The summer before my senior year of college I worked as a park ranger guiding hikes in one of the most beautiful state parks in the country. Its central feature was a 256-foot waterfall that plunged down through a gorgeous natural amphitheater, cutting through bands of limestone and sandstone and collecting in a deep pool, the perfect hangout for summer swimming. My favorite program was the hike to the base of the falls. Layers of rock are like chapters in a history book and this canyon, carved so deeply, told an ancient story. Standing at the bottom, calling out over the roar of the falls, I got to teach the exciting conclusion, “The layers of slate and shale beneath our feet tell us that 300 million years ago, this deciduous forest was a tropical jungle.”
“What book d’ya get that out of?” came the reply one day. And thus it began, for this waterfall was not only located in ancient rock, it was also in the heart of the Bible-belt. I had heard there were people who believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old, but I never thought I would actually meet any. That summer, and every other summer I worked teaching science to the public, I met a lot of them. Though most objectors would just walk away from the program, some mothers would cover their children’s ears to protect them from the “blasphemous park ranger.” One man, after I patiently explained how we know the age of rocks, finally just threw up his hands, exclaimed, “The Devil made that rock look that old to turn you away from God,” and led his family back up the trail.
At the time, to a college kid with a summer job, these responses seemed bizarre but relatively harmless – they were local, “everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs”, “no skin off my back”, “whatever”… But now, 15 years later, I understand these taunts to be the threat they truly are: dangerous beliefs made more dangerous because more and more people believe them.