The Science of Noah’s Ark

Noah's Ark from Marxchivist
After ages, a meaty debate has been developing on the Group for Education in Museums Jiscmail list. It centred around an initial post by Richard Ellam on the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOtC) decision to award their quality badge to Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm. On balance the response from list members has been hostile towards CLOtC’s decision, and highly critical of the educational value of Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm. The gist being that, although much of the publicity about Noah’s Ark claims to offer the learner/visitor the opportunity to both consider creationism (perhaps that should be Capital C Creationism?) and evolution as theories/evidence for the origins of Earth, humans and other animals, Noah’s Ark’s real agenda is to promote Creationism over science (perhaps that should be Capital S Science?) or worse, to give the illusion that Creationism is Science. You can read the responses here and other responses here.

My interest in the debate really did not spring from a desire to tell others what I thought of the decision to award a quality badge to an organisation such as Noah’s Ark but to raise the issue of what we as learners and educators (particularly in museum settings) consider to be good learning and education and the problems we have in over-categorising learning, for example, separating Science and Non-Science (e.g. Creationism belongs in Religious Education not Science). To avoid repeating myself, I have posted my contribution to this debate below but it can also be read in the list archives here.

This debate has also reminded me that long ago I promised some posts on museums as sacred spaces, and as such I have thought an awful lot about it but not yet blogged about it. This might be considered a prelude, then. Can museums cope with presenting Knowledge as Belief as well as Belief as Knowledge?

Message sent Thursday 29 July 2010.

Dear all,

I have read this debate with an enormous amount of interest, not for the points about whether Noah’s Ark is a good or bad thing (however you decide to decide this) but for the problem it has raised over how we go about categorising our information into science and non-science. I have very many scientist friends and family, most of them always questioning what exactly it is we _know_ from empirical measurement and observation and what exactly it is we don’t know and just estimate or guess at. And yet the uncertainties of modern western science are not always presented to the public in whatever forum (and we don’t really question this).

Where subjects like creationism (yet another -ism many learning providers deal poorly with of whatever persuasion) ‘fit in’, is to me a non-issue. Fora should exist where scientific, evolutionary elements of human and earth history are discussed with creationisms, beyond the nutsy approach taken by Noah’s Ark. I am sure they have existed in some places, why don’t we see or hear more of them so sites like Noah’s Ark can be shown up for what they really are? We don’t need to patronise all members of the public, young or old, by worrying that they are going to be misled even if they read misleading information.

Where we came from is a fundamental question we have all asked, particularly as children. Empirical science does not know everything and there is no capacity to know what you don’t know. All those unknown unknowns. Similarly, the kind of biblical creationism we most often hear about in the media is only one (and often skewed) interpretation of a world view held by people past and present; what about all the other creation stories (see Sumerian for example), some of which echo has later been discovered through the theory of evolution, or theories of evolution, should that be?

Learning and education quality marks are subjective, no matter how many guidelines and parameters you set, as the subject matter is inescapable. I cannot see how you can be neutral about the subject of learning. If one was to give the cliched example of, ‘what about if the BNP had an education programme’… etc… what would those respondents who said that the assessment of learning quality should be neutral think then? Why do we have to think so mechanically about learning and its categories? Surely learning outside the classroom should break out of the constraints of the National Curriculum which itself has been shown to be a more than imperfect way of teaching in many subjects, overly compartmentalised, and lacking the encouragement of individual thought and analysis in some areas.

In short, what this debate so far has shown me is that what really needs discussing is not whether creationism as science is a wolf in sheep’s clothing but whether as learners and educators ourselves we have stopped to question our massive assumptions about both.

I suspect this is a gauntlet that no one will pick up 😉