Tuesday, January 23, 2007

fact checking 101

I read my copy of New Scientist last week, and was duly outraged that staff at the Grand Canyon are not allowed to talk about the age of the Canyon, and are only allowed to sell a book suggesting that the Canyon was formed during Noah's flood about 4,000 years ago.

This morning I was just as outraged to realise that a) New Scientist just prints press releases without checking them in any way and b) the whole article was bollocks.

The Press Release itself began

Orders to Cater to Creationists Makes National Park Agnostic on Geology

Washington, DC — Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees.

People more outraged than I was phoned or wrote to the National Park Service (which is more than New Scientist did)...

and were told that the Grand Canyon is millions of years old, that no one is being pressured from Bush administration appointees — or by anyone else — to withhold scientific information, and all were referred to a statement by David Barna, Chief of Public Affairs, National Park Service as to the park’s official position. “Therefore, our interpretive talks, way-side exhibits, visitor center films, etc. use the following explanation for the age of the geologic features at Grand Canyon,” the document explains.

If asked the age of the Grand Canyon, our rangers use the following answer: ‘The principal consensus among geologists is that the Colorado River basin has developed in the past 40 million years and that the Grand Canyon itself is probably less than five to six million years old. The result of all this erosion is one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.’

While the creationist text on the age of the Grand Canyon is actually on sale in the "inspirational" part of the souvenir shop, beside the books on the Hopi and the Paiute legends of how the canyon was formed.

The Skeptic magazine reports here on how they, too were insufficently, er, skeptical and fell for this rot:

[Edit to add -- it's the curse of the internet. Post about fact-checking and you'll soon realise you should have checked your facts. Actually I'd mentally conflated the New Scientist article I linked to and the Doonesbury cartoon on the same subject, which I read around the same time. As you'll have realised, the New Scientist article doesn't say that the park people are forbidden to say the Canyon is millions of years old.]

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