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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation