Thursday, 5 July 2012

Creationist view on show at new Giant's Causeway visitors' centre

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The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim
(Update, 5 July 2012, 4.40pm - the National Trust has released a new statement on this. See our most recent blog post)

Visitors to the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim can now learn all about the formation of one of the British Isles' great natural wonders following the opening of a new visitors' centre at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, built to replace a previous centre that was destroyed by fire in 2000.

However, those expecting a straightforward geological explanation for the stunning cluster of basalt columns, formed by volcanic eruptions up to 60 million years ago, could be in for a surprise, as the information at the new visitors' centre covers creationist explanations alongside the hard science.

According to a statement from the National Trust, which owns the site and built the new centre, this is intended to provide visitors with an understanding of the debates that have taken place over the centuries around the origins of the Causeway:
"The Giants' Causeway has always prompted debate about how it was formed and how old it is.

One of the exhibits in the Giants' Causeway Visitors' Centre interpretation tells the story of the part the Giants' 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."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inclusion of creationism in the new exhibition has been welcomed by Northern Ireland's evangelical Christians. The evangelical Caleb Foundation was consulted by the National Trust during the construction of the Causeway centre, and in a statement on its website it hails the exhibition for its vindication of creationist viewpoints:
"As an umbrella organisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland,we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this. We are pleased that the National Trust worked positively with us and that this has now been included at the new Visitor Centre.

We fully accept the Trust’s commitment to its position on how the Causeway was formed, but 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 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.

We want to thank senior National Trust officials who have worked closely with us over a prolonged period, and we are pleased that this constructive engagement has helped to bring about such a positive result."
For those who oppose the teaching of creationist views in a scientific context, the National Trust's collaboration with the Caleb Foundation, and the way in which the Foundation has celebrated the inclusion of its views, will serve to strengthen the arguments against "teach the controversy" arguments. From the National Trust's perspective, it seems that the inclusion of creationism is largely intended to highlight the way in which the understanding of the Causeway's origins has developed over time, but by working with the Caleb Foundation and including creationism alongside science, they have enabled evangelicals to exploit the situation and argue that creationism has been vindicated and legitimised by one of Britain's oldest and most respected conservation societies.

For this reason, when the aim is to educate young people, and the wider public, about science, it is perhaps better to steer clear of "teach the controversy" approaches, no matter how well-intentioned the reasoning may be.
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