Saturday 20 September 2008

Michael Reiss: did he jump or was he pushed?

So Michael Reiss has 'stepped down' from his post as Director of Education at the Royal Society. Shortly prior to the announcement this letter appeared in The Times:

Sir, Creationism has no scientific validity but this does not stop some people from believing that it does (“Royal Society and the case for creationism”, Sept 12). 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 position is the same as current government policy.

Evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species. It is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world.

Professor Michael Reiss

Director of Education

The Royal Society

I believe Michael Reiss also issued a statement attempting to clarify his position (I say 'believe' because I remember reading it somewhere, but now I can't find it).

Anyway, his original piece is available to view at the British Association website, so whatever he has said subsequently, we can judge his words as they stand:
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.

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14-16 year-olds? The first thing to note is that there is scope for young people to discuss beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things in other subjects, notably religious education (RE). In England, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) have published a non-statutory national framework for RE and teaching units which include a unit asking 'How can we answer questions about creation and origins?'. The unit focuses on creation and the origins of the universe and human life, as well as the relationships between religion and science. It can be downloaded from
Well, that seems eminently sensible. But there's more:
I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it - and to learn more science. Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct, as careful science teaching might hope to persuade a student that an object continues at uniform velocity unless acted on by a net force, or that most of the mass of a plant comes from air. Rather, 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.
It's that penultimate sentence that irks. "Rather, 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."

Yes, and giving it credence in a science lesson is the last thing science teachers should do. Soft-pedalling on the conflict between science and patently unscientific views of the nature of the physical world will only perpetuate irrationality. It's not enough to point out that a worldview is incompatible with science ("but that's ok, I respect your religious beliefs"). Rather, a student who believes in creationism should be shown how his or her worldview is in direct contradiction to actual physical reality.

Michael Reiss was pushed, and rightly so.