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.

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