Concern at the treatment of senior science educator in creationism row

By staff writers
18 Sep 2008

A leading British scientific institution is facing criticism for what is being seen as its effective dismissal of a leading scientist, after he made remarks about creationism in the classroom that it admits were misinterpreted by the media.

But the Royal Society says that Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of how to persuade children from creationist homes to take science seriously in schools, were "open to misinterpretation" - namely that they were some kind of justification for teaching anti-science creationism, which both he and the Society oppose.

The comments, echoed in a Guardian Comment-is-Free article and first arising from a book published last year, were made by Professor Reiss, a senior biologist who is also an Anglican clergyman, while he was speaking at a conference as the Royal Society's Director of Education.

The Society faced some instant calls for his dismissal, and a number of people, including Professor Richard Dawkins, whose role as a promoter of science understanding has been supplemented by an increasingly vociferous personal crusade against anything to do with religion, described the idea of a clergyman as Britain's senior science educator as like something out of "a Monty Python sketch."

He later admitted these words to be "a little uncharitable", and said those calling on Reiss to resign specifically because he was an ordained priest might be getting "a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste."

Other scientists and commentators have defended Professor Reiss, saying that he has opened up an important debate about how science teachers might respond most helpfully to children from narrow religious backgrounds.

"The issue is not about teaching creationism," one science educator told Ekklesia. "We are all agreed that is inappropriate. The question is, do you simply refuse to engage with children who think that religion must oppose evolution - which is, of course, not the case at all. Do you discuss these things, or do you just silence or mock them? This is a very important issue."

The Royal Society said of Professor Reiss: "While it was not his intention, [his comments] 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."

It went on: "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 statement added: "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."

Professor Reiss' departure from the Royal Society is being described as a "resignation", but it appears that he was given little choice in the matter, though those close to the situation say he responded with "courtesy, thoughtfulness and dignity".

It has been made clear that the decision had nothing to do with Professor Reiss being a priest. There are many religious believers who hold senior scientific positions and who, like, Professor Reiss have been proponents of modern evolutionary biology.

The National Secular Society promptly accused Professor Reiss of being "guilty of religious naivety", claiming that those from creationist backgrounds cannot have their minds changed and should be ignored or just told they are wrong.

But science educators says that this kind of attitude is based on prejudice rather than evidence, and that better classroom practice shows that children are often open to sensitive persuasion and good discussion - but not to being hectored or ridiculed.

NSS spokesperson Alistair McBay linked Professor Reiss' remarks to moves "to give creationism a platform in science classes". But this is something both the Professor and the Royal Society dispute.

Professor Reiss says that there is a big difference between teaching creationism in a scientific setting, which is a mistake, and acknowledging it as a non-scientific world view which may effect children's receptivity to science teaching, and which therefore needs to be handled carefully in terms of classroom discussion.

Writing in The Times, commentator Tom Whipple deplored Professor Reiss' removal from his post, and declared: "In an odd pact between journalists who want to write sensation, and readers who want to buy it, we choose cartoonish half-truths over complex reality. Professor Reiss is the victim of a culture where all arguments must be expressible in a sentence, and all sentences able to stand on their own. But don't take my word for it: read [his] speech."

Lord Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London, said: "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."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which argues that creationist thinking is bad theology as well as non-science, said today that he regretted Professor Reiss' departure from the Royal Society.

He commented: "I do think some of Professor Reiss' remarks inadvertently opened the door to an unhelpful confusion between curriculum and classroom practice issues. But it is also clear that they were carelessly - and in some cases culpably - misinterpreted by a media looking for sensation rather than understanding, and by some writers who simply do not comprehend the nuances involved.

Barrow continued: "Both the Royal Society and Professor Reiss have made their opposition to creationism crystal clear, and it is hard to see how their decision to remove him from his post makes that more convincing or confident; or how it furthers a necessary debate about dialogue in the classroom. I hope the Royal Society will also reiterate its rejection of the kind of prejudice that says a person's religion or non-religion should be a factor in measuring their scientific or educational competence, as Professor Dawkins unfortunately inferred in his initial remarks."

See Ekklesia's earlier comment on Professor Reiss' remarks: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7703

'Theology, Science and the Problem of ID': a paper on creationism-related issues - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6707

Detailed profile of Professor Reiss: http://ioewebserver.ioe.ac.uk/ioe/cms/get.asp?cid=4381&4381_0=4607

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