Mis-Representation for a cheap headline

I feel a little bit sorry for the National Trust this morning. There are a number of stories deriding them for spending public money on an exhibit which says Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland was made by God. Instantly atheists, skeptics and scientists everywhere are up in arms.

“The National Trust has defended its decision to include references to creationist theory at a new state-of-the-art visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.”

TV presenter Professor Brian Cox tweeted: “I don’t mind creation stories presented as mythology, but to suggest there is any debate that Earth is 4.54 billion years old is nonsense.”

An online campaign has begun to remove an exhibition at the new Giant’s Causeway visitors centre.

In an open letter by scientists at Leicester Uni they say:

“I understand the intentions of this were to cater for an alternative viewpoint, but this viewpoint is one embraced by no scientist, and therefore it is a mistake to include it here”

“I find the implication that creationism deserves equal credence to mainstream science incredibly offensive”

“Please could I have your assurance that all references to creationism at the Giants Causeway Information centre be removed?”

And a statement by the Geological Society was in a similar vein:

“we profoundly disagree with any suggestion that creationist views should be given space in publicly-funded museums or visitor centres that explain natural history, or in school science lessons or science textbooks”

But is this is the whole story?

We’ll frankly no. The national trust are being grossly misrepresented here. The reference to “creationism” is slightly off anyway as this is nothing to do with evolution. The offending material appears in a series of interactive audio clips in the visitors centre, entitled “Debating Characters” in which there are two voices. The debates/theories are: The stones are giant fossils of huge sea creatures, volcanic vs sedimentary rocks, John Hutton vs a clergyman discussing biblical creation vs geology & also giant fossilised bamboo. In other parts of the exhibition the myth of it being formed by the giant Finn McCool is presented. This section concludes with:

“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.”

The main website clearly presents the science and I have no reason to suspect the bulk of the exhibition is the same.

Like it or not a lot of people from this region DO believe the biblical interpretation, the same as if you visit monuments in many parts of the world folk tales are presented to explain geological phenomena. If we want this reference removed we have to apply the same to all similar sites globally. Therefore the cobra-hood cave in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka should have all references removed to Buddhist beliefs it is a fossilised giant cobra which sheltered a king beneath the shade of its hood. All aboriginal beliefs should be removed from Ayres Rock, as should references to “Split apple rock” in Abel Tasman national park, new Zealand being split by the sword of a Zeus.

I feel this issue has been massively blown out of all proportion in the pursuit of sensationalist stories and the scientists who ask for this single interactive audio clip to be binned risk being seen as just as dogmatic and reactionary as the bodies they profess to fight against. People are entitled to hold whatever barmy ideas they like and if these are held by a culture which has associations with a geological feature these views are entirely at home in a visitor centre presented as beliefs. Science needs to pick its fights better.

 

UPDATE: The NT have now published a response on their website, which clearly demonstrates the context of the “controversial” biblical ideas about the causeway

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3 comments

  1. The difference is that the others were presented in the context of mythology of history. Whereas (if you read the transcript of the audio) the young Earth creationists are given the appearance of a current and valid viewpoint. It’s the equivalent of giving credence to the Flat Earth society.

    1. Thanks for the comment Pete. You make a good point about the inclusion of these beliefs giving them credence. My whole problem with this debate is the issue of context though; there is now a detailed walk-through of the whole exhibition which demonstrates (as with the causeway website) it is in-your-face geology from the start. The whole thing explores the geology and gives visitors (to web or centre) the details of exactly how it was formed. No one can reasonably expect that an open minded person would look at the whole exhibit and leave thinking it was anything other than how geologists explain it. And that is the crux of the matter, or should be anyway.

      The historical debate between Hutton and a clergyman (although fictional in transcript) was the essence of the debate at the time, it is presented as a piece of history and as such we can’t as reasonable people censor the fact it occurred, so I can’t see an issue with this in there at all. As for the “young earth” people; I read the NT written part of the exhibit as clearly marginalising their views “some people” “different from that of current mainstream science” “based on a specific interpretation of the Bible” “Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions”. On the basis this is Northern Ireland, not historically a place of renowned religious tolerance, I think they skirt about as close as they can to calling them crack-pots.

      Of course the central debate here has manifested itself into “scientists” saying as this belief doesn’t fit with the mainstream/accepted/scientific view it shouldn’t even be acknowledged that people hold that belief, which is a dangerous line to take. My central point is that as a scientific community we need to be careful where we pick our fights as we seek to avoid the marginalisation and misrepresentation of science in the media/culture, here I think newspapers poked science with a stick and we all got riled up to no good purpose.

      1. I agree to an extent, but I think this fight *is* one worth picking. The Wedge Strategy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy) is an insidious beast, and with the Caleb Foundation declaring victory and undoubtedly soon to be pushing for further inclusion elsewhere, they now have a foothold to say ‘you can’t say no, look – we’re already recognised here’.

        This is also well worth a read http://leicesterexchanges.com/2012/07/09/young-earth-creationism-at-the-giants-causeway-a-grave-error-of-judgement/

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