Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Michael Reiss resigns over creationism comments

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Michael Reiss last night resigned as the Royal Society's director of education, following the row caused by comments he made suggesting teachers should be prepared to debate creationism in science lessons.

According to The Times
, Reiss agreed to step down after officers in the Royal Society decided that the comments had damaged his reputation. A statement from the society read:
“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.”
Reiss had always argued that his comments had been misinterpreted. While it was widely reported that he had suggested creationism should be taught in science lessons, Friday's controversial speech to the British Association Festival of Science actually addressed the question of whether science teachers should be prepared to address the issue, were it to be raised by pupils.

Reiss has not commented on his resignation, but reaction from the scientific community has been mixed. Professor Robert Winston, who has himself recently criticised the hard anti-religious line taken by atheists like Richard Dawkins, believes the treatment of Reiss has been harsh:
“I fear that the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science — something that the Royal Society should applaud.”
However, Phil Willis MP, chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, who will today hear the Royal Society's explanation for his resignation, believes the society has acted correctly:
“It is appropriate for the Royal Society to have dealt with this problem swiftly and effectively, rather than provoking continued debate. I hope the society will now stop burying its head and start taking on creationism.”
So, has Michael Reiss been treated fairly? As a report in today's Guardian points out, it's not the first time he's waded into the creationism debate. Last year he edited a book, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism, in which he also suggested teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism, which raises the question of why those who loudly called for his dismissal this week didn't do so some time ago.

On the other hand, it seems Reiss was clearly paying more attention to creationism than many other scientists deem appropriate, and they would argue that made him ill-suited to be director of education at the Royal Society.

Either way, the poll at the top of this page is pretty pointless now.


AT said...

A leading scientific organization supporting engagement with dissenting voices would have done a hell of a lot of good. We can all go the Dawkins-Palin way, call each other idiots for a living and feel self-righteous all the way to the bank or we can try to hold a conversation and lose our jobs. Ridiculous.

radius said...

Giving creationism a platform in science lessons is ridiculous. Why privilege creationism rather than, say, astrology or crystal healing? There's a whole list of "dissenting voices", if science lessons are to be used to engage with them, there will be no time left for, er, science.

radius said...

Some fundamentalists still hold to a geocentric (or at least galoactocentric) model of the universe; plenty of conspiracy theorists believe the moon landings were faked - should science lessons engage with these perspectives? There's a Russian professor called Fomenko who thinks that all ancient history occurred in the Middle Ages, that Chinese and Arab history was made up by the Jesuits - surely this dissenting voice deserves a place in the history curriculum?

What is so special about creationism, other than the clout of those who hold that particular belief - why on earth should educationalists simply bow to that clout and place their particular crank theory in the classroom as a discussion topic?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing the link to what he (actually) said.

The only fundamentalist's in this are those who clamoured for his resignation.

I do think his thinking is muddled. Both creationists and scientists feel they have something to say about the dawn of man - and they can't both be right - so I don't agree with his approach, but I respect his attitude and motive. Its one thing to have a particular world view - but when that worldview directly contradicts scietific evidence then you have a problem. Faith and reason should compliment each other

What is required, of course, is not an affirmation of the creationist worldview - but a challenging of their literal interpretation of sacred scripture. A story doesn't have to be true to contain truth. The world may not have been created in 7 days - but we should all go to mass on Sunday. This is not a scietific truth but a "truth for our salvation".

I guess in his defence reiss would argue that his point is merely a pedagogical - about effective teaching - but even so - the truth will set you free