Noah's Ark case leaves professor high and dry

June 13, 1997

LAST April, when the Federal Court in Sydney began hearing what became known across Australia as the "Noah's Ark case", Justice Ronald Sackville asked, "Where will we start?". The senior counsel for Professor Ian Plimer answered: "In the beginning . . ."

It was a suitably biblical response to a case in which science confronted creationism. Now the case has ended with the conflict between science and religion set to remain eternal. Both sides in the dispute claimed victory, but neither was really a winner.

Professor Plimer, head of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, had accused an elder of the Hills Bible Church in Sydney, Allen Roberts, of breaching Australia's Trade Practices Act in a series of public lectures in 1992, in which he claimed a boat-shaped rock formation in eastern Turkey contained Noah's Ark.

Justice Sackville found that Mr Roberts had made false and misleading claims, and fined him Aus$2500 (Pounds 1160) for using an illustration without permission from a book written by an American marine salvage expert, David Fasold, who had joined Professor Plimer in the action.

But the judge rejected Professor Plimer's argument that the Trade Practices Act could extend beyond the commercial realm to cover false claims made in public.

"Some issues - no matter how great the passions they arouse - are more appropriately dealt with outside the courtroom," he said.

The judge refused to impose an injunction called for by Professor Plimer against Mr Roberts expressing his views.

From the start, the outcome of the case - and the case itself - seemed destined to confound many people's expectations.

For instance, before giving evidence Professor Plimer swore on the Bible, but Mr Roberts gave an affirmation. After the judge announced his decisions, Professor Plimer said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh".

Newspaper leader writers, while endorsing Professor Plimer's stand, welcomed the judge's intimation that issues of freedom of speech were at stake.

Justice Sackville warned that great caution should be used in seeking to restrain statements of religious or ideological belief, at least when commercial gain was not the prime motive.

"Unless caution is exercised, there is a serious risk that the courts will be used as a means of suppressing debate and discussion on issues of general interest to the community," he said.

Outside the court, Mr Roberts said he felt completely vindicated by the decision, but refused to comment on the finding that he had made false statements.

Professor Plimer declared he was disappointed but not beaten. The case had shown the fraud inherent in creationism, he said.

"It's bad science, it's bad religion and it's underpinned by misleading and deceptive conduct," he said.

Now facing a huge bill for legal costs - the case is said to have cost both sides Aus$500,000 - and having been forced to sell his house in Melbourne, Professor Plimer said he would consider an appeal.

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Professorship in Behavioural Science LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE
Foundation Partnerships Officer LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (8 September 2016)

Some lecturers will rightly encourage forms of student interaction that are impossible for those covering their faces, Eric Heinze argues

University of Oxford students walking on campus

University of Oxford snatches top spot from Caltech in this year’s World University Rankings as Asia’s rise continues

Handwritten essay on table

Universities must pay more attention to the difficulties faced by students, says Daniel Dennehy

Theresa May entering 10 Downing Street, London

The prospect of new grammar schools on the horizon raises big questions for HE, writes Nick Hillman

Nosey man outside window

Head of UK admissions service Mary Curnock Cook addresses concerns that universities might ‘not hear a word’ from applicants