Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Learning Lessons from the Giant's Causeway

We have seen a twittter storm and a facebook page has been set up.  There has been plenty of press coverage and even comment from Richard Dawkins on the radio about the National Trust Visitors Centre at the Giant's causeway.  Our most recent post on the topic is here.

Here are a few thoughts for further consideration by the various parties in this controversy;

Thoughts For the National Trust

  • Know who you are dealing with
The Caleb Foundation in particular, and creationists in general, have a track record of telling nothing but fibs about most of modern science.  A key question for the National Trust is; 
"Did you really expect them to tell the truth about your discussions with them and the nature of your coverage of their position?"  
That was naive. 

Just to spell it out clearly, here is the problem.  The Caleb Foundation are saying that the National Trust have done this;
"this new centre both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate, and that means it will be a welcoming and enriching experience for all who visit.
This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in theUK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow."
In other words the creationists are dumping on the National Trust from a great height.  It is understandable that the NT might have been shocked by the response to the new visitors centre given that they have not done most of the things that the creationists are claiming they have.
  • There is no scientific debate.  
Now the initial furore is calming down we can see that there is an underlying issue that the National Trust needs to address and this is a key lesson for the National Trust to take forward.  

It is worth repeating. There is no scientific debate.  

The only issue being debated is a political one driven by religious fundamentalists trying to claim a false equivalence between their own simplistic theology and modern science.  Creationists want this issue to be framed as a scientific controversy with "atheist science" persecuting both Christians in science and the Christian community in general, with them, of course, representing all Christians.

So, the National Trust need to clearly spell out that they understand that no scientific dispute exists at all, further, that they understand that the accepted position of the C of E and the Catholic Church is to accept the evidence for the age of the earth and the Theory of Evolution.

The National Trust need to look carefully at all the visitor centre material to ensure that they represent this clearly.

It is worth noting in passing that the National Trust have some fantastic science material on show and that they do accurately label the young earth view as being based upon one specific reading of the bible but there are enough hints about ongoing debate for the creationists to claim a victory that they don't have.

Creationist groups around the world are repeating claims that the National Trust have "included the creationist explanation" - wait for this to be used as evidence and cited as a precedent in court cases in the next few years.

There needs to be no possible interpretation of the National Trust position that the Young Earth Creationist position constitutes any kind of genuine or valid scientific position that plays any part in any kind of ongoing scientific debate.  There also needs to be clarity that Young Earth Creationism is a minority fundamentalist religious position that is contrary to the theological position of the Church of England and the Catholic Church.
  • They need to be concise and clear.  The creationist position is simply wrong.  It is bad science and is widely viewed as being bad theology too.
To summarise, the National Trust exhibit does do a great job on the geology and it does include the creationists as a minority religious position in a list of failed alternative explanations but clarification is required.

The National Trust press releases may have actually contributed to the furore so far by referring to the "debate" and have fallen short of a simple denial of any comfort to the creationists.  The display itself deserves strong criticism for describing the Young Earth position as a matter for debate, albeit in the context of debates in earlier centuries, while failing to mention the crucial fact that this position is contrary to the scientific evidence.

Thoughts For the Press

  • Fact check claims.  It isn't that hard.
Most press coverage has simply taken the Caleb Foundations statements at face value.  These are very simply shown to be untrue.  Isn't there another story here about a religious/political organisation telling lies?

Arguably the Press have in fact learned the exact opposite of this lesson and that being sloppy can stir up a nice argument and sell papers, generate clicks and sell advertising space.  They have been aided in this by the reactions of most people to the original press coverage, to which we now turn.

For the rest of us

  • Don't believe what the creationists say.
  • Don't believe what the creationists say someone else is saying.
  • Don't believe what the press say the creationists say someone else is saying.
There is a danger that we might all miss the chance to effectively warn public bodies to be extremely wary about having anything to do with Creationist groups.  The National Trust have been dumped on by the Caleb Foundation, from a great height.

The BCSE knows from FOI obtained correspondence that the DfE learned this lesson when they saw how the Creationists behind the Crypo-Creationist website World Around Us refused to remove quote mined DfE comments even when directly requested to do so.  More on this ongoing saga here.

* * *

Creationism elsewhere in the UK

In the mean time there are several other areas in which UK Creationists are threatening to undermine science education.  Please help.

Why not write to your MP and/or the DfE about any or all of the following;

  • DfE - please release details of Free School Applicants  - don't appeal against the Information commissioner ruling - details here.
  • An openly creationist church in Newcastle seems to be progressing through the Free School application process - details here.
  • Glasgow based Centre for Intelligent Design are wining and dining politicians and senior university staff.  They are also promoting a creationist textbook for use in schools in contravention of government guidelines.
  • Creationists being given two hours to present their views as science in a Cof E publicly funded school in Exeter - schools need clearer guidance on such matters.
  • The School Librarians Association once refused to warn its members that a book sent to their members is actually crypto creationist junk science text because they "don't take sides in matters of scientific dispute".
  • The ASA seem happy for this creationist book to be advertised to schools as suitable for use by schools, perhaps you should complain to them or write to your MP about it.
  • UK qualifications agency NARIC has given the green light to creationist exams that use the Loch Ness monster to "disprove" modern biology.  More on ACE here.
  • Creationist private schools in the UK are inspected by creationists (The Bridge Schools Inspectorate - approved by the DfE) who unsurprisingly think their creationist friends are doing a great job.
The BCSE is free to join and we send an irregular newsletter letting members know about these and other issues as they develop.  See here for how to join.

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