Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Grand Canyon Ungagged!

As promised, here's the update from PEER on the Grand Canyon Creationist Gag Order Controversy I previously posted about, here and here.

The short answer is, PEER does not claim that a "gag order" has been issued to Park Service employees. Here's the full email response I received from PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, which he kindly granted me permission to reprint in its entirety:


This option is the closest--
Are you simply saying that the NPS hasn't offered an official guideline to its employees as to how they are to answer that question, and not that the official position is to answer "no comment"?

1. Reports from Grand Canyon NP interpretive staff, some of whom have been seeking clarification from their chain-of-command relative to questions about the validity of "young earth claims." The more than three-year hold-up in blocking official guidance on this question is part of this concern.

2. Statements by NPS HQ officials that the creationist view should be given equal time in park materials.

3. The reply from the Grand Canyon superintendent's office to media inquiries on the official park view on the age of the Canyon.

We did not mean to imply that geological information has been deleted from park materials.

Jeff Ruch
Executive Director
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
2000 P Street, NW; Suite 240
Washington, D.C. 20036
(v) (202) 265-7337
Fax (202) 265-4192
Website: www.peer.org

So there you have it. I want to reiterate that the fundamental issue of a creationist book being sold in a government run national park store is still one that I find completely unacceptable, and the Park Service has been aware of the issue for three years now. They said they would review the policy, and have not, despite written objections from their own scientific advisers, the administrator of the Grand Canyon itself, and outside agencies.

However, it is not true that the Park Service has instructed any employee to say "no comment" when asked about the age of the Grand Canyon, which is very good news indeed.

Thanks to my brother Johnny and my sister Denise for pointing out that, in the words of the inimitable Inigo Montoya, "I do not think this means what you think it means."

I'll forward this on to Phil from "The Bad Astronomer" (a site I like very much), which was my original source for the report. I apologize to my fives of readers for failing to parse the original press release critically enough; it should have instantly set off my "Skeptic's Antennae". I let previous incidents of interference with sound science from Executive Branch appointees influence my assessment of this particular case, and that's usually a bad idea. Mea culpa.


Anonymous said...

Hey, you were looking at a government-issued document!!! That alone is so confusing, Einstein couldn't figure it out!! I had to read that guy's reply to you four times to sort of "get it." My wonderings are the result of 10 years at a newspaper where everyone's a liar, every story has to be checked and double checked and we eat coffee grounds, forget drinking coffee! Thanks for posting the reply, and I'm frankly surprised the guy got back to you so quickly. Good job! -- Denise

Geopoet said...

Someone said that PEER should have their feet held to the fire if they distorted the truth and I agree in light of this. Here's what they said:

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

Now they've recanted this based on their response to Jeff. However, the damage is done and I think they need to publish an apology. ("under orders" and "official position" are pretty strong allegations, as any reader would agree with)

This is the root of national distrust in modern journalism (no matter what side of the political spectrum you're on)- there is no accountability for misinformation as long as it promotes your ideology. Basically, they profit from fomenting reactions rather than verifying and reporting the truth. This is apparently since there is so little professional risk anymore. From a talk show or something it's understandable (still irresponsible though) since they come right out and identify themselves as being biased; from a group that claims to be more neutral and/or public service oriented, it's unacceptable.

I sent in an email for PEER to publish an apology or at least a clarification. I urge others who value fairness and truth in reporting should do the same; it's this kind of stuff that keeps sides polarized and journalists should see there is a professional and financial risk to shabby reporting. Finally, thanks to Jeff for his pursuit of truth.

Jeff Hebert said...

The more I think about it, the more I agree with what Geopoet has written here. It's difficult to read the words "under orders" and "official position" in any other way than we read it originally. Even those who were more skeptical up front, like Wesley Elsberry on Panda's Thumb, understood the press release to be saying that. They just thought it sounded too fishy to be true and wanted to investigate further.

I do think people should be held accountable for this kind of thing. I don't know how that would work outside of a newspaper (which can fire people and whose financial support comes directly from subscribers). But there are absolutely no penalties anymore for doing a bad job.

At least we should have some kind of "Accuracy Report" for bloggers, reporters, politicians, sportscasters, etc. that track specific predictions or statements they make and rate them on how true they turn out to be.

There's a liberal group doing that for TV and print journalism, Media Matters, but they have an obvious political agenda.

Oh well, it's been a good lesson to learn about continuing to think skeptically, even (or especially) in cases that tend to confirm your pre-existing biases.