Saturday, December 30, 2006

It's not an endorsement; it's just cowardace

I'm both an atheist and an avid user of and advocate for the National Park Service, so I feel kinda caught in the middle of this debate. The long and short of it, though, is that NPS is being cowardly and disloyal to its mission. However, there are two distinct debates occurring simultaneously, and it's important not to conflate the two.

Debate One: Should the National Park Service permit non-scientific beliefs to influence their educational materials and official statements? Not in a million years! (Or 6,000 years, if that's your game.) If what the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility say is true, and "Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature," then I'm outraged. As a governmental entity (and as an organization statedly devoted to education about the natural world), it's legally and ethically wrong for NPS to bow to religion in the face of scientific fact. Boo, National Park System!

Debate Two: Should the National Park Service allow a religious-themed publication to be sold in its bookstore? Sure, why not? As Paul pointed out, there are plenty of books sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore describing the spiritual (and geologically inaccurate) beliefs of American Indians, and permitting Christian creationist texts is no different. The bookstore and giftshop is a clearinghouse for Grand Canyon-themed items, not a library of fact and endorsements. (They also sell Grand Canyon shot glasses in the giftshop. I wouldn't interpret that as a government endorsement to drink.) It's important to note that few, if any, items sold in the bookstore are published or produced by the National Park Service; they are created by private or non-profit groups and sold on NPS property. Insisting that the Grand Canyon bookstore only sell items devoid of religious content is like demanding that public libraries not carry The Holy Bible, lest doing so be interpreted as an endorsement of Christianity. The NPS is permitting a venue in which all voices (no matter how crazy) are heard. Hooray, National Park Service!

If I were to take issue with anything NPS does, I'd complain about their pro-Manifest Destiny video presentation at Mount Rushmore National Monument. Blech.


Paul said...

I don't think it's that the issues are being conflated, I think it's that one has a significant bearing on the other.

The fact is that those gift shops are obligated to be "[libraries] of fact and endorsements". Indeed, they are under Director's orders to do so, with the relevant portions of those orders being available in the PEER article I linked to earlier. And even if they weren't, it makes all the difference in the world whether the materials are presented as bearing the endorsement of the NPS. Can you find lots of other geologically-suspect information there? Sure, but it's not presented as geologically-sound. It's presented as entertainment.

(And, of course, the NPS is more than welcome to endorse certain forms of entertainment - e.g., drinking, within certain limits - but religion is a different matter.)

In other words, your "debate two" is strictly academic at this point. By selling this particular book, the NPS is treating preferentially Christian mythology. In principle, such mythology could occupy a place alongside native American mythology in the gift shops, but those circumstances don't obtain today.

Paul said...

Ah, "entertainment" may not be the right word for how, say, native American mythology is portrayed by the NPS. A better way to put it is probably that the NPS offers only a meta-endorsement of non-Christian mythologies. That is, it treats its own materials as factual accounts of other people's beliefs. But what's implied as factual is their account, not the beliefs.

For the Vail book, that's really not the case - the beliefs themselves are treated as sound.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

The Director's orders don't address materials sold in the bookstore/giftshop; they pertain only to interpretive and educational programs. (If I'm missing some specific wording otherwise, please do point it out to me. I'm prone to mistakes like that.)

There's nothing about being in the bookstore that equates to federal endorsement, either legally (as far as I can tell) or in practice. I think it's pretty obvious that the items in the Grand Cayon gift shop are not created by NPS. Maybe there can be a big sign in the store that bears the disclaimer, "The views expressed in the materials sold in this store do not necessarily represent the opinions of the National Park Service. Please consult the parks interpretive and educational materials for blah dee blah." It's just like when a network airs an informercial: NPS is getting paid some amount of money to allow a private organization to sell their stuff on NPS property.

I think it's also important to note that the creationist book doesn't promote damage to the park. (At least it doesn't directly. ... I think valuing gods and humans over the planet's natural phenomena is ultimately damaging to the environment.) It's not like they're selling a book teaching you how to hunt mountain lions or excavate the canyon for arrowheads.

I do appreciate your point about the distinction between portraying Native American fables as historical beliefs and portraying Christian fables as an alternative version of the truth. I think all religions are equally false, so it's obnoxious to see one fake story given more credence than another fake story.

Paul said...

That distinction between the Native American fables and the Christian fables is precisely where the beef is. Giving preferential treatment to Christian fables amounts to endorsing one over the other.

As for the Director's orders, "interpretive and educational programs will include...interpretive media", in addition to programs of various kinds. (Sec. 4 of DO #6) Books are media, so I take them to be covered.

There are actually separate Director's Orders - #10 in particular - that pertain to merchandise and concessioning specifically. Section says that "Merchandise should have interpretive labeling, or include other information to indicate how the merchandise is relevant to the park's interpretive theme(s)." Since DO #8, Section 4.2 requires that interpretive programs in the park "be based on the best scientific evidence available", I think the whole package of orders implies that you can't sell a book like Vail's in the gift shop.

Paul said...

Sorry, that last reference should be to DO #6, Section 8.4.2.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

As far as I can tell, DO #10 is about drawing and construction formatting. But I'll accept that the text you cited is accurate.

I don't consider books (or t-shirts, or shot glasses) sold in the gift shop as intepretive materials. They don't contain the NPS logo or any implicit NPS approval on the items themselves. Is there someone going around making sure all the drawings of the canyon that grace gift shop t-shirts are drawn to accurately and to scale?

I don't think any of the beer mugs sold in the gift shop "have interpretive labeling, or include other information to indicate how the merchandise is relevant to the park's interpretive theme(s)." If by virture of them being Grand Canyon-themed they're automatically relevant to the park's interpretive theme, then why can't Vail's book be?

The orders in #10 don't explicitly demand that merchandise follow the same standards as interpretive/educational materials. Yours is a reasonable interpretation of the orders, but it could be interpreted differently.

Of course all of my defense of NPS's choice to include the book is, as you said, academic. They're not including the book because it could be interpreted as allowed by the director's orders; they're including the book because they're under the thumb of crazy conservative Christian politicans.

Paul said...

You are indeed correct about DO #10. I was looking at chapter 10 of the management policies:

Now, I grant that you can probably torture all of the policies to come up with a reason why it's A-OK by some interpretation or other of policy to have the NPS shops selling books full of made-up misinformation. I fail to see the point, though. The park's mission of propagating scientific knowledge is clearly not served by selling such books, and it's not clear to me what mission is.

The beer mug analogy doesn't hold water, either. I don't doubt that the NPS considers being Grand Canyon-themed enough to get you in the shop, barring other considerations. The Vail book pretty clearly fails other tests, though.

(And let's be careful with these other analogies, like pictures on t-shirts being drawn to scale, too. The NPS is not required to go to the ends of the earth to enforce policy. Even actual maps are not going to be perfectly to scale, but so what? Such imperfections have no significant impact on the NPS's mission.)

I guess my question is, what are these other reasonable interpretations that don't place the selling of Vail's book in opposition to the park's various missions? (And I realize at this point that we've expanded beyond director orders into general management policy, but at any rate the whole thing seems fairly unambiguous to me at this point.)

Thinker said...

While not related to the specific question of books on "Creation Science" in NPS bookstores, the two of you might be interested in a page put up recently by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In an effort to counter the Bush administrations efforts to manipulate, suppress and distort the work of government scientists and scientific advisors, as well as its attempts to systematically limit public and policy maker access to scientific information; the Union has posted its "A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science". You can explore it at

Taking a form patterned after the Periodic Table of the Elements, one can click on any "element" to follow a link to a Union page showing an in depth presentation of administration shenanigans.