Monday, 9 July 2012

In support of the National Trust and the "Creationist Exhibit" at Giant's Causeway

I don't think that this is a new story but it seems to have resurfaced recently with a recent article by the National Secular Society, blogged on the Why Evolution Is True website under the rather provocative title of "U.K.’s National Trust promotes creationism!" (The original title of the National Secular Society article was a slightly less zealous "National Trust puts creationism on show at new visitor centre".) The articles report that
The National Trust has come under fire for including an exhibit in the new Giants' Causeway Visitors' Centre acknowledging the creationist view of how the world-famous stones were formed.
The point of contention seems to be that:
A transcript from an audio exhibit in the visitor centre reads:
"Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant's Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

"This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth's rocks were formed.

"This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.
Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

"Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

"Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant's Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it."
This is turn has triggered a widespread response, including a Facebook Group for removing the display and the call from WEIT to send complaints to the National Trust.

I would like to preface the rest of this post by saying that I am 100% unequivocally against representing Creationism as science under any circumstances. It is not science and there is nothing scientific about it. It is, in fact, anti-science. If, therefore, I thought that the National Trust was "promoting" Creationism or presenting the Creationist view as a viable alternative to the "mainstream science" position, I would be dead against it and most definitely write to the National Trust and complain. (I am a National Trust member.)

The thing is, though, this is not what they are doing. The National Trust made their position clear, quoted in the same National Secular Society article:
"The interpretation in the visitor centre showcases the science of how the stones were formed, the history of this special place and the stories of local characters.

"We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today.

"The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago."
A lot of Irish history is steeped in myths and legends of various sources. The Giant’s Causeway itself is named because legend has it that it was created by an Irish giant, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Are people suggesting that by keeping that name, or having a Fionn mac Cumhaill exhibit in the visitor centre, the National Trust are promoting belief in giants? I suspect not.

I am not sure how new the "new visitor centre" is but I visited the Causeway in 2008 and certainly don’t remember seeing anything that outlandish. If the transcript on the National Secular Society page is as bad as it gets (and why not quote the worst bit?), it is clear that the National Trust are not giving the Creationist position any legitimacy beyond saying that it exists.

Apart from the reactionaries, the only person who seems to believe this is the case is a Creationst:
Wallace Thompson, chairman of the creationist Caleb Foundation said he was pleased with the inclusion of the creationist view:
"We have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this."
Well, Creationists make claims like this all the time and, frankly, regularly lie and misrepresent reality - their position is so untenable, they have to. The only thing being given legitimacy by opposing this display so strongly, it seems, is this bogus position that the National Trust are giving Creationsim legitimacy.

One important point to remember here is the purpose of the National Trust as an organisation. From their website, they are:
a UK conservation charity, protecting historic places and green spaces, and opening them up for ever, for everyone.
They are not a scientific organisation and their primary focus is history, not science. That does not, of course, mean that they can get the science wrong. What it means, however, is that the science should not be the sole focus of their visitor centres, even for their "natural monuments". Acknowledging the existence of the Creationist belief is giving them historical legitimacy, not scientific legitimacy.

As far as I can see, everything that the National Trust has said about the Creationist position is true. Furthermore, I think it is important that we have the myths and legends alongside the science – not as equal points of view regarding truth but as examples of how our beliefs and knowledge have matured through time. How many people are going to visit the exhibit and think “Wow, the Flood must have happened, how blind have I been?” versus, “Crikey, Creationists still believe that?!”

And here is a second important point in favour of the exhibit, even if it is not the intention of those apparently lobbying for it. Young Earth Creationism is often held up as some kind of straw man argument that atheist scientists like to argue against as an example of how religious faith can cause belief in quite non-sensical things despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The fact is, it is not a straw man. There really are lots of people out there who, due to their religion, believe it. There are a lot of people lying out their to support that belief. Only by acknowledging its existence in the context of exhibits that also explain why it is wrong - essentially the rest of the visitor centre at Giant's Causeway, as far as I can tell - can we really combat this kind of thinking. Young Earth Creationsim is a myth, not science. It should be discussed by an organisation that discuss myths and legends, like the National Trust.

The final reason that I support the National Trust in this instance is that opposing it lends credence to another Creationist lie - that their "science" is somehow being repressed by some giant scientific conspiracy. If we react in an over-the-top fashion any time anyone acknowledges that other views exist, we just feed this myth. These ideas are just nonsense and we should not be seen to be running scared from them. Put them alongside the science along with all the other myths (such as stones being hurled into place by giants) and it is quickly apparent which position provides any actual explanation of the phenomenon. If we complain about stuff that the National Trust is not actually doing, such as "promoting Creationsim", then we’re just like the boy who cried wolf and it will erode our legitimacy when there is something really worth complaining about.

Please see "Revisiting my support for the National Trust" and "Withdrawing my support: where the National Trust went wrong" for updates, and "How wrong is the Young Earth Creationist age for the Giant's Causeway?" if you are not sure why people are making a fuss.

13 comments:

  1. The issue that people have with the National Trust is as follows:

    For some reason a decision was made to provide a platform for a single extremely marginal religious opinion. Whether this was the outcome of undue political pressure remains to be seen but the result is clear, the National Trust have offered the
    Caleb Foundation a veneer of legitimacy in their attempts to generate the impression that some kind of debate exists around the issue of the age and formation of the Giants Causeway. The exhibit even baldly states 'the debate continues' - this is simply a lie and would be on a par with an Armagh Planetarium exhibition on the Apollo 11 Moon landings suggesting that there is some sort of serious question over
    whether or not Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon.

    There is no debate. There is no 'mainstream' science vs. some other kind of science. There is reality, and there is pandering to fundamentalist religious belief. The Caleb Foundation obviously sees this as a wedge issue, and the National Trust has chosen to facilitate them in disseminating their narrow religious viewpoint.

    Do you think a National Trust exhibit at the White Cliffs of Dover should include the young earth creationist interpretation and explain "the debate continues" regarding the age of the cliffs?

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  2. I appreciate that. I do, however, think that they have made it very clear that the "some people" for whom "the debate continues" are religious and hold that view explicitly for religious and not scientific reasons - they say as much in the text. If they had said that "the scientific debate" continues, I would definitely take issue. I simply do not think that, as presented, it suggests "that there is some sort of serious question" over the age. I think that only by over-reacting do we give that false impression.

    There is a debate. It is not one of "mainstream science" versus "other science". As you say, there is no such debate. It is one over whether the carefully established consensus based on experimentation and empirical evidence should have primacy over an ancient text when determining truth. For me, as for you (I think), the answer is a no-brainer. For others, sadly, it is still a matter of debate. Sweeping it under the carpet and denying the historical (but not scientific) reality of this will not, in my opinion, help.

    I do not think that the White Cliffs should have a YEC element as myths and legends aren't a big part of their history. (Are they?) That said, I would not have a big problem with it so long as it was clear that it was a religious and not a scientific opinion. Rather than campaign to remove mention of YEC ideas, we should campaign to make sure that the explicit evidence debunking these ideas is part of the exhibit.

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  3. The myths about the causeway are presented clearly as myths, previous incorrect theories about the formation of the causeway are presented as incorrect. The Caleb Foundation (who are closely linked to a local political party) are for some reason then afforded an opportunity to present their views, despite their representing only a very small sub-set of Protestants never mind a small sub-set of believers. These views are not incorporated with the others as a further example of a historic argument that has been proved false, they are instead described as a theory which is merely outside of "current mainstream science" and this is clearly presented as an ongoing debate not as a historical curiosity.

    The National Trust are not suggesting that there is a debate between science and religion, they are stating that there is an ongoing debate over the age of the causeway. The exhibition audio concludes: "perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it". Once again refering to this non-existent debate.

    Young earth creationists have already produced 'non mainstream' scientific papers attempting to refute the geological evidence regarding the age of the White Cliffs of Dover just as they have for the Giant's Causeway. I am surprised that you would be happy for the National Trust to include this kind of 'scientific' information in a White Cliffs exhibition given that this is exactly the kind of nonsense that young earth creationists have been attempting to infiltrate into schools, museums and exhibitions for years. I think they must be resisted strongly at every turn. If we tolerate this, who knows which historic site will be next.

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  4. Colin, I think 'Cabbages' excerpt shows the national trust set out the context of the YEC and religious tradtion. For me they make a clear differentiation between the science and any associated awe and wonder.

    If we shy away from letting them talk or downplay the perfectly true and legitimate cultural and historical context we don't strengthen the rationalist position, we make ourselves seem as nervous and reactionary as the YEC.

    Our weapon has always been truth, why change now.

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  5. I'm not sure why you think this is about "historical" context. The relevant part of the National Trust exhibition is clearly labelled: "The debate continues today". They did not frame this section as a historic debate. They are saying the 'debate' is happening now with an implication in the audio that it will continue in the future, between what they call "current mainstream science" and young earth creationist science.

    As for shying away from letting them talk, I thought part of the strategy for defeating creationist nonsense was not allowing them an opportunity to "teach the controversy"?

    If we're abandoning that notion then why not simply invite them and their dubious science papers into every school?

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  6. Colin, perhaps you have visited the centre in its current form and therefore have information available to you about the context that I do not. If I thought it was being set up as a scientific alternative, I would be dead against it. However, the transcript reads:

    "This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis."

    Not, "this is based on an alternative interpretation of the scientific evidence".

    You write:

    Young earth creationists have already produced 'non mainstream' scientific papers attempting to refute the geological evidence regarding the age of the White Cliffs of Dover just as they have for the Giant's Causeway. I am surprised that you would be happy for the National Trust to include this kind of 'scientific' information in a White Cliffs exhibition..

    I would most certainly not be happy to see this - or the equivalent at Giant's Causeway. There is a big difference between a display of "non mainstream" pseudoscientific crap presented as a viable alternative, and a display that points out that some members of our society have a different perspective due to "a specific interpretation of the Bible" (or any other holy text).

    The National Trust is not a scientific body nor is it a textbook. It is a preservation society whose remit and focus is cultural and historical as well scientific. Unless there is extra stuff there that I do not know about, I think that they should be applauded for walking the political tightrope without pandering to any attempts to have YEC presented as "science" and boldly state it as the religious position it is.

    As for schools, they are welcome to teach YEC in religion classes as a religious idea. If it wasn't so sensitive, I would also put YEC in science classes as part of the "history of science" and then systematically dismantle each one of their arguments. There is a big difference (for me) between acknowledging that for some people the debate continues for religious reasons and saying that there is a scientific "controversy" over evolution or the age of the Earth. The former is true. The latter is a lie. We should not "teach the controversy" because there is no controversy, not because we don't want the existence of YEC acknowledged in any sphere.

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  7. The audio is accessed by pressing a button clearly labelled "The debate continues today". This is visible in the BBC report over the controversy, appearing about 34 seconds in.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-18731760

    The audio refers to the Caleb Foundation theory as being outside "current mainstream science", which necessarily implies that young earth creationists subscribe to some other form of science. Indeed, young earth creationists do not believe that what they teach is a myth, which is why they write scientific papers trying to prove their point.

    I'm not sure what you mean by the National Trust "walking the political tightrope", given that the current outrage is about them having done the exact opposite. The Caleb Foundation is closely linked to the DUP, the DUP has politicians in positions of influence both in the area where the Giant's Causeway is located, and in the Department partly responsible for funding the project. The view of most commenters on this current debacle is entirely that the National Trust are pandering to young earth creationists due to political pressure. Indeed, pandering to a particular set of homophobic, anti-catholic, anti-equality young earth creationists. It's an odd group to want to represent, and one has to wonder why the views of other religions on the island where not equally represented.

    You write: We should not "teach the controversy" because there is no controversy, not because we don't want the existence of YEC acknowledged in any sphere.


    And yet you think we should say "the debate continues today" even when it doesn't?

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  8. Curse Macs and their inability to show Flash content! (Or the BBC and their insistence on using Flash.) I have not yet seen the BBC article but, yes, that is indeed worse than the quote I have seen, which explicitly refers to the the "some people" for whom the debate continues due to religious reasons. Are there any screen captures of the button? Like I say, I have not visited the centre and without the context I feel reluctant to complain.. but if the context implies a scientific debate, I am happy to complain!

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  9. Managed to find an image of it on the Newsletter website:

    http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/local/giant-row-over-age-old-stones-1-4027700

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  10. I am not sufficiently aware of the politics of the North (other than that they are complicated and religion plays an important part) so I am happy to accept that I may be wrong about the NT "walking the political tightrope". This was my impression when I first saw the quoted transcript and the quote from the National Trust.

    The problem with the current backlash is the amount of low quality information, accusations and band-wagoning that seem to be flying around, which make it hard to establish the real issues. Thank you for taking the time to try and bring some clarity!

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  11. Thanks for the link. It's a shame the fuller context is not clear. I think I will write a letter to the National Trust anyway but not accuse them of anything, just make it very clear where, as a scientist and an NT member, I think the line should be drawn.

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  12. I agree that there seems to be a certain element of misunderstanding/misinformation at work in response to the Giant's Causeway exhibition. Indeed, I think the Facebook campaign refers to a 'creationist exhibit' when in fact it's just a small (if entirely unwelcome) section of the overall exhibition at the centre.

    Certainly from the perspective of people here, this may have something to do with the history of the creationist organisation involved, given that they have spent several years attempting to have an entire creationist exhibit included in the Ulster Museum on the grounds that their science is just as valid the 'mainstream' stuff. They've been campaigning for similar acknowledgement at the Giant's Causeway since 2008 or so iirc, but I guess the outrage on that one died down somewhat because no-one believed the National Trust would have anything to do with them.

    Anyway, glad you found the 'local colour' useful, and thanks for your time :)

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