May 19 2017

Young Earth Creationists and the Grand Canyon

Andrew Snelling is a young-earth creationist with a PhD in geology who wants to study the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service (NPS), which regulated who gets to do science in Grand Canyon National Park, turned down his application. You can probably guess what happened next.

Snelling is now suing the NPS and the Department of Interior for religious discrimination. He claims his application was turned down because of his religious views. That does not seem to be the case. The NPS had experts review his application. They determined that his science was not valid, and that the rocks he wanted to remove from the park could be found elsewhere. The NPS is particularly careful about any research that involves removing material from parks.

It seems clear to me that the NPS is on solid ground (heh). They already have a process in place to determine if scientific applications are for worthy science and if they justify the removal of material from a park. They did proper peer-review and abided by the recommendations of their experts. This does not appear to have anything to do with what Snelling believes, but the quality of his science.  Snelling is now being a whiny b**ch. He also appears to be using this for propaganda purposes, which may have been the whole idea from the beginning.

The science here is also well established. There are multiple lines of evidence for an ancient earth and an ancient Grand Canyon specifically. Geologists, in fact, wrote a book called, “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon?” to refute young earth creationist arguments and lay out the evidence for a Grand Canyon millions of years old.

Perhaps the more interesting question here is this – how should we optimally respond to fringe science? Here is the dilemma – on the one hand, the institutions of science and education have a responsibility for quality control. That is the whole point of peer-review. There are limited resources to conduct research, and we need some way of sifting through all the crap to find the worthwhile bits.

When a journal publishes a paper, a scientific meeting hosts a presentation, or a university hosts a lecturer, they are putting their imprimatur on that content and to some extent endorsing it as legitimate.

On the other hand, the scientific community needs to be open to new ideas. Notions that may seem fringe today might take hold and become mainstream tomorrow. Granted, this is likely to be an exceedingly tiny percentage, but we don’t want to throw that baby out with the bathwater.

Further, scientists should engage with popular pseudoscience, not ignore it. Granted, this can be tricky. We shouldn’t give undue attention to obscure cranks, but once a view rises in popularity beyond a certain degree, it makes sense to shine a bright scientific light on it rather than let it grow in the darkness.

Geologist Steven Newton, for example, who is the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), is mentioned in The Atlantic article as favoring letting creationists do their research, and then examining it on its merits. That would certainly work within scientific circles, but could backfire when it comes to public opinion. Creating and feeding false controversies is a proven method for generating doubt and confusion over questions in science that are largely settled.

So – here is the core question: how do we give fringe views their day in court, and also address the false claims of pseudoscientists, without lending them the appearance of scientific legitimacy they haven’t earned and will definitely exploit to confuse the public over the state of the science?

I have several answers. The first, ironically, is the NCSE itself. This organization exists to fight against the incursion of pseudoscience into public science education, focusing on creationism and related issues, now including denial of climate science. They are doing great work and serve as a model for this type of organization. They are comprised of scientists who also have an expertise in pseudoscience, denialism, education, and their relationships to legal issues, society and public opinion.

NCSE can address the claims of fringe scientists without lending them undue legitimacy. They also have expertise that most scientists lack, understanding not just science but pseudoscience.

My second answer to this question (which you may have guessed) is the skeptical community. We also combine expertise in science and/or philosophy with knowledge of pseudoscience, psychology, mechanisms of deception, denialism, and related legal, regulatory, and educational issues. The difference between NCSE and the broader skeptical community is one of organization. There are pockets of organization within the community, but mostly it consists of individuals and small groups doing their own thing. It is very much a grassroots movement, with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

My final answer is the scientific community itself. This is the part, in my opinion, that is not currently working and needs some fresh ideas. Most academics and scientists do not have expert knowledge in pseudoscience, feel uncomfortable dealing with it, and generally don’t know what to do about it. Occasionally we see mainstream scientists taking on one specific pseudoscientific claim, and that is always really helpful. They should do more of it.

Institutionally, however, pseudoscience is largely untouchable. This is a mistake for the profession.

What I would like to see is more outreach, more effort to address the public understanding of science, and the recognition that we do need to directly address pseudoscience in all its forms. At the same time I am all for giving a forum for fringe or contrarian ideas. They should be debated on their merits. That doesn’t mean they get grants or privileges ordinarily reserved for quality science, but it can mean that they get to make their case.

Perhaps what we need is special sections at meetings or even in journals that are dedicated to the presentation of fringe ideas. These can be curated and presented in a way specifically not to grant an imprimatur of legitimacy. For example, there may be a simple and clear label, such as “non-reviewed,” that is widely accepted as meaning – this paper, presentation, claim, etc. has not been reviewed and cleared by experts. It is presented purely in the spirit of openness to new ideas, and in no way should be interpreted as endorsement as legitimate or valuable science.

Yes, this would be the “kid’s table” of science, but that is better than nothing. At the very least it might be interesting to experiment with this approach. It might be good for mainstream scientists to have more exposure to the fringe ideas that are out there, if for no other reason than to increase their familiarity with pseudoscience. And if you think there may be the occasional gem wallowing in obscurity on the fringe, they will get their chance to make a convincing case.

It may even be possible for fringe scientists to learn something from the experience, and perhaps raise their game.

One of the things that tend to happen now is that when there are enough fringe scientists with a shared belief or interest, they form their own conferences and journals. This then becomes nothing more than an echo chamber of pseudoscience, and doesn’t really serve any useful function. This is more of the ghetto of science than the kid’s table.

None of this changes the fact that Snelling is a science denier who does not deserve to remove rocks from the Grand Canyon so that he can misuse evidence to support his preexisting beliefs. That is not discrimination, it is appropriate quality control and responsibility to protect a natural resource.

22 responses so far

22 thoughts on “Young Earth Creationists and the Grand Canyon”

  1. SteveA says:

    I guess most people would raise an eyebrow at the fuss made out of taking a bunch of rocks from a National Park. It would help if they realised that geological outcrops are a finite resource and that, round the world, most important geological sites are protected by law. Many outcrops of scientific interest have been, and continue to be, spoiled or destroyed by collectors or clueless researchers.

    Legal protection would apply particularly where surface features, such as folding, are likely to be damaged (the lawsuit refers specifically to taking samples from folded strata).

    The fact that this cough geologist is not prepared to take samples from exactly the same strata outside the park marks him as a charlatan. However, I’m guessing his intended audience wouldn’t be as receptive to research about the Canyon based on material gathered from a different place. After all, he might have to explain something about proper geology then and confuse the poor dears.

  2. Sophie says:

    Steven Novella,

    If Snelling had millions of dollars to burn, it’s possible that he could hire a team of like-minded scientists and lawyers to bring a case, and force an appeal to be taken seriously. He could get media coverage, hold protests, get creationists to chain themselves to rocks.

    With the rise of kick starter, populism and this new era of post truth and stuff, do you fear that creationists will become more formidable? I do.

    I can see a possible future where creationists have their own giant institutes that can compete with traditional schools. They already have recruitment efforts, pseudo-experts and even some scientists who support what they do. We can’t forget that Maharishi university is a thing. I know it’s not the exact same as other religious schools. Also Trump just gave a speech at Liberty, where he proudly said that in America we worship god not government.

    If I had to argue against the possible rise of these institutions, I would just say that capitalism would stop them from ever being truly competitive. Religious science doesn’t really discover anything or create patents, processes or inventions. There aren’t many jobs that are dependent on knowledge of young earth creationism, with one obvious exception.

    “Snelling is now being a whiny b**ch.”

    lol trigger warning. I know the skeptics don’t like Bill Maher much, but it always makes me laugh when he says that about Trump. I think he’s cleaned up his act quite a bit recently. He’s certainly got way more to talk about now other than GMOs.

  3. wellerpond says:

    Only tangentially related to the topic but my favorite Bill Maher quote is “It’s impossible to have a reasonable discussion about religion because it’s so f**king stupid.”

  4. Fair Persuasion says:

    Dr. Snelling would like to remove rocks from the Grand Canyon to prove God exists. Would Dr. Snelling also like to chop down a Sequoia tree in in John Muir woods to prove God exists. These are federally owned properties. Remember in God we trust is our U.S. motto. We don’t need proof.

  5. Steve Cross says:


    It’s always amazed me that Bill Maher “seems” to understand all of the good, skeptical reasons for utterly dismissing religion, yet he seems unable to apply that same level of skepticism to other topics.

    I finally realized that his world view is based on cynicism rather than legitimate skepticism.

    He is a great reminder to always examine and try to understand your own biases and motivations.

    He can still be funny though.

  6. Rave On says:

    If you must surrender a piece of the Grand Canyon to crack pot notions then create a kiddies pool training ground for such endeavors. I would suggest a well defined area within the Uinkaret Lava Fields. The Uinkaret Lava,dated at appx. 2 million years old,flow into a pre existing void known as the Grand Canyon. Young Earth Creationist know that this area shoots ginormous holes in their young earth notions and have been attempting to “erode” scientific data there for some time. With a small core of Geologist and Scientist from AAAS available for guidance they could be guided towards following scientific parameters or suffer the consequences of removal of access priveleges.

  7. Germaine says:

    This raises an interesting issue. By denying Snelling his ‘research’ application, the NPS creates ill-will among the now-powerful political right. Since there probably aren’t very many creationists (or folks of other spiritual beliefs) wanting to do research to gather evidence that supports their spiritual beliefs, why not allow a couple researchers in? They won’t find anything. And, even if religious researchers carry out a ton or two of rocks, it wouldn’t hurt much.* Current circumstances are rather dire, maybe hair-on-fire extreme.

    The last thing America needs right now is for Trump to get a bug in his backside about how the NPS is crushing religious freedom and vital religious research. If that happens, we all know where that could lead. First a blast of Twitter twaddle at 5 a.m. That would be followed by an Executive Order that delivers, for a penny or two per square mile, a few million square miles of sensitive protected habitat to fun job creator industries or groups such as coal and/or mineral strip miners, the wildlife target practice cartel, cattle ranchers, nighttime nuclear waste disposal businesses, and arsonist training and promotion groups. Then Trump signs a bill cutting the NPS budget by 87.3%.

    In other words, why antagonize Snell, thereby antagonizing the religious right and the less religious, anti-government right? Give Snell his permit. Let him collect a few rocks and then spin whatever yarn he’s going to spin. Whatever he finds and then says about it isn’t going to change many or any minds.

    * That assumes they don’t go to some sensitive site and significantly trash it.

  8. Sarah says:

    I worry giving pseudoscience the kids’ table would be roughly the same effect as sponsored articles in the news: looks legit enough for most people, even with clear labelling.

  9. Rogue Medic says:

    Go ahead and antagonize President Trump.

    The public likes the Grand Canyon.

    Attacking the NPS would not be a winning move.

    My favorite sign from the March for Science was:

    First the came for the scientists and the National Park Service said “LOL, No” and went rogue and we were like “I was not expecting the Park Rangers to lead the resistance. None of the dystopian novels I’ve read prepared me for this.”


  10. tb29607 says:

    I like the idea of the “kid’s table” although clearly a different name would be needed.

    In a perfect world the designation at conferences would be consistent with how journals labeled investigational articles.

    Perhaps steal a page from professional baseball and list articles as Minors: A, AA, AAA. And then Major (alias – change your practice to be consistent with this study’s protocol).
    Choose your rating system but give people an idea what the well informed folks in the field think the of the study’s significance.

  11. csvan says:

    While I can understand the motivation for refusing this project, I believe it is the absolutely worst course of action.

    The common perception among Creationists and their supporters is that they are being unfairly excluded from the scientific process. Hence why they have their own journals, lay publications, institutes and conferences (etc) which all interact very little with the larger body of science. It is problematic precisely because it fuels a “David and Goliath” complex where Creationists feel their ideas are validated because the scientific community is trying to “shut them down” and “suppress their findings”, even if this isn’t true.

    Let Creationists do research. Let them submit their findings to mainstream journals. If they are rejected, make it possible to discuss the rejections openly. Let other researchers try to replicate their findings and publish this as well. Let it be shown, again and again, that if Creationism fails, it is because their own research does not validate their ideas, NOT that the evidence is being suppressed.

  12. edamame says:

    No on the kids table idea, because of what Sarah said. The YACs, ID advocates, dualists, and parapsychology advocates would go, present, and then forever be able to cite it as an abstract at a legit conference (these are real, and legitimate, citations, that scientists place on their CV after all). Their target audience of John Q Ignoramus would eat it up. Let them jump through the exact same hoops everyone else does at these conferences: no special treatment.

  13. tb29607 says:

    I would argue that the current system is not working since even utter nonsense can get published:

  14. edamame says:

    tb: that example isn’t a great one to make your point. For one, gender studies isn’t exactly science. Fine, no big deal. For another, the system actually worked pretty well — their crappy paper actually got rejected at a very low-tier journal, and it only finally got accepted at a crappy pay-to-publish paper mill that will publish any piece of shit:

    They are no Sokal. They are posers pretending to pull off a hoax.

    That said, yes there are problems with the system, but it doesn’t seem a good solution is to let in the riff-raff with zero standards at a kids table. How would that help!? That wouldn’t have guarded against the “hoax” like the one you bring up, it only makes it more likely. It opens the floodgates to more crap.

  15. tb29607 says:


    My arguement is that the “riff-raff” already gets in and the only way to identify it as riff-raff is to have knowledge of which journals are garbage and which are reputable. We are asking a lot of John Q. Public to read an article and identify the journal as being “low-tier”. Being able to reliably rank journals takes fairly specialized knowledge that the majority of people will never take the time to do properly.

    Perhaps making journals’ impact factors more apparent and interpretable to the general public? I frequently get articles brought to me as the “latest cutting edge life saver” that are clear garbage so I maintain that our current system needs revision. I do not have time to teach every parent and/or patient critical thinking skills so a more easily conveyed and digested method is needed. I am open to suggestions but making them “jump through the same hoops as everyone else” does not seem to be working.

  16. chikoppi says:

    I was intrigued by the idea of incorporating replication into the authorship of a paper. In other words, that a second party who critically replicates the research would receive co-author recognition upon publication. Of course the threat here is collusion, as motivated authors might conspire or unwittingly reinforce one another’s biases.

    Perhaps falsification should have its own journal(s) that celebrate not novelty, but the unmasking of methodological pitfalls. Junk science would then become fodder for actual science and journals that repeatedly publish poor research would develop a negative reputation as the number of debunked papers attributable to them mounts.

    Such falsification-only journals could be popular as they need not be quite so serious. The science would still be legitimate and transparent, as the point is to identify and demonstrate methodological errors and failures to replicate, but the tone could be a bit more entertaining.

  17. edamame says:

    tb yes impact factor is good but imperfect, and could be better packaged for mass consumption. It is not easy to get published in a high impact journal. It is very hard in most cases. That is, there is a tiered filter in place.

  18. tb29607 says:

    I am unclear as to what the difficulty of publication has to do with conveying that information to the public.
    Again, I am open to an alternate method of conveying publication quality to the public. You seem to be happy with the current the methods which I believe are inadequate.

  19. edamame says:

    tb difficulty of publication has to do with your claim that it is easy for the riff-raff to pass through the filters already in place. This is just not true. No way these guys are getting published in Science or Nature. They got rejected at a crappy gender studies journal, and then had to pay to publish.

    Public outreach about impact factors and the like is a separate topic. This is fine: it’s easy enough to just rank order journals by quality or whatever and someone like Dr Novella can publish it and talk about it. This is more about public perception than any actual problems though.

    Again as I said in my initial post I do realize there are problems with the impact factor rank system (it can be manipulated, for instance by the journal Cerebral Cortex by publishing online a year before print it drastically inflates its impact factor–by a factor of 2 or so). Further, sociological factors play a big role in the science journals (friends of editors miraculously make it through to review more than others). Further, in the science journals the review process for some reason is still not double blinded (humanities went double blind years ago). This should be a scandal!

    So there are lots of problems, the system is far from perfect, it lets through some turds (not a disaster, they get filtered out via other labs via replication attempts). However, by and large I do trust the tiered filter that is fairly well quantified by the admittedly imperfect impact factor. The papers in Neuron are generally way, way better than the papers in Brain Research Bulletin (for instance), and everyone in neuro knows this.

    Which speaks to your point: to really know this stuff, you need to know the field (e.g., neuroscientists know that Cerebral Cortex is not better than Journal of Neuroscience, and that they just inflate their impact factor by a factor of two using cheap publication tricks). So some kind of “field guide” to quality research journals for, say, neuroscience, would indeed be useful.

    Again, this is speaking more to outreach/education than to filtering of riff-raff.

  20. edamame says:

    tb to be fair you didn’t say it was easy to publish in good journals: I think maybe your argument is more subtle–that crappy stuff gets through to crappy journals, and people likely need some help figuring out the good journals. Is that what you are saying?

    If so, then that seems reasonable, and I stand corrected. I though you were saying the system is flawed in that good journals let through pieces of crap.

  21. tb29607 says:


    Yes, bad studies get into bad journals and people need help differentiating between good and bad journals. Although I like the way you said it better.

  22. zorrobandito says:

    “While I can understand the motivation for refusing this project, I believe it is the absolutely worst course of action….Let Creationists do research. Let them submit their findings to mainstream journals. If they are rejected, make it possible to discuss the rejections openly. ”

    The Southwest has hundreds of thousands of square miles of rock strata. No one is preventing this guy from doing research, send his findings to mainstream journals, etc etc, he just can’t take rocks out of the Grand Canyon.

    The Canyon is a special place, and it is owned by us collectively. We have no obligation whatever to let any particular researcher in there to hack off rocks and run off with them. If he has his heart set on looking at the Grand Canyon let him bring his camera, no one is stopping him from taking pictures.

    “They [the NPS] determined that his science was not valid, and that the rocks he wanted to remove from the park could be found elsewhere.”

    Great, let him go to this elsewhere for rocks and publish to his heart’s content (if anyone will publish him).

Leave a Reply