Friday 19 September 2008

If I was Prof Michael Reiss, I'd be annoyed...

Poor Prof Reiss: not only has he been forced to resign for making a generally sensible speech that was leapt on and distorted by anti-religious Fellows of the Royal Society and the media, but the media (in the shape of the Guardian) has actually admitted that it had a part in his downfall. In a column titled "In praise of Prof Michael Reiss": nice touch.


The subtlety of Prof Reiss's position was lost in some media reports, while the headlines in many newspapers- including this one - did not convey the nuance of his message. This appears to have cost him his job.

But Prof Reiss's shabby treatment smacks of an organisation that is frightened of a debate about how creationist views should be tackled by teachers.

You can bet that this is the line that will be taken by those who would wish to pollute science with creationist nonsense. This seems like a spectacular own goal to me.

Monday 15 September 2008

Creationism in schools: a manufactured controversy

I wrote briefly about the comments of Prof. Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, that creationism should be taught in schools in certain circumstances. The reaction to Reiss's comments has been somewhat alarming, with calls for him to be sacked [UPDATE: Professor Reiss has now resigned].

Here's Sir Harry Kroto:

I warned the president of the Royal Society that his [Reiss] was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be.

And Sir Richard Roberts:

I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.

And, inevitably, Richard Dawkins:

A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch.

To me these comments seem to taking things too far, especially in the light of a letter to today's Guardian from Prof. Reiss himself:

Your headline (Teach creationism, says top scientist, September 12) misrepresents the views of myself and the Royal Society. The society believes that if a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation. This does not put it on a par with evolution, which is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species.

Evolution is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world. Creationism, which has no scientific validity, can be discussed in a science class if it is raised by a pupil, but should in no way be seen as comparable to evolution or any other scientific theory which is backed up with evidence.

If that is what Reiss is saying, it seems to be fairly difficult to argue, and it's essentially what I was getting at in my previous post. But it's a bit of tangle, and there are several interlocking issues. A number of people seem to believe that Reiss's position as an ordained church minister makes him ineligible for his post, as is made most clear by Dawkins. I would have to disagree with that. Just because Reiss is a committed Christian, that clearly doesn't mean he has to believe in the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation. Plenty of perfectly sensible people take it as an allegory or a fable. There are creationists and creationists; if Reiss were a young Earth creationist, arguing that the Earth was 6,000 years old and was created in seven days, his position would be untenable. But that is clearly not what he is saying, as a reading of what he actually said will show. The controversy seems to have stemmed from the way the Guardian quoted him, when they wrote that Reiss thought that "science teachers should not see creationism as a 'misconception' but as an alternative 'world view'. What he actually said was:

Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.
That should be seen in the context of what Reiss said about discussion of creationism:

If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

This is exactly my view on the matter, and I would say that it is a more nuanced and sensible point than the Guardian's precis would suggest. I can't be too scathing about that, as I wrote my previous post based on the Guardian's construction of Reiss's comments. Which just goes to show that you should always go back to original sources.

For me the grave difficulty here is that scientists are seen to be saying that there is no place for the religious in science. A religious man is being attacked for religious views that he doesn't actually hold on closer inspection. In some cases he is being attacked simply for being religious. That is wrong. There have always been religious people in science, and many of them have been exceptionally capable. What Reiss has said is actually reasonably sensible, and a lot of the opprobrium seems to have come from reading the press, rather than what Reiss has actually said.

You lose, quack

Another fantastic result for the mighty Ben Goldacre: a nutritionist by the name of Matthias Rath was suing Dr Goldacre, and the Guardian newspaper, which publishes his Saturday column. Dr Goldacre had criticised Rath for his advice that nutritional supplements could reverse the course of AIDS, and that patients should stop taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVDs). Rath has now dropped the case, and been ordered to pay costs. Hopefully this will generate enough publicity for people to realise just how dangerous bad, unevidenced health advice can be.

We know that ARVDs work, and we know that nutritional supplements do not work, for treating people with AIDS. So what Rath was doing was advising people not to take drugs that work, and instead to take nutritional supplements which could have had no effect on the course of their illness. It is difficult to describe this as anything other than murderous quackery. There seems to be little doubt that people have died because of this advice.

You may think it is fair to say that Rath probably doesn't fall into the 'mainstream' of nutritionists. But I am not so sure. Patrick Holford, for example, a prominent UK nutritionist, has said that "AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”. This is superficially based on an actual scientific study. But it goes far, far beyond a reasonable interpretation of the study, which looked at what happens to some cells in a dish on a lab bench when you put some vitamin C on them. It is simply impossible to take that kind of bench research and apply it to what happens in something hugely complex like the human body. Holford is not a marginal figure: he is at the top of his profession. At least he doesn't suggest that ARVDs don't save lives.

Rath is clearly barking. But he thrives in the environment of denigration of mainstream science, and misunderstanding of science, that obtains in the world of nutritionism. The difference is that Rath, in taking his supplement quackery to somewhere that desperately needed drugs, not vitamins, he was able to cause a hell of a lot of damage.

As Ben Goldacre points out, the title "Nutritionist" is not protected, so anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. It follows that I am a nutritionist too. As your nutritionist, I would suggest that if you feel that you need nutritional advice, you should seek out a registered dietitian, who will actually be a qualified health professional.

Friday 12 September 2008

Creationism in schools redux

I suppose the debate as to whether you should teach creationism in science class will always be with us. Here's Prof Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, wading into the morass in today's Guardian. My opinion on this, for what it's worth, is that what needs to be taught is what science is, how it is done, and what it's useful for. Without that context, students don't have the tools to evaluate the arguments, and you're basically engaged in indoctrination, whether you're teaching evolution or creationism. In my view, the evolution versus creationism debate is a perfect opportunity to provide that context; simply pretending that there's no discussion is not helpful.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the position that Reiss is taking. From the article:

Reiss said he used to be an "evangelist" for evolution in the classroom, but that the approach had backfired. "I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn't lead some pupils to change their minds at all. Now I would be more content simply for them to understand it as one way of understanding the universe," he said.

Reiss, who is an ordained Church of England minister, told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool that science teachers should not see creationism as a "misconception" but as an alternative "world view".

This seems to be taking the rather wishy-washy view that all world views have equal explanatory power. To me, creationism is not a way of 'understanding' the universe: it's a way of refusing to understand it. For all I know, there could be a creator of some kind. But that is not a scientific hypothesis that enables me to understand anything I observe. The place of creationism in science class is as an example of what is not science, and where the limits of scientific enquiry might lie.