Monday, 15 September 2008

Creationism in schools row rumbles on

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Last week we reported on comments made by Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, in which he suggested that discussion of creationism shouldn't necessarily be excluded from school science lessons.

Unsurprisingly Reiss's comments caused some outcry among the scientific community, and over the weekend the debate has rumbled on in the papers, with calls being issued for Reiss to be dismissed from his post at the Royal Society.

None of this has been helped by the fact that Reiss is an ordained Church of England minister, with the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto saying he never agreed with Reiss's appointment: "I warned the president of the Royal Society that his was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be."

Kroto's words were echoed by a fellow Nobel Prize winner, Sir Richard Roberts, who called outright for his Reiss's removal: "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."

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins focussed on the fact that Reiss is a man of the cloth: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch."

A major issue in all this centres on what Reiss may or may not have actually said – was he suggesting that creationism should be taught, as part of the science curriculum, or was he saying that teachers should be prepared to debate ths issue if pupils raise questions relating to creationism? In a letter to the Guardian today, Reiss claims he was misrepresented and points out that he meant the latter, criticisng the paper for reporting on his comments under the headline "Teach creationism, says top scientist":
"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."
The issue of creationism in class is a difficult one. Critics such as Kroto, Roberts and Dawkins are understandably wary of religious ideas being allowed anywhere near school science labs, especially at a time when creationist organisations and proponents of Intelligent Design are stepping up efforts to shoehorn their ideas into science curricula. But if we take Reiss at his word (and if you read the blog posted on the Guardian last week, it's clear he wasn't suggesting creationism should be taught), then wasn't he just pointing out that the classroom should be a forum for free and open debate, and teachers must be ready to enter discussion with their pupils, and put them right when the views they bring from home clearly contradict the overwhelming evidence for evolution? Isn't this part of the aim of education?

As for whether a clergyman should hold such a position at the Royal Society, this forms a part of the wider issue of the relationship between science and religion. As the Church of England argues in today's apology to Darwin, it sees no difficulty in reconciling Christianity with evolution. If Reiss loses his job over his comments, does this mean religious people should not be allowed to hold eminent scientific positions?

Difficult issues, and we'd love to get a sense of what our readers think. Leave your comments and take part in our poll: What are your views on Michael Reiss's comments on creationism in schools? Choose from these four options –
  • Outrageous – creationism has no place in schools and he should be removed from his post
  • Irresponsible – no one wants to stifle debate, but his comments risk encouraging the encroachment of creationism into schools
  • Misunderstood – his sensible comments on free debate were misrepresented by hysterical media
  • Brave – In a scientific community hostile to religion, he has made a stand for open debate
Place your vote in the poll at the top right of this page.


Matt M said...

When you read his own words (rather than relying on media reports) it's clear that all he's arguing for is open debate in the classroom - which is probably the best way to tackle the rise in creationist thinking.

Sticking our heads in the sand and simply pretending that religious views don't exist isn't really an option (or at least not a good one). Nor will dismissing these views as ridiculous and unworthy of discussion do anything to change the minds of those who hold them. Reiss' suggestions are aimed at ensuring that, no matter their religious views, students come away with a good understanding of evolutionary theory.

Chippy said...

This is completely the fault of the media that this has turned into a creationist witch hunt.

Read this article from the Guardian 2006 about his appointment to the position he is currently fighting to keep.

He definitely does not want creationism "taught" in schools, but teachers should be prepared should the topic come up. For children from creationist families it is a big deal to them and we must treat them with respect (not their ideas) and understanding and explain to them why science is the only way to understand the natural world and why abandoning myths is not abandoning their identity or a challenge to their parents.

Michael deserves our support and it is saddening to see so many so quick to call for his dismissal.

Kieron W said...

Unfortunately Matt, that assumes that teachers in primary and secondary schools are competent enough to handle such a sensitive subject, and it gives a license to indoctrinate for the creationists among them.

AT said...

Banning the discussion of creationism in schools is not best practice, especially not because allowing it gives a 'license to indoctrinate'. It gives official support to the right to discuss conflicting views - this is good, both 1) for freedom of speech and 2) to give schoolchildren the chance to compare. Creationism rarely comes out of a logical argument with evolution without a bloody nose.

Jimbo said...

Sadly, there is much wrong with the poll, and people's understanding of what Rev Reiss is advocating. It is not the teaching of creationism in schools, but the teaching of creationism in Science classes that is advocated, and it is this that must be resisted.
Rev Reiss:
"Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson."

meteorplum said...

Confronting Creationism is all well and good, but to dignify a particular non-scientific doctrine as being worthy of discussion opens up the possibility (inevitability, rather) of asking teachers (unequipped or otherwise) to be prepared to defend the exclusion of any non-scientific doctrine.

Instead of having to burden these teachers with some lengthy tome with "official" responses to every nutty belief system out there, perhaps science teachers should be given a guide with some specifics on Creationism in its various disguises, but it should otherwise encourage them to help their students use the scientific method to evaluate all "received" Truths (including those from their science class curricula).

It might also be helpful to have teachers tell their students that most versions of God/god(ess) are defined in ways which remove them from the arena of objective debate, and are thus unscientific, by definition.

Those students who are unsatisfied at this might be compelled to read up on Gödel's incompleteness theorems and consider how that applies to "proving" things about/by G/god.

AT said...

That's ridiculous. That approach places science classes in some class of their own, where they can't be forced to discuss anything that's not examined according to the scientific method. It's not as if math teachers aren't sometimes challenged by their students to place that discipline in a larger context; and besides, we're not talking about official 'responses'that teachers are obliged to trot out but the legal condonement of discussion.

Anonymous said...

I lecture in scientific thinking/zoology at a British university and I think Reiss was spot on and wholly reasonable. I think the response of the Royal Soc has been very damaging as they represent the face of British scientists and they are making us look like bigots.

I have surveyed my students. About 2% of them are young Earth creationists (a far lower proportion than in the USA) with a bigger proportion of old Earth creationists. But these are not dumb students when tested their critical thinking skills are the same as their evolution believing cohorts (to my surprise). So we cannot hold our heads in the sand on this issue and pretend the opposition are simply cognitively impaired.

Surely discussing creationism and why it is not science is precisely what should be taught in science classes not the simple rote learning of facts.