Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Withdrawing my support: where the National Trust went wrong

I am a member of the National Trust and I think they do a lot of excellent work around the country, preserving both historical and natural sites. I am also an evolutionary biologist and dead set against representing Creationism in any of its forms as science.

The recent debacle concerning the reference to Young Earth Creationism (YEC) at the new Giant's Causeway visitor centre has therefore caused a mixture of emotions. Although I still think that some people might be over-reacting (the NT is not "promoting" Creationism), it gives me great confidence for the future of mankind that there are so many people prepared to over-react. At the same time, though, I am saddened to think that the NT might lose money and members due to this. I am also increasingly convinced that the Trust have made some big mistakes here and need to make some changes to fix the damage.

Facts first. The National Trust does not support or promote the YEC position. They have made that clear throughout. The original press release does not mention YEC at all and the only science I can find linked to by the NT is the real stuff, while the only myths they talk about are the traditional legendary giants. They clearly consider the contentious exhibit to be a small part of the overall centre - you can read their view of the interpretation of their blog and a second post highlights the overall number of exhibits in the centre.

It is also clear that the Caleb Foundation misrepresented their relationship, according to a NT spokesman on the blog. He denied "that the Trust has worked closely with the Caleb Foundation over many months":
"No – Caleb were one of a number of groups consulted on the exhibition. We do not support their views and none of the language in the exhibition came from them."
He also denied that the Trust accepts "the assertion that the new visitor centre includes an acknowledgement of the ‘legitimacy’ of the ‘ongoing debate’ around the creationist position":
"No – The National Trust fully supports and promotes the science in relation to the formation of the Giant’s Causeway and the age of the earth. All of the information presented to visitors clearly reflects science and that the Causeway stones are 60 million years old."
Fairly unequivocal stuff.


It is clear from the comments in response to both posts that people are not impressed. Having read many more of the comments - and many from NT members - it is both much clearer to me what specifically has got people cross and also much less clear to me whether I was right to initially support the National Trust. Earlier, I revisited that support and said that the context was vital. The second NT blog post summarises this context (with detail in the first post):
Lastly there is the ‘debating characters’ exhibit, which sparked the discussion. This exhibit consists of five different audio samples triggered by buttons. It is designed to give a flavour of the historical debates there have been over the Causeway’s formation – starting with arguments between Sir Thomas Molyneux and a mystery correspondent (probably George Ashe) over whether the columns were fossil or mineral. The next clip sets out a flavour of the argument between Vulcanists and Neptunists. The next clip details how James Hutton’s work opened the way for definitive proof of an ancient earth. The fourth clip mentions a theory published in the 1800s that the Causeway was fossilised bamboo. Then the final clip states that Young Earth Creationists exist who wish to continue the debate today, as they believe the earth is only 6000 years old.
The problem here is that the first four debates seem to be genuine scientific discussions of their age. Young Earth Creationism is not. It was a genuine scientific discussion of a by-gone age but the age question is one long-settled by science and the YEC stance is wildly inaccurate. To suggest that the debate continues in this context does imply it is a scientific debate. It is not. The fact that the audio subsequently makes it clear that the debate only continues for "some people ... based on a specific interpretation of the Bible" does not entirely undo this initial error. Although I am willing to believe that this is an accident and the NT did not mean to imply that the scientific debate continues, the fact that some people interpret it this way is reason enough, in my book, to change it. This was the first big mistake.

The second big mistake was the use of the word "mainstream" in the sentence: "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." Again, although this is immediately followed by a sentence that makes it clear that these people have a different understanding for religious (not scientific) reasons, I find myself agreeing with those commentors who see this sentence as implying that there is some other kind of science that disagrees with the current "understanding of the formation of the earth". There isn't. This is misleading and, even if not giving YEC legitimacy, it reduces the legitimacy of the NT exhibit.

I stand by my original view that the words themselves are true but it is clear that the context and exact choice of phrase - whether deliberate or accidental - is not giving an impression that is consistent with the Trust's stated position on this topic. For this reason alone, they must revise the wording of the exhibit, even if they do not drop the YEC reference altogether. Given the context of that exhibit, though - as a present-day continuation of legitimate debate rather than an historical view that is still held by some folks despite the evidence to the contrary - I find it hard to justify how they can keep the exhibit at all. When it comes to educational resources, good intentions ultimately count for nothing, I'm afraid. It's the consequences that count.

I do not regret my initial support for the National Trust and reluctance to jump on the complaints band-wagon but neither am I too proud to admit that I was wrong. I won't be cancelling my membership just yet - they do too much good - but if this turns out not to be an isolated mistake then I will be reversing that position too.

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