Has Michael Reiss changed his mind about creationism in the class room?
Earlier this week the Telegraph reported about a new educational campaign here in Britain, headed by David Attenborough, some 30 scientists (including 3 Nobel laureates) and campaign groups including the British Science Association, to battle creationism in the science class room. This, in principle, is great. Creationism isn’t science and it isn’t true, so it shouldn’t be taught neither as science nor as true. With the apparent lack of clarity with regards to school policy here in Britain, it is necessary to bring this to the attention of both the public and politicians so that creationism isn’t allowed to make its way in to public education.
But there’s one thing that caught my eye in the article. It says that among the signatories is “former Royal Society director of education Rev Prof Michael Reiss.” Michael Reiss, as you might know and as the article tells us, “has described evolution as “God’s work”, [and] resigned from his Royal Society post in 2008 after suggesting science lessons ought to include discussion of creationism.”
I remember that affair. In September 2008, Reiss suggested in a speech that while creationism has no scientific basis, science teachers must be careful to not dismiss it out of hand, because a lot of students – Evangelical Christian and, increasingly, Muslim ones - come from creationist backgrounds and such a dismissal would only offend and alienate them, making it much more likely that they will reject evolution and (thus?) probably not understand the basics of biological science.
“The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one,” Reiss said in an article in the Guardian following his resignation. Specifically rejecting the idea that evolution and creationism should be given equal time, he called creationism a worldview, not a science, and said that it should be treated as such, i.e. with respect and sensitivity, and the awareness that scientific facts alone probably won’t do much to change it.
Arguably such a policy in the science class room could nip in the bud the cultural and political conflict between evolution and creationism, if not by convincing more creationist young people that evolution is, in fact, true, then by having one of their first and most formative exposures to evolution be an irenic and respectful one, which in turn would have made agreeing while disagreeing more likely. I find it supremely ironic that it was because of the aforementioned cultural and political conflict that Reiss was forced to resign.
For what it’s worth, I was completely on board with Reiss proposal and have argued as much in my own activism for evolution in the Faroe Islands.
Which brings us to today. In an apparent change of heart, Reiss now wants that “creationism and “intelligent design” be banned outright.” What happened to his previous sensitivity to students’ world views? Has he abandoned it? To be fair, he is quoted in the article as saying, “If creationism is discussed, it should be made clear to pupils that it is not accepted by the scientific community,” which could be interpreted as consonant with his previous sentiments. But such an interpretation sits uneasily among quotes such as, “the threat of creationism and ‘intelligent design’ being taught as science is real and ongoing” (Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association) and the call by the campaign to ban creationism and ID outright.
Has Michael Reiss changed his mind? If so, I’m disappointed. While I basically agree with the campaign that creationism and ID shouldn’t be taught as science, completely banning it from the science class room is not just an unsustainable policy, it also plays right into the hands of those, on both sides, who stoke the fires of conflict between science and religion. What I appreciated above all about Reiss’ 2008 proposal was how he evaded precisely this conflict and did so in a sensitive and prudent way.