War on Religion, or War on Science?

This past April, after a three-year protracted argument with the U.S. National Park Service at the Grand Canyon over access to do his research, Australian geologist Andrew Snelling sued park administrators, as well as the Department of Interior, which oversees all national parks, for not allowing him to gather 50-60 rock samples from four locations.

Snelling is convinced these rocks will support his belief that a global flood approximately 4,300 years ago was responsible for rock layers and fossil deposits around the world.

If you’re thinking, “Global flood…? He doesn’t mean Noah and the ark, does he?”

Yes, he does, and that is the basis of his lawsuit: authorities dismissed his proposal only because he’s a Christian — namely a young earth “creation scientist” who believes God created the Earth in six literal, 24-hour days a mere six millennia ago, and that the Grand Canyon was formed during Noah’s flood.

While the theory is virtually universally dismissed by mainstream scientists, Snelling is unmoved, writing on his website, TrueOrigin.org:

“I am resolute in being available to the Lord to do His bidding as He directs, whatever the consequences, and even if we don’t appear successful in the world’s eyes. The Lord calls us to be faithful - the success is up to Him as He sees fit so that He gets all the glory.”

Snelling has worked for Creation Science Foundation and is director of research for Answers in Genesis as well acting geologist for Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.

However, he cannot be easily dismissed, as he has a doctorate in geology from the University of Sydney, so he has — on paper at least — the scientific chops to be taken seriously.

Basis for Rejection

This has become an uncomfortable moment for the nation’s scientific gatekeepers.

On one hand, should any inquiry be discounted or disabused, no matter how outlandish? Isn’t discovery, after all, the basis of all scientific work?

Image Caption

The Grand Canyon has become ground-zero in a legal dispute that raises sticky questions about the balance between religious freedom and scientific rigor. Photo by Tim Helble.

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This past April, after a three-year protracted argument with the U.S. National Park Service at the Grand Canyon over access to do his research, Australian geologist Andrew Snelling sued park administrators, as well as the Department of Interior, which oversees all national parks, for not allowing him to gather 50-60 rock samples from four locations.

Snelling is convinced these rocks will support his belief that a global flood approximately 4,300 years ago was responsible for rock layers and fossil deposits around the world.

If you’re thinking, “Global flood…? He doesn’t mean Noah and the ark, does he?”

Yes, he does, and that is the basis of his lawsuit: authorities dismissed his proposal only because he’s a Christian — namely a young earth “creation scientist” who believes God created the Earth in six literal, 24-hour days a mere six millennia ago, and that the Grand Canyon was formed during Noah’s flood.

While the theory is virtually universally dismissed by mainstream scientists, Snelling is unmoved, writing on his website, TrueOrigin.org:

“I am resolute in being available to the Lord to do His bidding as He directs, whatever the consequences, and even if we don’t appear successful in the world’s eyes. The Lord calls us to be faithful - the success is up to Him as He sees fit so that He gets all the glory.”

Snelling has worked for Creation Science Foundation and is director of research for Answers in Genesis as well acting geologist for Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.

However, he cannot be easily dismissed, as he has a doctorate in geology from the University of Sydney, so he has — on paper at least — the scientific chops to be taken seriously.

Basis for Rejection

This has become an uncomfortable moment for the nation’s scientific gatekeepers.

On one hand, should any inquiry be discounted or disabused, no matter how outlandish? Isn’t discovery, after all, the basis of all scientific work?

On the other, without discrimination, fatuous, sloppy and junk science will get the credibility its proponents crave if given an official imprimatur from such organizations.

One person involved in Snelling’s 2013 peer review, which rejected his initial proposal (Snelling reworked his proposal in 2016, which included more peer reviews and requested fewer samples, which was also denied) was Karl Karlstrom, professor of structural geology and tectonics at the University of New Mexico.

“Basically his (Snelling’s) proposal to the park was not a valid science research and collecting proposal and the work he proposed to do did not have to be done in the Grand Canyon in any case. Based on peer review, including mine, the park science office decided appropriately to not issue a science permit,” he said in an email.

Even more blunt were the comments of Peter Huntoon, emeritus professor of geology and geophysics, University of Wyoming, who was also involved in the peer review, and who brought the produce.

“At the time I flagged this proposal as junk science when asked to review it. End of story,” he said.

However, Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represents Snelling in the lawsuit, said, “The government isn’t allowed to discriminate against someone based on their viewpoint, and National Park officials have absolutely no legal justification in stopping a scientist from conducting research simply because they don’t agree with his views.”

Just Go to the Gift Store

Ken Wolgemuth, an adjunct professor of geoscience at the University of Tulsa, and an AAPG Member with more than 35 years’ experience as a petroleum geologist, believes that the GCNP rejected Snelling’s application strictly for scientific reasons — not religious discrimination.

His reason for thinking so?

Just go to the gift store.

There you’ll find “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth,” written primarily by Christian scientists — including Wolgemuth as a co-author. The book tackles the very issues of Noah, the flood, and formation of the canyon … and is available at the Canyon bookstore.

Of the book, Davis Young, a geologist and a Christian, wrote, “… they have utterly demolished the flood hypothesis with an avalanche of geologic evidence sufficient to fill a canyon.”

Moreover, the GCNP does, in fact, allow Snelling to conduct river tours through the park in which he explains his theory that “catastrophic flooding” deposited the sediments, and then “catastrophic erosion” after Noah’s flood formed the Grand Canyon.

Neither Snelling nor park officials will comment because of the lawsuit, but it is known that officials did make two additional requests on Snelling between his first and second proposal: that he provide GPS coordinates from where he wanted to remove the rocks, and he consider finding another place entirely.

The suggestion that he should provide the park with GPS coordinates infuriated Snelling.

“The park has routinely authorized applications proposing far more aggressive sampling without the demand that the researchers first conduct an independent trip to locate each sampling site with specific GPS data,” said Snelling in his complaint.

Karlstrom simply saw protocol.

“It is routine (not out of line) for the Park science office to request specific GPS coordinates for proposed sampling. We go through this each year for sampling we do in remote areas and the Snelling request was for sampling on a heavily visited area along the river corridor. He apparently goes down the river more than once a year on non-science trips, so I don’t see why he would have trouble specifying the exact sample locations,” he said.

Specifically, Karlstrom, who has had his own proposals rejected during similar peer reviews, said he believes Snelling is being disingenuous.

“Snelling has proposed to show that monoclines of the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau formed when the sediments were still soft (unlithified). Hence, unlike all valid science proposals, he assumed what the result would be ahead of time rather than test alternate ideas with new evidence,” he explained.

“The faith-driven motivation involved in his thinking is that all the Paleozoic rocks in Grand Canyon formed during Noah’s flood in the last few thousand years, hence any folds of those layers would have to have formed during the flood, too. But these folds exist all across the Colorado Plateau and if he was really interested in studying folding mechanisms and timing (valid research topics), there are better examples to study in numerous locations such that sampling the hard-to-get-to ones in Grand Canyon is not needed,” he elaborated.

Not a ‘Frivolous Lawsuit’

For his part, Karlstrom wants to emphasize his reasons for rejecting Snelling’s application.

“I did not recommend rejection of Snelling’s efforts based on his Creationism (his brand of Christianity). In our country people are entitled to believe in any creation myth or religion they want to. I recommended rejection because the proposal was not a valid science proposal commensurate with standards for formal science research,” he said.

From boaters to environmentalists to Native American tribes to mining concerns, national parks get sued all the time, so there’s nothing particularly unique about this one, except that Karlstrom fears the baggage attached to it.

“To a non-lawyer, this lawsuit from a legal standpoint seems frivolous and harassing to an underfunded, understaffed park under stress from virtually every viewpoint — all while trying to handle record numbers of visitors with declining budgets,” he said.

“However, in reality this lawsuit is not frivolous: it is part of a well-planned and persistent effort by well-financed groups to undermine science by blurring the distinction between religion and science, and hiding this intent under a superficial, insidious claim of ‘equal access,’ ‘welcome all viewpoints’, etc. sort of claim.”

Another wrinkle — and this, somewhat remarkably, is cited in Snelling’s lawsuit — is President Trump’s executive order of May 4 of this year stating “all executive departments and agencies shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent of permitted law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.”

All of this worries Karlstrom.

“Are we heading back into another Dark Ages?” he asked, adding, “I believe that AAPG has an increasingly important role to play in discussions of science and religion and politics.”

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Comments (4)

Snelling GC Sampling
I agree with Juan Pablo Castaneda Vegas. Denying Snelling the opportunity to collect samples looks bad and gives the impression that the scientific community has something to hide or lacks confidence in its own arguments. It is in the best traditions of American culture and philosophy to let him do his research and publish his findings for all to judge.
5/17/2019 6:49:37 PM
Scientific Déjà-vu ?
Being myself a Christian geologist, I don't like the way Snelling's organization approaches geoscience. However, I respectfully disagree with many of the ideas presented in this column. I feel that there aren't many good arguments supporting GCNP's rejection of Snelling's proposal. I'm of the opinion that in Geoscience there is not - and it shouldn't be - a set of rules stating what can be and cannot be researched. GCNP is acting as if they had to endorse Snelling's views. Far from it! They are only asked whether to allow him or not to collect samples. Different would be the case if he was asking them to peer-review his paper drafts. The history of Science tells us about Galileo and Wegener whose ideas were rejected back in their day because they were not 'valid science'. I am not suggesting Snelling's case is the same - please don't missinterpret me! - but I am amazed that GCNP's ruling has so many historic precedents (that wouldn't play in their favour).
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8/9/2017 12:49:00 PM
Grand Canyon and Creation
I don't see any valid reason to exclude the Creationists from sampling rocks in the Canyon. I believe that God and his Son created the Earth, but during the eternities when time was not measured. We geologists attempt to assign relative ages to these eternal events, and have established a reasonable sequence of events. However, time as we measure it didn't even begin until Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. All in all, there is plenty of room for disagreement and debate about everything in our universe, except, perhaps the beauty and ordered complexity of it all. Even the word "ordered" is debatable. I hope to learn enough while on this earth to participate in helping the universe evolve in an orderly fashion after I die and reenter the eternities. At least I should be able to play my trumpet to celebrate eternal progression.
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7/3/2017 3:12:49 PM
Damage done.
"Are we heading back to the Dark Ages?" I think that is the sinister plan. This group of Creation "scientists" are doing major harm to science education and the future of their own Christian religion. As an instructor for a freshman level geology course, I am surprised by the lack of earth science education that my students have received in K-12 education. My theory is that many science teachers have minimized the emphasis on earth history and biological evolution to avoid the scrutiny of political school boards and insistent parents. Science education suffers. I have actually been challenged by creationist students when introducing the geological time scale in Historical Geology. Of course my reply is that they can believe whatever they want - but the test will cover geologic time. As a Christian, I find the latest uptick in devotion to creation science most troubling. My fellow churchgoers swallow the newly polished creationist bait with gusto. There is a great movement in evangelical Christianity to prove faith through "apologetics" - this revival of creationism is part of it. For the reasonable, proving one's religious faith is both ironic and contradictory. In this worst case scenario, combining hopes and benefits of Christianity with this ridiculous scientific view jeopardizes any aim to convince people to believe in their faith. When their science is ultimately proven wrong, the entirety of their testimony will be invalidated. Christianity suffers. I think a simple glance at the church versus science scoreboard would indicate the clear winner of these debates over the last 500 years. Galileo tried to tell them. Darwin and Stephen Gould, too. But this newest batch of creationist salesmen, who've found celebrity and unimaginable financial support in the eager faithful, will continue to do their damage for some time to come.
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7/3/2017 1:23:11 PM

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