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
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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