Reiss resigns – the boldness of the enlightenment dimmed

Reiss has resigned, having been misrepresented that creationism should be taught in the classroom when he suggested that it should be challenged when brought up by students. He was the director of education at the Royal Society, and having initially stood by him, they decided that the damage to their international reputation over this meant he had no option but to resign. The Royal Society in a statement said:

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 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.

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 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.

It seems that what did for him was the suggestion by some that creationism should not even have science used to discredit it; it should be dismissed. That if a student believed that science was wrong about the age of the world or evolution, that a science teacher should not respond. It is almost like creationism should be treated as the elephant in the science classroom. Science teachers do not deal with a misleading world view, and students go out the classroom thinking that the science of man is wrong compared to the glory of god, and continue to ride the elephant that has no substance. The hope it seems is that the excrement of the elephant will not be shown to the class to infect them with a delusion.

The argument boils down to quarantine creationism (no mention even by students) or inoculation (which risks that it is mentioned, but controlled by the teacher). The problem is that we do not trust that science teachers will teach the science – rather that they will consider creationism an acceptable alternative view, or by talking about it somehow make the criticism scientifically relevant. As if scientific ignorance born of religion is a genie that needs to be kept in the bottle for fear that it will make creationist’s wishes come true.

Outside the scientific community creationism is considered a world view that is acceptable. Whether good or bad science is less important then it being considered a religious belief, shielding the ignorance and by not wanting science teachers to correct the bad science giving further cover. The science classroom seems to be the best place to dispel such ignorance of the world we live in.

What I am calling for is a Bill Bryson teacher of biology class. Reiss is right that this is a tall order for teachers; someone that can make science interesting and explain how we know things, as much as what we know. When a student challenges science (on whatever) they can go into the science. The teacher has to stick to the science, not their personal views.

Why some think this amounts to teaching creationism is absurd. Atheist blogger makes the point:

So, I agree with Mr Reiss on the principle that if the subject is brought up, it should be commented on and dismissed. What I do not agree with is his opinion that “they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis“. Creationism shouldn’t be given more than 10 seconds in a science classroom. If it is mentioned for more than that amount of time, students might get the impression that it is actually a worthwhile subject to talk about, instead of learning how evolution works, and all the evidence for that.

The student already thinks it is a worthwhile subject to talk about. Are we really concerned that a creationist student having their belief system mentioned and corrected with science will have unleashed a meme to infect their other classmates? This is not about saying teach the controversy (there is not one in science) or give it equal time (like we would not with alchemy or astrology).

The issue is one I relate to as a student of the Jehovah’s Witnesses when at school. Education is important in the instruction – that of god’s word and the teachings as explained by the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society. Evolution was wrong and creationism right. I even learned how to argue with Darwinists with scripture and bad science – cushioned with faith that the world was in the hands of the evil one and that science teachers and peers were pawns in the end game of Armageddon.

So it would have been great if my science teachers could have shown me just how wrong the bad science was. Yes I wanted to bring it up, because I felt it was misleading. I would have liked nothing better then to talk to my teacher after class. Their is an arrogance in ministry work that as an instrument of god you can change people’s lives and save them. As you can imagine, teachers would not discuss these things with me because that was not the domain of science to correct religious views.

Lord Winston made the comment:

“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.”

That is my fear too. Yet if we are prepared to allow misconceptions about what Reiss was arguing for then maybe for the sake of creationism not being challenged we will allow children to have their misconceptions about the world go unchallenged in the education system. Which will mean that evolution is not taught in a way that steps on sensibilities too much. That the scientific method and how that validates such things as evolution and the age of the world will not have time on the curriculum.

The enlightenment was about stressing the use of reason as the best way to find the truth about ourselves and the world around us. Kant’s buss word for this was ‘Sapere aude’ (‘dare to know’). Roy Porter observed on those intellectual bandits that were part of the movement:

They shared a general commitment to criticizing the injustices and exposing inefficiencies of the ancien régime; to emancipating mankind, through knowledge, education and science, from the chains of ignorance and error, superstition, theological dogma, and the dead hand of the clergy.

Perhaps a fear of religion in the science classroom is making us forget that education is the primary reason why students go to school. We can continue to allow teachers to teach things, the students to believe something different – and because of our fear not allow the student’s belief given to them by their parents to go uncriticized and their ignorance by which they reject what they are taught unchallenged.

Reiss, suggesting after 20 years this approach has not worked in making evolution understood by a generation of religious students, wanted an engaged approach with them – one that the followers of the enlightenment would have understood only too well. Yet rather than listen to whether such a different way may improve the science education and reduce the ignorance of school leavers, we have effectively said business as normal.

That though is the problem with science education in this country. Dawkins in his latest programme was critical of the science teachers of a school for thinking that creationist world views were acceptable and out of bounds for being challenged in the science classroom. Yet while Dawkins’ intentions are well known (his letter on Reiss can be found here), Reiss was already under suspicion that he wanted to promote religious views on science as an alternative. He was misrepresented in what he said, and people’s fears about him were realized based on the media reports rather than his actual article (which is covered in the first link of this blog but can be found here as well). If he was not ordained maybe he could have survived this.

I hope this incident will not cause religious secularists to duck and cover in the debate. Instead we are by the looks of things heading for a polarization of views. This may well be the best way – science should win over crack pot views of science. The problem though is that we may end up with an education that fails to enlighten students and give them the means to work things out for themselves, because their assumptions are not challenged. Reiss’ contribution was ignored based on the assumptions about his motives and the spin on what he was claimed to have said – in this we on the secular side seem guilty of hearing what we wanted to hear, and to think that a religious man being against creationism in the science classroom was not possible.

That though is exactly want the fundies want. By all means they would like creationism taught alongside evolution. But the next best thing is for the one in ten children of fundamentalist parents not to have their belief challenged. We seem to be promoting a stalemate, a situation that does not improve education, and creates a cold war of ideas. At the ice caps of the polarized views, people assume that the religious cannot take science seriously, and the other that evolution leads to wickedness and damnation. If we cannot challenge ignorance over science in the classroom then be prepared for new adults to be ignorant about the world in which we live.

The looser will be the children we fail to educate.



Filed under Michael Reiss, politics, Science

2 responses to “Reiss resigns – the boldness of the enlightenment dimmed

  1. Pingback: Letter: Richard Dawkins about Reiss Creationism controversy « Homo economicus’ Weblog

  2. Pingback: Professor Michael Reiss - fate in name « Homo economicus’ Weblog

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