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.


Anonymous said...

More discussion of this both over on the Bad Science forums and over at Prof David Colquhoun's (an FRS, remember) Improbable Science blog.

I am broadly with your view on this, but it is clear that Reiss chose his words rather badly.

Ben Bawden said...

Great post; sensible, reasonable and empathic. For once I don't agree with Dawkins; it's entirely possible to be a theist and a good scientist (although it's impossible to be a biblical literalist).

Paul Wilson said...

Thanks for the kind words (and thanks dr aust for posting those links). I would agree that Reiss chose his words badly, but his letter to the Guardian was pretty clear. By then, of course, the damage was done...

Paul Wilson said...

Reiss has resigned.

Unfortunate, I think, but his form of wording was perhaps asking for trouble.

Paul Wilson said...

Here's what the Royal Society had to say about Prof. Reiss's resignation:

Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

The Royal Society's position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.

The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss's efforts in furthering the Society's work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.

My worry is that the Royal Society will seem as if it cannot tolerate religious people in senior positions. The comment by Sir Richard Roberts seems particularly telling:

I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea...

So if a student asks a question about creationism or intelligent design, you should just say sorry, we don't talk about that in science? It seems to be Sir Richard, rather than Prof. Reiss, who is in conflict with the Royal Society's position.

Perhaps the worst thing about this is that the resignation of Reiss suggests that it is now impossible to have a sensible discussion on these issues.