PEER Overstates "Faith-based Park" Problem:

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is "a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values." Among other things, PEER serves as the voice of government employees who object to "anti-environmental" policies and practices within government agencies.

One of PEER's campaigns is challenging "Faith-based Parks." Specifically, PEER is concerned that the Bush Administration has pushed the National Park Service to reject scientific analysis and explanations in an effort to cater to religious fundamentalists. Among other things, PEER claimed that the Bush Administration was pressuring NPS employees to accomodate creationist explanations of the Grand Canyon's history, and tell the public that the canyon in thousands, rather than millions, of years old. PEER claimed in a press release that:

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.
The charge is plausible -- after all, one administration employee sought to edit NASA's website so as to protect religious sensibilities -- and, if true, quite objectionable. The problem, as the Skeptic Society's Michael Shermer documents, PEER's central claim does not pan out. It is true that one of the books the NPS offers for sale at the Grand Canyon National Park's bookstore is a creationist account of the Canyon's history. Yet this book is sold in the "inspiration" section of the bookstore, along with Native American creation myths and other spiritual materials. It is not sold or represented as a scientific account, nor have NPS employees ever been instructed to give anything other than a scientific explanation for the Grand Canyon's age and history.

After extensively researching PEER's claims -- and forcing a partial retraction -- Shermer is understandably distraught (in part because he initially cited PEER's charge uncritically). Perhaps the NPS shouldn't sell the offending book in its book stores, but this is hardly proves PEER's initial claims. As Shermer explains, the controversy over selling creationist books "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." PEER's claims to the contrary -- and protracted efforts to defend the charge and deflect Shermer's inquiries -- were an "egregious display of poor judgment and unethical behavior," Shermer concludes. In the end, it seems that PEER's hostility to the Bush Administration caused it to overstate the facts. There are enough examples of political manipulation of scientific claims without the need for PEER or others to invent new ones.