Monday, January 01, 2007

More on the Grand Canyon

At the prompting of my reporter sister and geologist brother, my skeptical antennae finally started quivering over the PEER-reported Grand Canyon story from two posts ago. My sister has an e-mail in to the Grand Canyon park itself asking if they've been told to say "no comment" when asked about the Canyon's age, and I just sent a letter to the PEER contact (reproduced below).

The more I think about it and the more times I re-read the press release, I don't think it says what it looks like it says in regards to the supposed "gag order". The rest of it's true from what I have been able to find out -- the book is for sale, has been for a long time, the park administrator rejected it initially and was overruled by someone up the food chain, and the PR director has not in fact requested any sort of review in the three years since.

However, the most egregious and offensive aspect of the release, the idea that park rangers were being forbidden to talk about the age of the Canyon, doesn't seem to be actually stated in the press release itself. It's easy to come away with that impression, but a more careful reading doesn't really support it. We'll see what PEER has to say about it, assuming they reply at all. Here's the e-mail I just sent.

Ms. Goldberg,

I read your press release of December 28, "HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON'T SAY" and commented on it at my blog ( The press release has received wide coverage on other blogs as well, many containing the implication that Park Service employees have been told to answer "no comment" when asked about the age of the Canyon:

From Bad Astronomy: Also, guides at the park are not allowed to answer questions about how old the canyon is, despite scientists' incredibly detailed and intricate knowledge of the formation mechanism, scheme, and history of the canyon.

From DailyKos: Is it true what Mrs. Hoover taught me in 8th grade Earth science about the formation of canyons? National Park Service: No Comment.

However, after re-reading the press release more carefully, I don't see that claim laid out explicitly anywhere. You do say:

"It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'" In a letter released today, PEER urged the new Director of the National Park Service (NPS), Mary Bomar, to end the stalling tactics, remove the book from sale at the park and allow park interpretive rangers to honestly answer questions from the public about the geologic age of the Grand Canyon.

I think this is what is being read as Park Rangers being told not to give an age, but that's not what you're actually saying there, is it? My questions to you, therefore, are:

1. Is it in fact your contention that Park Service employees have been told not to give an estimate of the age of the Grand Canyon?
2. If that is your contention, what is your source for it?
3. 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"?

Thank you for your help clearing up this point of confusion, this is the only point I haven't been able to verify through other means.


Jeff Hebert
Bertram, TX

I pride myself on being a skeptic, and on verifying what I spout off before spouting it off, and I suspect on this one I jumped a little too quickly on that aspect of things. If so, I'll definitely fess up.


Allen said...


Thanks for checking this out. If the park rangers really have been told to say, "no comment," then the situation is in fact quite bad. But it wouldn't hurt to get at least another data point.

A certain blog we both read, written by an outspoken and usually upstanding author, recently got sucked into believing something about a certain atheist scientist (hopefully you're catching on without the naming of names -- Ispatchesday from the Ulturecay Arsway), made a bunch of rather bold and inflammatory statements and then had to back off a bit. Unfortunately he didn't do so very gracefully.

I'm grateful to see you being careful here and I look forward to reading about whatever you discover.


Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks Allen, I'll be sure to post any results that come in. I followed the whole dustup you mentioned and it was pretty crazy. I've been thinking since then about reflex hyperbolic responses that politics seem to engender, and how to inoculate yourself from them. Indulging in righteous indignation feels so good, I guess it's not surprising that we all get seduced by it from time to time.

If only we were Vulcans, life would be so much more rational. Sigh. And we'd also have pon far to look forward to (hubba hubba!).

Anonymous said...

As a former interpretive national park ranger, I am highly skeptical that rangers have been told not to give the canyon's age. I have some contacts in the Canyon and will do some research myself. Thanks for bringing this to light!