14 October 2010

The Great Lisburn Creationism Debacle, 2007

The recent launch of the "Centre for Intelligent Design" in Glasgow calls to mind the ill-fated attempt by a little-known DUP politico, Mr Paul Givan of Lisburn City Council (now an MLA), to harrass schools in the Lisburn area to teach creationism in their science classes.

When I heard this was up for discussion, I wrote the following to the Council, and it was read out in the chamber:
Dear Mr Givan,
My writing to you has been prompted by recent press coverage of a motion you have reportedly arranged to be presented to Lisburn City Council. You have made some comments in relation to the teaching of science in secondary and grammar schools in the Lisburn City Area, and are quoted as saying: "I have asked the Council to write to local schools encouraging them to give equality of treatment to other theories of the origins of life and how the earth came into existence". Elsewhere you have suggested that such "alternative theories" include "Creation and Intelligent Design". You even state that you "believe science points to creation". I regard these reports as alarming, and the proposed intrusion of the Council into these matters of education to be unacceptable and detrimental to the future of science education in Northern Ireland (not just Lisburn). It is also damaging to the reputation of Northern Ireland itself. That is why I am copying this to other members of Lisburn City Council, as well as to the Minister for Education, Ms Ruane. This is in no way prejudicial to the actions of the heads of the various schools, the vast majority of whom would, I have no doubt, stick such a letter as you propose straight in the waste recycling.

I am a Consultant Clinical Geneticist working at Belfast City Hospital. My job involves dealing with individuals and families affected with genetic disorders. In addition, I am involved in the teaching of Genetics to undergraduate medical students at Queen's University Belfast. My daily work involves close work with the science underpinning human biology. The scientific evidence for evolution is not in doubt. Not remotely. An understanding and appreciation of the science of human evolution is critical to the understanding and practice of medicine, and indeed the vast reams of data that have been gathered as part of the Genome Projects have produced a huge resource, which has allowed us to further confirm the basic facts of
evolution (for example, the relationships between the main species of Great Apes, including humans), as well as to refine our models of precisely how that evolution has occurred, and how we might approach some of the clinical problems that this throws up (including the microbial evolution that led to MRSA and HIV, and potentially maladaptive traits, such as diabetes).

I have checked your brief resumé on the DUP website, and I see no evidence of any scientific qualifications whatsoever, so I am presuming that your belief that science somehow "points to creation" - by which I am assuming you mean Creationism/Intelligent Design (Cre/ID) - is based on mistaken information you have picked up from sources to which you erroneously attach some scientific authority, rather than an assessment of any actual evidence. I would wish to inform you that your perception that Cre/ID represents some sort of alternative to science is misplaced. As you are no doubt aware, the encroachments of Cre/ID activists in the USA has been met by stiff opposition from the scientific community, as well as much-deserved ridicule from the general public and the judiciary. Likewise, in the UK, the efforts of the anti-evolution pressure group "Truth in Science" have either been ridiculed or ignored in the main.

If by "equality of treatment" you mean subjecting Cre/ID notions to evidential testing irrespective of whatever meaning you read into ancient texts, then the good news for you is that the testing has already been performed; the verdict is in, and Cre/ID has already been consigned to the scientific trash can (maybe you didn't get Mr Darwin's memo). If you really want further research to be carried out, you should write to the university research departments with specific proposals on testing your ideas. If you come up with any evidence that you can get published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, you can come back to the schools at that point.

Targeting schools in the manner you propose is the wrong move for a scientist, and I would suggest that rather than seeking to encourage children to adopt an open mind and an evidence-based approach to science and the world, you are actually trying to squeeze in a narrow and false fundamentalist religious agenda that will damage the education and the scientific careers of the kids of Lisburn City, and waste valuable time that should be spent teaching them real science in a curriculum that is already stretched.

Perhaps I am being unfair in picking on you, when your party colleagues Mr Mervyn Storey and Mr David Simpson have tried and failed in similar ruses. You have nevertheless raised your head above the parapet, and therefore should not be too surprised to draw a wee bit of fire. However, I feel that you deserve a second chance here. You have not properly assessed the evidence, and you have made a mistake. The Earth is not 6000 years old (or 10,000 or 100,000), and the Book of Genesis does not contain scientific information relating to origins. "Intelligent Design Creationism" is not science, but is a religious pseudoscience being promoted by special-interest groups, in the teeth of all the scientific evidence (and, it is fair to say, in the teeth of the majority of theological opinion too). If you have any doubts about this, please read the attached document which is a summary of
the judgement in the "Kitzmiller case", in which Cre/ID pseudoscientists tried to weasel their nonsense into the school curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. It makes very interesting reading (and is rather amusing in places).

I therefore urge you do do three things. One is to withdraw this silly motion. The second is to read the "Kitzmiller" document. The third is to actually look at the science, instead of the pop-trash produced by the pseudoscientists of the "Discovery Institute", "Truth in Science" and "Answers In Genesis". Maybe you could enrol in a part-time degree course in evolutionary biology. The children of Lisburn City and Northern Ireland in general deserve a proper education in science, as in other subjects. They deserve to enter the next phase of their lives (University for many) with minds that know how to learn, rather than to parrot idiotic dogma. The
population of Northern Ireland needs scientists and doctors who can properly assess evidence and make the right decisions. That means teaching science in science classes, and leaving the teaching of the various old creation mythologies to classes devoted to comparative religion and ancient history.

Yours sincerely,

Looking back on it, that was perhaps a little confrontational and aggressive (shrill? too long?), but what the heck? It is not as if these people are being honest or up-front, and is it really necessary to cut slack to chappies who are at the very best misguided?
Alternatively, perhaps a more conciliatory approach could be tried? Should I have offered to go and give evidence to the council? I rather think not. After my little salvo, I was contacted by the Deputy Mayor (at the time), Mr Ronnie Crawford (UUP). It was clear that creationist "misunderstanding" was not limited to the knuckle-draggers of the DUP, but extended a little further into Unionism. Paul (who I'm sure is a very nice young chap) was just the stooge being manipulated by his political masters. Several other Lisburn politicians contacted me to thank me for my input, and to say that they agreed entirely.
But what was funny about all this was that the schools of Lisburn wrote back to the Council, and basically told them in no uncertain terms where they could stick their creationism. And these were schools run by churches, or with clergy on their boards of governors!
So, having failed in the schools, failed with the Ulster Museum, and failed with the Giant's Causeway Centre, the creationist pressurisers have upped sticks for Bonny Scotland. Hopefully they will meet the same ridicule and resistance that the good people have Ulster have given them.

Note to the good people of Lisburn City (and Northern Ireland): it's your vote - use it wisely.


  1. Here is Roger Stanyard's take on my letter:

    The letter was pretty good; I wouldn't worry about being a bit aggressive with a greasy pole politician. Their job is to promote the interests of the people that support them and sod everyone else. Ian de Thal man is a particularly obnoxious form of partisan ad sectarian politician. If he can't stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.

    However, the letter was too long. It shouldn't have been more than a page in length. Anything more inevitable distracts from the message rather than adds to it. Don't also forget that he isn't very bright either. He probably thinks genes are something with a Levi Strauss label on the back.

    Thanks Roger - I agree that it was too long and too technical, and your comments are very welcome.
    Memo for next time - keep it short, remember your audience, and don't give them the excuse to think that you're the "enemy" - just that you're much more expert in the subject matter than they are; if they are unprepared to defer to your expertise, they need to get you in there to give evidence.

  2. About 15 years back I studied physics at the old technical College in Belfast. The Physics lecturer was a creationist. He had to do the whole 'carbon dating thing' through gritted teeth. You could see he was tormented by his beliefs on one hand and the curriculum on the other. I can't remember the alternatives he suggested, all of them conveniently proved the earth was about 6000 years old.
    I did feel for him though - as his job threw a constant barrage of facts at his beliefs. I often thought it would make an interesting book/play/concept album - or maybe just a brief comment on a blog post?

  3. Hi Upbeat, Yes - it's strange how creationist "scientists" pop out of the woodwork from time to time. I think there are some people who are able to compartmentalise their learning to such an extend that they cannot see the absurdity of maintaining creationist belief in the very teeth of everything science tells us. I think what gets me about it is its sheer toxicity. The suckage is high.

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