Why is the National Trust pandering to Creationists?

A new exhibit at Giant's Causeway reflects "views outside mainstream science".

When does "teaching the debate" become "creating the false impression of a debate"? 

The National Trust has today come under fire for its decision to “reflect and respect” the view that science might not be real. At the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre in Northern Ireland, an interactive audio exhibition on the formation of the Causeway includes the creationist view that the earth was made by God a few thousand years ago - not billions of years ago, as geology and physics and biology and astronomy might suggest.

In a statement, the National Trust said:

The Giant's Causeway has always prompted debate about how it was formed and how old it is. One of the exhibits in the Giant's Causeway Visitors' Centre interpretation tells the story of the part the Giant's Causeway played in the debate about how the Earth's rocks were formed and the age of the Earth.

This is an interactive audio exhibition in which visitors can hear some of the different debates from historical characters. In this exhibition we also acknowledge that for some people, this debate continues today and we reflect and respect the fact that creationists today have a different perspective on the age of the Earth from that of mainstream science.

In an update, the Trust said that the Creationist reference comprised only a small part of the exhibition. It added: "The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago. We would encourage people to come along, view the interpretation and judge for themselves."

The most contentious part of the news is that the Trust worked with an organisation called the Caleb Foundation, which represents the small minority of Christians who hold Creationist views. The Foundation's chairman, Wallace Thompson, said he had "worked closely" with the National Trust and was pleased that the visitor's centre "includes an acknowledgement ... of the legitimacy of the creationist position".

This is what Professor Brian Cox has to say about the legitimacy of the creationist position:

Stephen Evans at the National Secular Society also said:

It's extremely disappointing to see the National Trust giving credence to bogus creationist explanations for this world famous heritage site. Visitors, many of whom will be children on school trips, expect to be informed at the new Centre, not presented with religious propaganda.

We've seen how Christian fundamentalists have gained ground in promoting creationist nonsense in the United States; we must be vigilant and not allow those kinds of ideas to gain a foothold in this country.

The strategy employed by the Caleb Foundation here appears to be one pioneered by the Discovery Institute in the US, calling "teaching the controversy". By insisting that the views of an incredibly small minority (of both the general population, and indeed Christians) are included in discussions of the subject, the ploy aims to create the impression that an issue is not settled. (A similar strategy is employed by those who question man-made climate change, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists and relevant research.)

As Wallace Thompson says:

This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow. We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today.

In the interests of inclusivity, and embracing different perspectives, perhaps the National Trust should include the view - genuinely held by some - that aliens built Stonehenge. Or perhaps potential visitors could simply wait for the Genesis Expo museum in Portsmouth to reopen after its refurbishment?

UPDATE: I have spoken to the National Trust press office, and they confirm that they consulted the Caleb Foundation, although "this was one of many local groups [they] spoke to".

Giant's Causeway. God not pictured. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.