The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Fact Checking 101

January 17, 2007

In eSkeptic from January 10, 2007, we published highlights from a press release issued by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), a Washington D.C.-based environmental watchdog group. That press release, dated December 28, 2006, was headlined:

How old is the Grand Canyon? Park Service Won’t Say
Orders to Cater to Creationists Makes National Park Agnostic on Geology

The first sentence of the release reads:

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.

Unfortunately, in our eagerness to find additional examples of the inappropriate intrusion of religion in American public life (as if we actually needed more), we accepted this claim by PEER without calling the National Park Service (NPS) or the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) to check it. As a testimony to the quality of our readers, however, dozens immediately phoned both NPS and GCNP, only to discover that the claim is absolutely false. Callers 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.’

Understandably, many of our readers were outraged by both the duplicity of the claim and our failure to fact check it. One park ranger wrote us:

You’re a day late and a dollar short on this one. As a national park ranger, I found most of PEER’s findings to be bogus.

A Grand Canyon park interpreter wrote:

This is incorrect. I have NEVER been told to present non-science based programs. In fact, I received “talking points” demanding that Grand Canyon employees present programs BASED ON SCIENCE and that we must use the scientific version supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences. As an interpreter I have shared the “creation” story of the Hopi people and the Paiute people because it is culturally relative. I used these stories as a tool to introduce the scientific story. Be confident there are good people running government, too.

One of our readers directly challenged Jeff Ruch, the Executive Director of PEER:

When I challenged that PEER guy to show me some evidence and provided him evidence to the contrary, he didn’t have much. I would say PEER did more than jump the gun. I’d say they are spreading misinformation.

Another Grand Canyon park interpreter offered this explanation:

Ruch’s attempts to insinuate a conspiratorial link between the NPS and organized religion are misguided and founded in fervent anti-Christian opposition, not reason or the law. Ruch’s anti-Judeo-Christian bias is evidence by his lack of opposition to GCA’s selling of Native American creation myths. His misinformation campaign aims to tarnish the reputation of the NPS to leverage his position that creationism books should not be sold in the GCA bookstore. I’ve emailed a few of my contacts at GRCA, and so far, all deny any conspiracy and all freely give the canyon’s age in education programs (as does all official GRCA print material). I’ll post updates as information becomes available. Until then, don’t believe everything you read.

The reference to the creationism book being sold in the Grand Canyon bookstore — Grand Canyon: A Different View by Tom Vail — is true. It is sold in the “inspiration” section of the bookstore, alongside other books of myth and spirituality. In any case, the story is an old one now, and completely irrelevant to the claim that NPS employees are withholding information about the age of the canyon, and/or are being pressured to do so by Bush administration appointees.

Embarrassed and angered by all of this, I promptly phoned Jeff Ruch myself and inquired what evidence he has to support this claim. He initially pointed to the creationism book and the fact that the NPS has failed to address numerous challenges to the sale of same in their bookstore. When I pointed out that this is irrelevant to the claim in the press release, he then reminded me of the biblical passages that have been posted at places along the rim of the canyon. Again, I admonished, this is not evidence for his central claim. We went round and round on the phone until I finally gave up and hung up, convinced that he simply made up the claim out of whole cloth.

Not wishing to simply call Ruch a liar, and allowing myself to calm down a bit, I emailed him and asked:

Can you tell us who in the Bush administration put pressure on park service employees? Can you name one person in the GCNP staff who says that they are not permitted to give the official estimate of the age of the canyon?

He responded:

  1. I do not know — it is at the Director’s level or above. We have been trying to find out for three years.
  2. Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times.

I contacted Julie Cart at the Los Angeles Times, who was out of town on assignment, and got her editor, Frank Clifford, on the phone. Clifford knew all about the creationism book and the biblical passages on the rim of the canyon, but said that he had heard nothing about this new claim of Bush administration appointees silencing park service staff, and that if Julie knew of such a thing the Times would be most interested in following up with the story. I then reached Julie by email, who said that she too knew of no such silence on the part of park staffers regarding the age of the canyon.

Once again outraged and enraged , I emailed Ruch to ask him why he referenced Cart, who denied his central claim. He responded:

I referred you to Julie because of the response she got from the superintendent’s office when she covered the issue earlier — not for any new claim.

Thanks a lot. I wasted several hours tracking down that false lead. Now at my wit’s end with this guy, I point blank asked him if he made it all up. He responded:

The interpretive staff at GCNP we are working with do not want to be identified and have gone into deep underground as the atmosphere at the park is now somewhat volatile.

Well, it would have been nice (not to mention ethical) if he would have said so in the first place. (I have now wasted about 10 hours of research time on this instead of other projects.) The referencing of sources who wish to remain anonymous is quite common in journalism and, in fact, there are laws protecting whistleblowers . The fact that no such reference was made until I pointedly accused Ruch of flatout lying makes me, well, skeptical of this explanation. His final statement to me doesn’t make me any less skeptical:

We are issuing an amended release today that:

  1. deletes reference to what interpretive staff can and cannot say and
  2. features the NPS official statement that they provide geological information to the public.

Then why did PEER issue that statement in the first place? In my opinion, this is why:

PEER is an anti-Bush, anti-religion liberal activist watchdog group in search of demons to exorcise and dragons to slay. On one level, that’s how the system works in a free society, and there are plenty of pro-Bush, pro-religion conservative activist watchdog groups who do the same thing on the other side. Maybe in a Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis we find truth that way; at least at the level of talk radio. But journalistic standards and scholarly ethics still hold sway at all levels of discourse that matter, and to that end I believe we were duped by an activist group who at the very least exaggerated a claim and published it in order to gain notoriety for itself, or worse, simply made it up.

To that end I apologize to all of our readers for not fact checking this story before publishing it on eSkeptic and Shame on us. But shame on you too, Mr. Ruch, and shame on PEER, for this egregious display of poor judgment and unethical behavior.

This article was originally published in eSkeptic.

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5 Comments to “Fact Checking 101”

  1. Soso R. Whaley Says:

    I recently wrote an article about our “Culture of Lies”… text below… I like your article on a Type 1 Civilization, Michael, but until we are all on the same page I don’t think it’s attainable…. at least any time soon…. as long as it’s ok to lie no matter what we will continue to languish in this “culture of lies”….


    Hillary Clinton claims to have come under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia, a story easily proven to be false. The documentary “Manufacturing Dissent” explores the manipulations of facts by Oscar winning filmmaker Michael Moore in an effort to promote his personal view of the world. Executives from the cigarette companies once claimed that cigarettes did not cause cancer despite evidence to the contrary they were very well aware of. Oprah features a “biography” which turns out to be nothing but lies and a mother encourages her daughter to lie about having a father in Iraq in order to win Hannah Montana tickets. Scientists manipulate data in an effort to “prove” a theory and somewhere along the line it became “common knowledge” that an individual should drink 8 glasses of water a day but turns out there is absolutely no scientific data or studies that would confirm this belief. It seems that we are a culture that is mired in lies and manipulations, a culture that is often stuck on old belief systems and easy prey for scam artists of all types.

    What I find most surprising is how the media, especially the news departments, seem willing to print and/or report pretty much anything which comes across the senior editor’s desk but I suppose that is a function of being a part of the entertainment industry. For instance in 2002 it was widely reported in the mainstream media including the BBC and the Canadian press who took the bait hook, line and sinker that blondes would become extinct by 2202. Turned out this was just an updated version of a hoax that was started in 1865. Seems the media can be fooled not just once but many times over and now celebrities are even having fun at the media’s expense appearing on a TV series in which they fool the paparazzi and see how long it takes to be reported in the mainstream media.

    I was born in 1955 so remember a time when newsmen were valued because of their honesty and willingness to bring the truth to the public. I can’t quite remember when this desire to inform the public turned into a desire to report the most outrageous news in an effort to draw in readers and viewers to a particular media outlet. I suppose I understand that with all the media now available to the public in so many different forms from newspapers to the internet it’s become more about sales, ratings and hits than about what is actually being reported. The attitude seems to be “if it’s wrong, who cares, tomorrow is another day and people will forget about what they heard or read yesterday”. What a pity people seem to be so accepting of this culture of lies. They may be wary of the con artists or totally under their spell but I don’t believe that anyone’s best interest is served by allowing this cultural defect to prevail all in the name of “freedom of speech”.
    Bringing truth out into the light is not always easy. I found this out while demonstrating that eating at McDonald’s does not necessarily make one fat or unhealthy. Some of you may recognize me as one of the first people to challenge the premise of the film “Super Size Me” by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. Starting in April 2004 I engaged in a series of “30 day diets” eating exclusively at McDonald’s and experienced not only a 45 pound weight loss but also saw my cholesterol go from 237 to 172 without supplements or medications of any kind. I actually proved through a series of closely monitored and documented experiments that I could eat healthy under the Golden Arches and not just maintain but improve my health overall. So why haven’t I been able to show the world the results of my experiments? Unfortunately I find myself involved in very contentious small claims litigation against a company, its CEO and partners for the deliberate destruction of the working materials for my film “Me & Mickey D”. Despite the fact that I know a courtroom is no safe haven from the culture of lies that we endure every day it is my only hope to be able to recover the means to rebuild my film.

    Believe me, I was disappointed to hear that small claims court is often referred to as “liars court” and the defendants in my case are certainly no exception to the rule when it comes to trying to justify their actions but despite being able to demonstrate that the defendants have lied throughout the proceedings the judge has no intention of citing them for perjury. Let’s face it our court system has been and still is subject to the whims and fancies of the human psyche but to allow people to lie during testimony without any consequences only makes a mockery of a system in which one “swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but”. If our courts can’t get it right then how can we expect people to comport themselves in a more responsible way? If we turn our heads the other way and justify this culture of lies we do ourselves much greater harm than simply seeking to find the truth in the quagmire of information thrown at us every day.

    I know it is possible to find the truth but getting it out there is made all the harder by those who stand to gain through keeping you ignorant in one way or another. Global warming or not? Sports stars who make millions using steroids or not? Can you really “conserve” a forest or is it better to manage it responsibly? Are we alone in the universe or are we regularly visited by alien beings? The only thing that comes about through this culture of lies is confusion not enlightenment, it seems we would be far better off if we could set a higher standard of proof for those who are trying to convince us of something and work to raise our own standards when seeking truth. Always keep in mind, it’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that isn’t so.

  2. Warren Huelsnitz Says:

    I agree with the points the “Culture of Lies” essay makes about the damage caused to our society and our culture. But one clarification: the “8 glasses of water a day” myth was not originated by scientists. The scientific report that was later cited by the bottled water marketing community stated “… a person should consume approximately 64 ounces of water per day, most of which is already in the prepared foods we eat…”. The advertisers conveniently left off the qualifier that we already get a lot of the water we need in the food we eat and the other liquids that we drink. They also conveniently imply “8 glasses” which leads people to drink more water because most glasses and water bottles hold more than 8 ounces. Most scientific reports also conclude that bottled water is no healthier (and in some cases less healthy) than tap water. The net result of these lies, myths, and deceptive advertising concerning water is that in America, we now spend more money on bottled water (which is available essentially for free) than on carbonated beverages.

  3. Muriel Fraser Says:

    Have to try to get back to source on everything. I know of a foreign group which purports to defend civil liberties, but is rumoured to be associated with Scientology. Be that as it may, they tell outright lies which get accepted and make their way into reputable publications, since fact-checking is harder in a foreign language and no one has any reason to doubt them. …Beware.

  4. Michael C. Linson Says:

    There exist several methods to determine the accuracy or “truth” of what is being presented. Unfortunately, the pressures of life and current attitudes (i.e. “get every thing done…yesterday”) make implementation difficult.

    What could be so difficult? Slow down and THINK!! Easy to say – not so easy to do. However, one of the simplest methods is to ask: does this _____ pass the smell test? In other words, does it ACTUALLY make common sense?

    The example of Michael Shermer’s is a good example. Simplifying things a bit; a quick check by/of most people’s common sense would reveal that bureaucracies RARELY change their policies over night. There is a great deal of inertia or resistance to change. Add to that the idea of department heads having the attitude that their area of responsibility is also THEIR TURF – anyone intruding…
    These pieces of common knowledge immediately contradict the statement(s) made by P.E.E.R. Thus, the proverbial: …something does not smell right.

    To be fair to Michael Shermer he has probably seen this set, or similar set, of circumstances before. They turned out to be true then, why not in this case? Add to that a busy schedule, pressures no one else, or very few, know about, plus, a myriad of other factors. The resulting consequences have been made clear.

    It’s nice to know Mr. Shermer is human….he’s also a very honorable man.

  5. Ken A. Says:

    The eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day was taught to us in grade school and by our parents and grandparents while growing up. I am 56 years old. The “fact” has been around so long that it has become accepted as common wisdom. Frankly, this is the first time I have ever heard it challenged and I read a LOT!

    So the idea that we should all drink that much water a day to stay properly hydrated is not one only recently propagated by the bottled water industry. Again, this may be something the advertisers came up with based upon “common” wisdom. I can’t say one way or the other.

    I do that I have read often and heard from doctors that we as Americans do not drink enough water and that most of us are dehydrated. Constipation that is so common can often be traced to this.

    Then, of course, much depends upon in which part of the country you live. The arid southwest demands that you drink more water than if you live in the Northern climes. (I live in NE Ohio.)

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