Sunday, 21 September 2008

Creating A Furore

It's one of those stories that would probably have attracted a lot more publicity if there weren't so much else going on at the moment.

Michael Reiss, a professor of science education and bioethics, has resigned as Director of Education at the Royal Society following a controversy over remarks relating to the discussion of creationism in school science lessons - remarks reported by the BBC, for instance, as representing a 'Call for Creationism in Science'.

So far, so unsurprising. A position of support for the teaching of creationism, or 'intelligent design' as science is not compatible with holding perhaps the most prestigious post in the field of science education in this country. However, this isn't quite what Reiss said, at the British Association Festival of Science last week.

"An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species.

What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn.

I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved"
- Michael Reiss

Although the words of Reiss were a far cry from actually recommending that creationism be taught in science lessons, the damage was done. The Royal Society considered that their reputation had been damaged by the suggestion, and Reiss stepped down.

Suggestions that Reiss was victimised because of his religion - he is an ordained Anglican cleric as well as a professor - have gained some currency, particularly in the wake of comments by Richard Dawkins and Sir Richard Roberts, the latter expressing bemusement that a clergyman was selected as Director of Education in the first place.
"We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?" - Sir Richard Roberts

There is a fine line between 'explaining (in the context of a science lesson) why creationism isn't compatible with science, in order to improve scientific understanding' - which is perfectly reasonable and something a good teacher should be doing rather than talking at their pupils for an hour or so - and 'accommodationism' - i.e. pretending that religion and science exist in separate domains even when one contradicts the other.

Reiss may not have crossed the line in his speech at the University of Liverpool, but, as atheist blogger Heresiarch explains, there are signs elsewhere - particularly in this article at the Guardian's science blog, as well as in a previous interview for the Guardian - that Reiss is more sympathetic to a faith-based interpretation of the world than Heresiarch or I would consider acceptable for someone holding the position he did. Heresiarch points out that Reiss was partially responsible for a deplorable redesign of the GCSE curriculum that incorporates the discussion of creationism as a "socio-scientific" issue. Perhaps the latest controversy is just the straw that broke this particular camel's back.

1 comment:

Stephen Jay Duran said...

I'm really glad you wrote about this issue, Ian-I'm genuinely surprised that it hasn't got more publicity-perhaps the intellectual conflicts between different types of atheist aren't as exciting to the public at large as you and I imagine them to be!

Mind you, when it comes to this story, I'm glad of the lack of coverage-as a non-believer I am shocked and embarrassed by the behaviour and attitude of some of the principals. In my opinion this is a sad, sad day for us supporters of secularism and freethinking.

If we have come to a point where the self-appointed leaders of the new atheism have apparently begun to regard concepts of NOMA and of Christians who (like the majority of this country's believers, it's worth saying) accept the theory of evolution as somehow "accomodationism" or "appeasement" then I have to say, I'm almost embarrassed to remain in my default position of near-total impercipience.

I personally believe that those who find Faith and Reason completely incompatible belong in the Taliban, not in the forefront of our intellectual life.

I wonder about two things:

Firstly, if our universities could pay our greatest academics-like Prof. Dawkins for example-the same amount of money they can earn on the US circuit, then would they have to spend so much time there and import these sordid "culture Wars" back to our shores?

Secondly; since completing his PhD, Prof. Reiss has worked largely in education and in the discipline of education. I wonder if his long publishing and research record in Education had been one in the realm of say, Physics, would he still have received the treatment he did from those parts of the scientific community who plotted his downfall?

PS:- I hope you appreciate the boxing-cum-evolutionary philosophy pun-"No Mas, NOMA", apparently:-(