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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.