False Claims Virus on the loose!


All humans like to believe their community, region or country is special. This has led to countless specious claims to greatness based on size: the tallest flag pole, the deepest canyon, the highest waterfall, the oldest building….and so forth. Some of these claims are, of course, true; but the vast majority of them are not. Even some claims that are verified and accepted for years - the tallest waterfall is an example - turn out not to be true after all.

Westerners – at least those of us who arrived in the region within the last 200 years – are particularly prone to this sort of exaggeration. Whether it is caused by infection with a potent form of the disease known as American Exceptionalism or by something else (the water?), western boosterism has resulted in some spectacularly outrageous claims. Perhaps the most famous is that “rain follows the plow” – a specious claim that led to much suffering on the western Great Plains but also played a role in producing/inspiring great western writers and historians - Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster for example.

High Country News writers are not immune to what we might label the western false claims virus – a particularly virulent variant of the world-wide family of false claims viruses. The latest example is Tim Hull’s report “Essay under glass” in the May 25th edition. In this otherwise excellent piece, Hull claims that “some of the largest stands of conifers on the planet are stressed and diseased from long term drought.”

I have not done the research, but I strongly suspect that the “stressed and diseased” western forests – the Lodgepole pine stands of Colorado, the Ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona, the high elevation spruce and Whitebark pine forests of the Cascades and Northern Rockies – do not qualify as “some of the largest stands of conifers” on the planet. These forested areas (“stands” if you will) are dwarfed by the conifer forests which stretch from Northern California through Southeast Alaska or the vast boreal spruce forests of North Central Canada. And what about the forest expanses of Siberia; don’t these dwarf the extent of western forest-types that are currently “stressed and diseased”?   

I wonder whether the false claims virus is a childhood disease. Do more mature societies loose the bug? Are the citizens of mature human societies more secure with who they are and therefore less prone to false claims to greatness based on the size of some local curiosity?

Unfortunately, my experience suggests otherwise.  When I spent several months a few years back in Central Asia I was traveling in an area of the planet where the earliest human civilizations first crossed paths. Some evidence even suggests that Central Asia – not China or Mesopotamia – is the true “cradle” of human civilization. But I can report with assurance that Central Asians have the virus too. I’ve found the same to be true in Greece, Morocco, Mexico, Guatemala, France and Italy….you get the idea. So much for that theory!

It may be too much to ask that humans – or at least writers! – overcome the human penchant for self-serving exaggeration.  Most likely the false claims virus has co-evolved with the human species and is now inseparable from us. As Pogo quipped “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

I guess that is one reason we need editors...and historians.      

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