to their reputation as well as to the broader cause of separation of church and state. Who is being harmed here? The Boy Scouts are a private organization that no one is compelled to join by anyone save perhaps their parents. Their primary mission is not religious in nature, so it's not like tax dollars are going to promote any kind of sectarian agenda. All they are going to do is inspire a self-defeating backlash.

10:45 PM


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