Can they dig it? Big-time journalists balk at multiple views of Grand Canyon's origins

There's no argument, is there? The Grand Canyon, like the rest of our planet, is multiple millions, if not billions of years old.

We're all agreed on that, right?

Well, not every last one of us. Take Andrew Snelling, Ph.D., for one. He's an Australian with a doctorate in geology from the University of Sydney. Snelling works with Answers in Genesis, the Kentucky-based organization that promotes "young Earth creationism."

That's the belief that not only "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1, New International Version), but also that said creation took place recently -- only thousands of years ago. That's thousands and not billions or millions.

Snelling is trying to prove his theory by doing -- get this -- on-site scientific research. He wants to collect sedementary rock samples from the Grand Canyon, for which one needs permission from the National Park Service.

Let's go to the news, courtesy of (among others) The Atlantic magazine's website, which served up the evenhanded headline "A Creationist Sues the Grand Canyon for Religious Discrimination." Read on:

Snelling is a prominent young-Earth creationist. For years, he has given lectures, guided biblical-themed Grand Canyon rafting tours, and worked for the nonprofit Answers in Genesis. (The CEO of Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham, is also behind the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park.) Young-Earth creationism, in contrast to other forms of creationism, specifically holds that the Earth is only thousands of years old. Snelling believes that the Grand Canyon formed after Noah’s flood -- and he now claims the U.S. government is blocking his research in the canyon because of his religious views.
Last week, Snelling sued park administrators and the Department of Interior, which administers the national parks program, because they would not grant him a permit to collect 50 to 60 fist-sized rocks. All research in the national park is restricted, especially if it requires removing material. But the Grand Canyon does host 80 research projects a year, ranging from archaeology digs to trout tracking.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal advocacy group that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Snelling, alleged discrimination by the park. “National Park Service: Research in Grand Canyon okay for geologists … but not Christian ones,” read the headline on their press release. (Interior department and NPS spokespeople declined to comment because of the pending litigation.)

At the risk of sounding the same drum over and over, let's hear it for, you guessed it -- Kellerism. That's the journalistic doctrine -- yes, doctrine -- that some matters are settled and thus a reporter or editor is not obligated to fairly and accuratley present "both sides" in a story.

Back in 2011, tmatt distilled the essence of The New York Times' then-editor Bill Keller's worldview, including this:

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Neither, apparently, does the presumably neutral National Park Service. Or, for that matter, The Atlantic or other media. The Science magazine website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS for short, picked up an E&E News article about Snelling's lawsuit:

After seeking the opinion of several individuals in academia, NPS denied the permit on March 4, 2014.
"His description of how to distinguish soft sediment from hard rock structures it not well written, up-to-date, or well referenced," Karl Karlstrom, a geologist at the University of New Mexico who co-authored a 2014 paper on the age of the Grand Canyon, wrote in his review of the proposal for NPS. "My overall conclusion is that Dr. Snelling has no scientific track record and no scientific affiliation since 1982."
NPS told Snelling that there were alternative locations outside of the park where he could gather the samplesThe then-chief of science and resource management at Grand Canyon, Martha Hahn, also warned Snelling that he would be "banned from research in the national park system" if he were to collect the samples without a permit, according to correspondence attached to the complaint.

Here's my first journalistic problem: The NPS seems only to have selected scientists opposed to Snelling's viewpoint to review his proposal. None of the media accounts I've seen mention that or include any pre-litigation questioning of the Park Service on that point.

Also, none of the articles raise what I once believed was a basic tenet of scientific investigation: that experimentation and research is the way to arrive at scientific evidence that can then be used in debates (and news coverage, come to think of it).

To her credit, Atlantic writer Sarah Zang tries to balance viewpoints, mentioning geologist Steven Newton of the College of Marin, "the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that opposes teaching creationism in public schools." In her telling, even Newton appears to give Snelling a bit more credit than the NPS did:

“This just so plays into their hands,” Newton says about the national park’s treatment of Snelling’s application. Newton favors letting creationists do their research and then arguing on the merits of their science. But allowing them to present at scientific conferences, others say, is lending creationists legitimacy.

At this point, it should be noted that the Cincinnati Enquirer, hometown newspaper for Answers in Genesis, got an explanation from NPS-designated reviewer Karlstrom that reveals perhaps more than was intended:'

"They are not valid scientific projects because they ignore all the available scientific information about the geologic timescale and geochronology," [Karlstrom] wrote. "There are many creation myths from many different faiths, and people are entitled to believe any (or all) of them as they wish. Science is based on data and is constantly refining and testing ideas that best explain all the data."

Well, if that's true, then why on Earth -- young, old or middle-aged -- didn't anyone ask Karlstrom or the National Park Service why Snelling can't conduct his research and put the data he finds out there for all to see? Wouldn't that have been covered in Journalism 101?

I'll grant news organizations might wish to take a stand on the issue, but must that extend to a government whose officials are sworn to serve us all?

Just asking.

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