It’s been about two weeks now since the story of Michael Reiss, Royal Society’s director of education, broke in the UK’s national media. Our tale begins with a speech made by Prof. Reiss at the Liverpool Festival of Science on Sept 9. The full text of the speech is available here, so I’ll just quote some of the main points below:
about 40% of adults in the USA and perhaps over 10% in the UK believe that the Earth is only some 10,000 years old, that it came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur’an and that the most that evolution has done is to change species into closely related species.
My central argument of this article is that creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a worldview. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally aspire to is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific worldview is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.
The [UK Schools] Guidance points out that the nature of, and evidence for, evolution must be taught … It then goes on to say: “Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. However, there is a real difference between teaching ‘x’ and teaching about ‘x’. Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory”.
This seems to me a key point. Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them. For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine asserts “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support”.
I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.
When teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time. However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue.
A student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, that is a very different way of seeing the world. One very rarely changes one’s worldview as a result of a 50 minute lesson, however well taught.
The lengthy quote is necessary to avoid caricaturing Prof. Reiss’ position. The press jumped on the story with headlines like “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools – Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view” (The Times), which is precisely what Prof. Reiss didn’t say, as the above quotes demonstrate.
Nevertheless, there were calls for his dismissal, and while the Royal Society stood by him for a while, confirming that his views were in fact those of the society itself, the following announcement was made on Sept. 16;
“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 debate ensued over this decision. The Guardian reported the reactions of a number of scientists:
The fertility specialist Lord Winston commented: “I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”
But Phil Willis, chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said: “It’s the right decision and it’s clearly one the Royal Society needed to come to itself. You cannot have a senior educational figure in the world’s most prestigious scientific society giving credence to creationism alongside Darwinism in the school curriculum. By allowing creationism to have a part in the science curriculum alongside Darwinism, it gives them equal merit.”
The Times published an opinion piece by Tom Whipple: “The Royal Society has treated Michael Reiss badly – He is a victim of a culture where all arguments must be expressible in a sentence.” There are suggestions that, because Reiss is an ordained Christian minister, his dismissal was the result of atheists within the Royal society looking for any opportunity to misrepresent his views and have him removed. Phil Willis’ quote above is certainly such a misrepresentation, but media sensationalism must also take some of the blame for the caricature of Reiss that got him fired. The headline “Royal society says teach creationism in science classes” is much more of a scandal than “Royal society says be prepared to answer creationist objections in science classes.”
I’m inclined to agree with Reiss, Winston and Whipple on this one. Your average creationist 16-year-old has creationist parents, who have spent a lot of time talking about evolution, taking him to talks about it, giving him books and magazines to read, DVDs to watch, etc. And it is certainly not true that the typical creationist student will be academically below-average. The evidence for evolution in science classes will not be new to him: he will have counterarguments ready. When the teacher shows diagrams of a transition between, e.g. reptiles and mammals, he will be ready with the following quote from Stephen Jay Gould
‘The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology. … to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.
When the teacher uses the peppered-moth example, the student will quote Sir Cyril Clarke, who investigated the peppered moth extensively
But the problem is that we do not know the resting sites of the moth during the day time. … In 25 years we have found only two [peppered moths] on the tree trunks or walls adjacent to our traps (one on an appropriate background and one not), and none elsewhere.’
He will point out that the peppered moths in the famous textbook photograph were dead, held on the tree by glue. Behind these arguments will be the firm belief that evolution is atheism in disguise.
What should the teacher do at this point? Like it or not, a debate has been started, and to simply ignore the debate is to lose. Reiss’ point is simple: creationism will end up in the science classroom because students will bring it there. The teacher’s first, and probably only realistic goal is to ensure that the student actually understands the theory of and evidence for evolution, and not the straw-men that some creationists put forward.
The Royal Society, by effectively firing Reiss (I don’t believe for a second that he offered to resign), has given ammunition to those who accuse evolutionists of staging a conspiracy to silence all opposition, without open debate. And if misrepresentations of Reiss’ views “led to damage to the Society’s reputation”, then the blame should not be laid on Reiss, who made himself very clear.