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Reason and Revelation Volume 17 #7

No Winners in Australian Ark Fiasco

by  Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.

Various consumer protection laws aim to keep a desperate or gullible public from false and misleading claims. In this country, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration would act to stop someone from, say, peddling quartz crystals as a cure for cancer. Some people might claim that these crystals really do work and, if people want them, they should be able to buy them. Others might shrug their shoulders and say that a fool and his money are soon parted. However, the FDA requires scientific evidence for any claim of curative powers. Does this mean that every product must have scientific support for its utility? No, but clearly there are few things more despicable than the sight of one person preying upon the needs of another with false promises of a costly or harmful cure. Thankfully, expert medical opinion provides a basis for assessing the fairness of medical claims.

In the field of diet, health and medicine, most people recognize the authority of qualified doctors and medical researchers. Yet some scientists claim to be the final arbiters over fundamental questions of life and ultimate reality. They would like to regulate the teaching of such views, just as scientific and medical opinion influences what may or may not be said about food and drugs.

What would happen, for instance, if a public lecturer presented scientific evidences for alien visitations, and charged $10 per person for admission? Since most scientists agree that there is no clear evidence of contact between humans and extraterrestrial beings, someone could allege that any claim to the contrary is false, and the “selling” of such a claim is illegal. Or, on a matter more relevant to our readers, what if someone were to give a public presentation on the flood of Noah and, in the course of that lecture, claim scientific support for the events as detailed in the book of Genesis? What if someone disagreed with such a claim? After all, is it not true that many scientists discount the biblical deluge entirely? Are these then not false claims? What if no money changed hands at all? Would the FDA not have as much concern over the promotion of a free bogus cancer cure, as it would over the selling of an expensive bogus cancer cure? Likewise, should the general public not enjoy protection from allegedly false scientific claims, as judged by the consensus opinion of the scientific community? These are some of the questions not asked, but at least posed, by recent legal happenings in Australia.

THE ARGUMENTS

A case before the Federal Court in Sydney, Australia, against Dr. Allen Roberts and his organization, Ark Search, Inc., involved two separate, but related, claims.

First, professor Ian Plimer, head of the School of Earth Sciences at Melbourne University, alleged that Roberts made false claims in public, thus violating Section 52 of Australia’s Trade Practices Act. This provision stipulates that “a person shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive.” Specifically, Roberts claimed: (a) to be one of a number of archaeologists researching the site of “Noah’s ark” (a boat-shaped rock formation near Ararat); (b) to have been instrumental in persuading the Turkish government to turn the surrounding area into a national park; (c) to have carried out metal detection tests; and (d) to have found a number of “drogue” (anchor) stones. It appears, on the contrary, that at least the formation of a national park, metal detection work, and research on the stones, had taken place before Roberts made his first trip to Turkey in 1990 (Sydney Morning Herald, April 9, 1997). Plimer sought an injunction to stop Roberts from making these claims.

And second, Mr. David Fasold, former U.S. marine salvage expert and one-time “ark-ologist,” claims that Roberts used one of his drawings of the “ark” site without permission, thus breaching copyright ownership. For around nine years—through the late 1980s and early ’90s—Fasold believed that the remains of the ark were located at this site 12-15 miles south of Greater Ararat. He even wrote a book, The Ark of Noah, which discussed the evidence for this “find.” Then, in 1994, Fasold met Plimer in Turkey and took him to the site. Plimer convinced Fasold that the object in question was nothing more than a natural geological formation.

THE JUDGMENT

On June 1, 1997, Justice Ronald Sackville refused Plimer’s injunction. In the judge’s opinion, Roberts had engaged in “misleading and deceptive conduct.” However, these were not made in the course of trade, commerce, or as a business, so the accusation of unfair trade practices did not apply. Even if Roberts had broken the law, as Plimer claimed, the judge may not have issued an injunction against him. Justice Sackville said: “Unless caution is exercised, there is a serious risk that the courts will be used as the means of suppressing debate and discussion on issues of general interest to the community.”

Also, Sackville found that Roberts indeed had breached David Fasold’s copyright on a diagram of the ark site, and awarded Fasold $2,500 in damages.

COMMENTS

At first glance, this did not seem to be an event that would attract worldwide attention, or garner the epithet, “Scopes II.” According to Stephen Walmsley, counsel for Plimer and Fasold, this was not a case about whether Roberts had found Noah’s ark, or whether the Genesis account of creation was correct. Justice Sackville’s comments about “misleading and deceptive conduct” applied only to specific claims made by Roberts, and not to all claims made about the Genesis account.

However, in a Herald commentary, science writer Leigh Dayton said it would be about the veracity of Noah’s ark and the Flood account, the creation, and the age of the Earth. According to Dayton, Plimer took Roberts to court “because he felt there was no other way to debate the issues without being threatened with expensive defamation action by Dr. Roberts.” Such fear probably was warranted, given Plimer’s extremely inflammatory language. He characterizes creationism as a “nefarious fundamentalist cult,” and his book, Telling Lies for God, contains a great deal of what one non-creationist reviewer politely called a “lack of attribution” (Shallit, n.d.). After losing the case, Plimer painted Robert’s misleading practices as the “golden thread that unites creation science.”

There is little doubt that Plimer’s no-holds-barred approach brought him into conflict with Roberts. According to a statement by the Australian Creation Science Foundation (CSF), “some years back, Roberts launched an action for defamation against Plimer because of public comments made by Plimer about Roberts. We think that the case by Plimer etc. against Roberts and Ark Search began as a defensive counter-measure to attempt to neutralize the defamation case against Plimer.” However, CSF has taken pains to distance themselves from Roberts and Ark Search, and argue that creationism itself was not on trial. Also, no major creationist group claims that the remains of the ark are to be found at the site in question (e.g., Snelling, 1992; see also Major, 1994). Nonetheless, many reports of this dispute put creation, the Flood, and the age of the Earth on trial.

This, unfortunately, is not the end of the matter. In late June, Plimer and Fasold lodged an appeal with the Federal Court. The Australian Skeptics are helping raise money for Plimer, who sold his house to underwrite the court case. Plimer has received accolades for his crusade, including election to the elite rank of “Fellow” in Britain’s Geological Society. No doubt, this will help his fund-raising efforts worldwide.

So, returning to the questions posed earlier, evolutionists like Plimer assert a public duty and authority to stop any and all opposing view points. This is not just a matter of questioning specific claims, like whether Roberts can take credit for work he did not do. This is not just a matter of challenging opposing beliefs in the courtroom, or of asserting the truth of one view over another in any other public forum. This is, in fact, a matter of banishing all opposing view points from public consideration. It is scientism run amok. Plimer and his considerable supporters believe not only that science has a monopoly on truth, but that a particular group of scientists has the right to censor any claims made under the banner of science.

Barry Williams, of the Australian Skeptics, said: “From our perspective, looking at all these pseudo-scientific and paranormal claims made in society—which can do nothing but undermine the mental and intellectual health of society—we think it is important that public figures like Professor Plimer and other academics stand up and challenge things that are far too often let go without comment.” Creationism, according to Dick Selley of the Geological Society and the Imperial College of London, “is an extremely dangerous attitude and we are already seeing the price that must be paid by adopting it both in the States and Australia.” Padraic P. McGuinness, of the Sydney Morning Herald (June 7, 1997), wrote the following in an editorial: “...most educated people would agree with Plimer that the teaching of the nonsense of creation science and the identification of a geological formation with Noah’s Ark are pernicious and harmful to the proper education of our children.” Plimer, in his inimitable way, felt that the court decision, if left standing, would open the public to “snake oil salesmen” who would “peddle poppycock” to school children. That he purports to be acting in the interests of society’s well-being, and not scientific debate, says much about the non-scientific motives behind his actions.

Sackville was right to observe that the issue of origins really is a matter of “general interest to the community.” Further, the original Scopes trial and the Arkansas and Louisiana Balanced Treatment cases have shown us that the court room is a most inappropriate place to resolve long-standing differences between opposing world views.

It seems unlikely that Plimer and Fasold will succeed in their appeal, or that similar cases will crop up frequently, if at all. Believers should be on the alert, however, to what may be a change in the evolutionists’ approach. In becoming frustrated at their lack of progress, they seem open to the possibility of restraining public discussion, rather than convincing people of what must be a very “hard sell.”

REFERENCES

Major, Trevor (1994), “Has Noah’s Ark Been Found?,” Reason & Revelation, 14:39, May.

Shallit, Jeffrey (n.d.), “Book Review of Telling Lies for God.” [Online], URL: http://math.uwaterloo.ca/~shallit/plimer.html.

Snelling, Andrew (1992), “Amazing ‘Ark’ Exposé,” Creation Ex Nihilo, 14[4]:26-38.

OTHER SOURCES



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