Monday, October 10, 2005

The Grand Canyon and the Tattooed Paleontologist

The New York Times did a cover story the other day set in the Grand Canyon. Two different tour groups took raft trips down the Colorado River through the Canyon. One, organized by the National Center for Science Education, pointed to all the evidence of slow change over geologic time. The other, led by Canyon Ministries, looked at some of the same fossils and geologic formations and argued that they were evidence that Darwin and Lyall were wrong and God made it all happen in accordance with the Biblical account of creation and the Flood.

Pharyngula and others were all over it, as an egregious example of "he said she said" reporting. The story refuses to explicitly endorse either side of the controversy.

I'm going to muddle my point here. I usually deplore the "he said she said" approach as well, especially in political reporting, which is NYT's Jodi Wilgoren's beat. I am tempted to make a half-hearted exception in this case; I believe at least this is a good-faith disagreement (as opposed to "Nancy Pelosi tells the truth, then on the other hand Tom DeLay tells a lie, The End"). True, Wilgoren could have made clearer the massive weight of scientific consensus on the evolution side of the scale. But I don't think this is a brain-dead story; I think Wilgoren has framed it artfully and observed the most telling details. And I respect her intent (articulated in an e-mail to PZ Meyers of Pharyngula) to keep her opinion out of it. I think we Enlightenment types should be outraged that organized creationism exists, not that the New York Times reports on it per se.

Anyway, I got something out of this story. The structure of it and the length allowed for a nuanced view of where the sides were coming from. To put it another way, it gave both sides plenty of rope to hang themselves with.

It gives us vignettes like this:

Diana Panes began questioning evolution, which she had studied in school like most everybody else, seven years ago when [her son] came home from school asking whether Genesis was fable or history...

Of the explanations offered by Mr. Vail and other creationists, she said, "For me it was just the most immense relief that it didn't have to remain a mystery forever." [Emphasis mine]

Another data point in my theory that a huge cause of conservative nonsense in the U.S. is baby-boomer parents who can't handle awkward conversations with their teenagers.

Through four days, Mr. Vail mentioned public schools only once, saying that 80 percent of Christians walked away from their faith when studying science that confounded the creation story. "It's foundational to our faith... We're raising a generation of confused children, and it's the public schools that are doing it!"

I think the 80% figure is pulled from somebody's ass, but I think we see an important bit of subtext here. There are people in this country for whom being book-smart is not the highest value. These people are threatened by change, afraid of being made obsolete, disturbed that their children are being educated into different values than the parents hold. They latch onto creationism as an anchor. It's irrational, it's unhealthy, it's misplaced focus, but it's a teeny bit understandable.

Pharyngula feels, and some of his commenters agree, that the story goes out of its way to make the pro-Darwin side look bad. The young male paleontologist with tattoos and painted toenails, who calls himself a devout Christian--is he a freak? Is his portrait designed to make the scientists' side look bad to the religionists' side? I disagree, for three reasons off the top of my head. One, a person can be smart, well-educated, creative, non-conformist, a tattooed weirdo even, and be a Christian. Two, do tattoos and church repel each other like oil and water? No--there are entire congregations of pierced, tattooed, Gen-X Christians. Three, who is reading the New York Times in the first place? A lot of creationists, or a lot of secular Bobos with a not-very-nuanced picture of Christians?

Look at what our tattooed paleotologist says:

"Ultimately, creationism is not just bad science to me, it's bad Christianity, it's Bible worship... God doesn't require you to be stupid, to deny what you see, to deny what you know."

Shazam. This is the focal point of the article, for me. "Bibliolatry," my undergrad religion professor Max Polley called it. He deplored Bibliolatry, and he was a Bible scholar. The God I believe in wants to use your faculties freely.

Let me be clear: Evolution is the truth, evolution should be taught in the public schools, and any explanation, from Intelligent Design on down, that relies on a divine Creator, should be excluded from science classes. Creationism is an error that, in its manifestation as a political campaign, could have disastrous consequences. But evolution represents a huge cultural rift. A veritable Grand Canyon. Look at the poll numbers (I know it's painful) showing how many average Joes and Janes disbelieve evolution. This rift is not going to be closed with a ringing concluding paragraph to a New York Times story. If it's ever going to be closed, it's going to take time and patience and listening and understanding. I think Jodi Wilgoren's story contributed.

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