Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The National Trust, Creationism, and the Giant's Causeway

Earlier this month the National Trust opens a new Visitors Centre at the Giants Causeway and a storm has broken out over a few words spoken in a display, and the way they have been misquoted by the Young Earth Creationists. I have not seen the exhibit and I am happy to accept that the main display gives an accurate account of the current scientific views of its origins, However there is a listening point where historical voices can be heard discussing historical theories about the origins of the Causeway.

The first is a supposed discussion between the Rev Dr William Richardson (1740-1820) and the geologist James Hutton (1726-1797). There can be no doubt that the Rev Richardson studied the basalt that formed the Causeway and his views differed significantly from those of James Hutton. The account of Richardson's work in ES2K, written in 2004,  says:
[He] transmitted a steady stream of papers to the Royal Irish Academy that were published between 1802 and 1812. He claimed authority, as a resident, to make his views known, but asserted not to subscribe to any theory or belong to any faction. Undoubtedly he was a Neptunist and argued against the volcanic origin of basalt on a number of grounds
It is thus reasonable educational fiction to include an imagined discussion between the two - although James Hutton had died before Richardson wrote his first paper on the subject. However the words attributed to Rev Richardson in the exhibit are interesting:
We know from the Bible that the Earth is 6,000 years old! One has merely to count the generations between Adam and the birth of Our Lord. And for all his eminence as a geologist, and his standing with the Royal Society in Edinburgh, that makes Mr. Hutton’s theory nonsense!
Why these words are interesting is that the ES2K account says Richardson  "asserted not to subscribe to any theory or belong to any faction" and lists eight reasons Richardson gave for rejecting a volcanic origin - none of which had anything to do directly with the age of the earth! So there were plenty of good evidence for his views which could have been used in the commentary. I haven't got access to the original papers - so I would be interested to see if, in any of his published papers on the Giants Causeway,  Rev Richardson explicitly argued that Hutton was wrong because the world was 6000 years old, or whether the National Trust has used inaccurate historical information. If the Trust was supplied with misleading information they should re-examine all other information that came from that source..

The exhibit's commentary ends with the words (which are the ones which generate the most anger among the objectors):
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, in effect, a blatent sales plug for one particular Christian group, which refuses to accept any findings of modern science which they cannot find support for in the Bible. Their beliefs have no special connection with the Giant's Causeway, as they could apply to exhibits at many, if not most National Trust properties. Comments online from the National Trust Press Office suggest that words were included because one particular religious organisation has involved itself in the consultation and, it would appear, provided information which was included in the dialogue. It is far for clear whether the National Trust made any attempt to get balancing views from other Christian organisations, or any non-christian organisation.

Whatever you thing of the views of Young Earth Creationists this raises an important matter of principal in how the National Trust handles consultations. For instance can any organisation who has an idea or product to sell get free publicity simply by offering to take part in the consultation process? If one of the National Trust's Stately Homes had been the home of a leading teetotaler would they include a sign in their exhibition to say "Some people say Beer is best" and name one specific brewery firm. Would they allow a spoken commentary at Waddesdon Manor suggesting that some people living in Buckinghamshire were Holocaust Deniers?  What has happened is pure product placement done for free by the National Trust. It would be interesting to know if the National Trust has any rules about product placement on its site - and if so whether they have been broken by the organisers of this exhibition.

What appear to have happened is that the exhibition organizers appear to have been very naive, or perhaps this voiced text was done by a junior without proper checking. If an organisation comes to a consultation and offers to provide you with information you need to know what the organisation's motives are - because some are looking for  publicity - and what better place to get worldwide publicity (especially free publicity) than a World Heritage Site.

And of course they are now celebrating the fact that a much respected organisation has given their views credence by "displaying" them on a World Heritage Site. For instance see Ken Ham's blog "Refreshing News for Northern Ireland: Would Secularists in the U.S.A. be so tolerant?" . The National Trust Press Office has been trying to say its does not endorse the views of the Young Earth Creationists - but if the exhibition designer had not had his head buried in the sand he would have known that this group, and its associates are well known for systematic misquotations and attempting to get well known individuals and institutions to include something which can be misquoted to gain support.

To start with the Bible - which Young Earth Creationists use to claim that man and dinosaurs lived at the same time - when it says no such thing. In addition the Bible does not mention the Giant's Causeway, or the White Cliffs of Dover, or any of the National Trust Sites with a geological relevance. Of course, anyone with a creative imagination and unlimited imagination can twist almost any text, even the Bible, and aided by carefully selective quotations, to appear to support almost any fantasy you want, and such contortions of the written word are the basis of "Creation Science". There are many cases where well known names, from Darwin down, have been quoted as supporting their views by, for example quoting the first sentence in a paragraph and omitting the rest of the paragraph which debunks the idea in the opening sentence. Once one person has distorted the facts in this way the corrupt interpretation is spread by followers who have never seen the original text.

In addition the recent unsuccessful attempt of the Young Earth Creationists to get their views displayed in the Ulster Museum got a lot of publicity at the time - and there is no excuse for the National Trust not being aware that Young Earth organisation try to "product place" their ideas in prestigious organisations, especially if they had seen the relevant Wikipedia page.

To be fair I am sure that the National Trust Board would not have been aware of the proposed exhibits in such detail, and it may be that the actual wording was generated by an inexperienced and ill-informed junior. In the circumstances I feel the National Trust, with the Board's authority, should take the following actions.

  1. Issue a clear statement about the Trusts present policy about "product placement" activities by pressure groups and commercial organisations. If the current guideline have been broken it should say so, and if what has happened in within the National Trust rules it should make it clear that action will be taken to correct the matter in future.
  2. Announce an inquiry and during the inquiry switch off the dialog text, until it has been decided what action to take. From what has been said by the National Trust, removing this facility will in no way interfere with the working of the Visitor Centre. If product placement is not allowed the paragraphs mentioning the Young Earth Creationists should be removed if the audio is ever reinstated.
  3. If the audio is reworked the National Trust should ensure that the Rev. Richardson's original papers are properly examined to see which of his objections to Hutton's views are the most appropriate to the display. If Richardson never mentioned 6000 years this period should not be included in the text. If all he did was to object to Hutton's ideas about "deep time" that is the most it should say. It  would clearly be inappropriate for an organisation to misquote or exaggerate the Rev. Richardson views.
  4. It would also be appropriate for the National Trust to make a clear statement that, because of the sensitivity of religious issues in Northern Ireland, it has a clear policy that all science displays will be 100% secular, and that historical displays will only mention religion where it is specifically relevant to the property concerned. 

1 comment:

  1. The National Trust are reconsidering the offending text.

    See http://ntpressoffice.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/giants-causeway-visitor-centre-interpretation-statement/