The Royal Society, a clergyman, and education

Click the photo where Reiss talks about animal ethics using theology and science (scroll down)

Click the photo where Reiss talks about animal ethics using theology and science (scroll down)

A debate rages in the Royal Society over the continual appointment of Michael Reiss, who in an article mentioned that creationist views of students should be discussed in the classroom. Nobel Laureates Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts have written to the President of the Society to dismiss him.

Reiss in an article wrote:

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.

So 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.

The question is was he suggesting that in the Science classroom teachers challenge student doubts about how old the world is and the validity of evolution (which he claims) or that creationism should be taught as an alternative so that the scientific viewpoint could be considered as a different world view (which the Nobel Laureates rightly oppose). The problem is saying another world view makes it sound like an equal alternative.

If Reiss was suggesting that the discussion should be student led, with the teacher showing the validity of the scientific method then this would be a good thing. One that I would have benefited from at school seeing as I was brought up to believe that evolution was wrong on a scientific basis – if we could have discussed the science behind evolution and why we know the world is billions rather than thousands of years old would have been brilliant.

Reiss clarified his remarks this way at the Royal Society website saying:

“Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.”

I have just posted that clarification on the Dawkins website. It seems too many people were making judgments about him being sacked based on second hand comments of what he said, rather than reading his original article.



Filed under Michael Reiss, Science

11 responses to “The Royal Society, a clergyman, and education

  1. Thanks for the clarification. I agree. On another post i mentioned that the sign I see that religion is almost dead, is that many scientists do not care. That is they don’t care about other people, they don’t care to be patient, they don’t care that everyone needs to be educated, they don’t care about educational method. The carelessness, the disrespect, shows a lack of education in these virtues (skills if you like). They might feel frustrated with the creationists, and don’t we all – Ive got very poor sight due to not having a ‘correctly’ shaped eye and yet creationists still want to tell me what a perfect object it is. I deal daily with the fact that any minor genetic defect has an impact on human ability. Nonetheless, I don’t find it helpful to harangue such. It needs pointing out using all the talents a human being can bring to getting a message to the hearer. I’m sad that many scientists just don’t care. To me it is a sign that they need religious or spiritual education more than ever.

  2. I think the clarification was needed – and it has caused a debate on the Dawkins site since I posted Reiss’ comment on his article (the artcile on its own was not enough).

    I have followed that up on the Dawkins site with:

    Having mentioned his initial clarification (15. Comment #247118), you may want to read his original article that caused the Nobel Laureates to react:

    @ 17. Comment #247135 by nalfeshnee

    I think he uses world view not in the sense to mean that it has a validity like the scientific viewpoint. He was suggesting that in the science classroom students talking about creationism should be challenged using science.

    As I mention in my blog that would have benefited me at school instead of tip toeing around religion.

    Schools should be teaching science – but when students question the validity of science with their faith, then science teachers should tackle it head on with science – which Reiss suggested, without disrespecting the person.

    @ 25. Comment #247163 by Henri Bergson

    Without accepting this personal revelation at face value, could you share Reiss comments with you, especially if that contradicts his public statements? As there is a public interest if what he says privately is different from public.

    Bottom line is that if he advocates creationism being taught as part of the science curriculum then yes – he should go. The book he has written “Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism” would help.

    We may however want someone that is not looking for reconciliation with faith and science but rather someone who will defend science tooth and claw. Yet that may require the Royal Society to change their approach, rather than just sack Reiss over something not as clear cut as it is made out.

  3. Beachbum

    I cannot advocate anything approaching a witch hunt obviously, I would rather politely remind; the best way to boil a frog is not to throw it in boiling water but rather to put it in cold water and then warm it slowly. If the vicar is in position at the right time (when the climate is right) to post a vote, or to persuade a fellow er’ Fellow then his job is done and our frog is cooked.

    Brian –

  4. Drew

    Did any of the sensationalist bloggers actually READ his article before foaming at the mouth?

    He basically said that scientists should be able to discuss and REFUTE creationism in class, or at the very least know how to explain evolution to creationist students even if the student doesn’t agree.

    Bloggers always blather and foam at the mouth without actually reading and understanding the articles they comment on.

  5. Pingback: Letter from Sir Richard Roberts asking Professor Reiss to step down « Homo economicus’ Weblog

  6. I think Professor Reiss should be applauded for his wisdom.

    What he is really saying is this: “Contrary to public imagination, the enlightenment has not taken us to our utopia. Our collective & individual destinies are infinitely greater than the sum of their parts, which is the mindless pursuit of empirical data & statistical inferences”.

    Thank you Professor Reiss!

  7. Pingback: Reiss resigns - the boldness of the enlightenment dimmed « Homo economicus’ Weblog

  8. The Reiss Affair – a Matter of Intellectual Integrity
    Various letters, such as that from the Bishop of Lincoln (Guardian) etc, contain a significant amount of self-righteous criticism of the Royal Society with regard to the Rev Michael Reiss’s position as Director of Science Education. It is clear that there is almost total ignorance about the real issues involved and a truly pathetic understanding of Science – the culture that created the modern world – from anaesthetics and penicillin to jet engines and the Internet. Of course “The Origin of the Universe and Living Organisms” is a perfectly respectable question for the Science lesson (perhaps the most exciting and fundamental one) – as long as someone with Intellectual Integrity is there to answer it! There is a major problem however for the religious person, scientist or otherwise, in answering this question and it involves, first and foremost, Intellectual Integrity.

    Let me clarify the fundamental philosophical issue – The Scientific Mindset: Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested, examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely NOTHING whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any FUNDAMENTAL validity. A lemma: One can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

    The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and Intelligent Design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc., etc., etc., are all basically indistinguishable, from the Freethinker’s perspective. It really does not matter whether someone believes a mystical entity created the Universe five thousand or ten thousand million years ago – both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity. Unfortunately Michael Reiss who is, according to reports, a nice guy, was just in the wrong job. He, together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not – fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest philosophical scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance. Note that I did not say value (positive or negative!). In the Jeffersonian sense Church and State (including education especially on Sundays) must be separated – otherwise our democratic freedoms are undermined. A secular socio-political framework is an absolutely necessary (though unfortunately not always sufficient) condition to guarantee freedom of religion – as well as freedom of non-religion.

    I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs – for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious. However I, and many Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different issue. An ordained minister must have accepted that there is a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) and thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church on Sunday and eat the scientific one in the classroom on weekdays. This is where the Intellectual Integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss Affair.

    I suggest that the Rev Reiss, the Bishop of Lincoln and any others who presume the authority to dictate how religious issues should be handled in the science classroom read from Sam Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation” at their Sunday sermons. Then perhaps some of their flock may understand what Intellectual Integrity and true humanity actually involve. Furthermore I suggest that this wonderful little book be a set text for young people at Sunday School, so they recognise that the really dangerous people can include the religious who are hell-bent on dragging us back into the Dark Ages, rather than the Freethinking Humanists who are struggling to save the democratic freedoms of “The Enlightenment” for our grandchildren.

    Sir Harold Kroto FRS NL
    Florida State University

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  10. Being an FRS myself, I wrote to the RS to challenge its actions, and also to raise with them some issues that I think need now to be addressed. Since this all seems to have disappeared into a kind of black hole (no doubt the people responsible have gone into hiding out of embarrassment), I decided to make my views more public, so you can see them on my web pages. It seems I’m not allowed to post the link here directly, but hopefully there will be a link to it connected with my name, on the right of this posting.

  11. Pingback: Selling of the Royal Institute « Homo economicus' Weblog

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