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Latest: Michael Reiss resigns 16 September 2008: see below

There has been something of a rumpus in the media today when the education secretary of the Royal Society, Michael Reiss, appeared to endorse the teaching of creationism in science classes,  The BBC’s report was only too typical.

“Call for creationism in science”

“Creationism should be discussed in school science lessons, rather than excluded, says the director  of education at the Royal Society.”

The Guardian’s report, perhaps also not entirely accurate, started with the words

“Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.”

After lunch today the email below was sent out to Fellows

Dear Fellow/Foreign Member

Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools

You may have seen in the today’s media coverage of the Royal Society’s position on the teaching of creationism in schools, following a speech by the Society’s Director of Education.  Unfortunately, much of the coverage has given a misleading impression of the Society’s policy.

To prevent further confusion, a statement clarifying the Society’s position has been issued today and the text is given below:

“The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science.  Some media reports have misrepresented the views of Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Society expressed in a speech yesterday.

Professor Reiss has issued the following clarification. “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.”

In addition, we are working actively to correct the misunderstanding by dealing directly with individual newspapers and broadcast media.

So that seems clear “The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science.”.  So I shan’t have to resign.

You can be sure that proponents of creationism, and its dishonestly disguised version, “intelligent design” will exploit this misunderstanding ruthlessly.

Much more of this and I’ll have to revive my old religion page. I thought for a moment that we were going back to the dark ages of Sarah Palin.

Watch this space for developments.


Perhaps this matter is not so trivial after all. The Guardian report Reiss as saying

“science teachers should not see creationism as a “misconception” but as an alternative “world view” “

The BBC says

“Rather than dismissing creationism as a “misconception”, he says it should be seen as a cultural “world view”. “

Most importantly, Reiss himself said, in a Guardian blog (not the original speech), on September 11th,

“I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.”

None of those versions sounds at all acceptable to me.

Creationism is a misconception.

The original speech can be heard on a Guardian Play the mp3 file.

It seems to me all to turn on what Reiss means by “showing respect” for ‘alternative world views’, which you believe to be pernicious bunkum. The term ‘alternative world view’ is itself cause for concern. It smacks of alternative medicine.  In what sense is a piece of nonsensical bunkum an ‘alternative’ as opposed to being simply bunkum?. I don’t envy teachers who have to deal with young children, who have been brainwashed by religious parents, on matters like this, but older ones should not be encouraged to think that religious nonsense is a proper alternative to sensible thought and observation.

The Observer on Sunday 14 September reports

Creationism call divides Royal Society

Two Nobel prize winners – Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts – have demanded that the Royal Society sack its education director, Professor Michael Reiss. The call, backed by other senior Royal Society fellows, follows Reiss’s controversial claim last week that creationism be taught in schools’ science classes.

Reiss, an ordained Church of England minister, has since alleged he was misquoted. Nevertheless, several Royal Society fellows say his religious views make him an inappropriate choice for the post.

The Reverend Professor Reiss presumably believes the Nicene Creed. That creed seems to make about as much sense as homeopathy (with the same reservation that some of the words have no discernible meaning at all). I’m inclined to agree that it makes no sense to ask someone who believes that stuff to take charge of science education.

Steve Jones, the UCL geneticist, has his say in the Sun

Latest: Michael Reiss resigns

On 16th September, the following statement was made by the Royal Society.

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.

Sadly, I’m inclined to believe that this is the best solution. Reiss’s soundness on evolution is not in doubt. but there was sufficient ambiguity in his statements that he should perhaps have anticipated the furore that would, and did, ensue.

Now the trivial stuff.

This video about Sarah Palin’s church was pulled from YouTube for “inappropriate content” -found it on richarddawkins.net

Sarah Palin’s Churches and The Third Wave from Bruce Wilson on Vimeo.

And this hilarious one from CNN

OK this is not very serious (or is it?). A computer game: players of PolarPalin must help a polar bear to navigate its way across Alaska to blow up oil wells, all the while avoiding Palin, the governor of the state, in her campaign tank.

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24 Responses to Creationism in schools


  • Lindy says:

    Whilst I am pleased to read the clarification by the RS, on a broader scale this may give a false sense of security. Tony Blair gave a green light to creationism being taught in British schools, in particular in some of the privately-funded academies, where it is, as I understand, sometimes paraded as science.

    The link to Sara Palin asks whether she is a creationist. From this Guardian aritcle (Sept 6th) it looks as if she puts JC before all else.


    Here is a quote from it:
    ‘The religious mission is still front and centre of her politics. ………….She is ……….[an] advocate of the teaching of anti-evolutionary creationism, or “intelligent design”, in schools’.

    ‘the senior pastor,[in her local church] Ed Kalnins, leads them in prayer. “Lord, we know that you have made this church a platform,” he exclaims. “You are using the wonderful Governor Palin to get your message of the gospel across.”

    What struck [Pastor Ed] was that in her eyes religion came first, politics second. He thought to himself: “This person loves Jesus. That’s the bottom line. She loves Jesus with everything she has. She is a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ before she is the mayor. Sarah Palin is the real deal.”

    Time to ensure the good health of John McCain – just in case…………?

  • Dr Aust says:

    Lindy – of course, that was precisely the same reason the US Evangelical Right worked and organised to get Dubya into office. As I remember, the tagline was that they believed electing Dubya meant that

    “God is in the White House”.

    …To which one can only say that the approval ratings suggest most Americans are rather disappointed with the results of all that divine guidance.

    Palin was chosen to appeal to exactly the same conservative fundamentalist evangelical constituency, as they dislike and distrust McCain, who until now has made his distaste for the Fundies fairly clear.

    Back to the main topic, there has been an extended discussion of the Michael Reiss statement, what it meant, and the reporting, over on the BadScience forum

  • Tony GM says:

    Once the eye-catching headline is passed, what is wrong with the BBC’s account?
    “Teachers should take the time to explain why creationism had no scientific basis, Prof Reiss said. He stressed that the topic should not be taught as science. This was more valuable than simply “banging on” about evolution, he said.”
    As Reiss suggests, science teaching is much more challenging and educative if it discusses how previously credible ideas have been overturned than if it presents conventional scientific knowledge as if it were a set of scriptures. Surely there can hardly be a better example of this than the evidence undermining creationism. Evolution is not a fact (as Dawkins likes to put it) but a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt, for the educated.

  • Tony, you are right but I have to say I think you are being just a tiny bit pedantic. Have you actually read Dawkins? I think he deals with your question very well. You are perhaps caricaturing his views in the way that religious people often do.

    On a rather similar question on Nature Networks, I just sent a comment that might be relevant here.

    “I can’t prove god doesn’t exist. And I can’t prove that the bottom of my garden is free of fairies. Neither hypothesis seems to me to be fruitful to spend time thinking about. But at least the fairies are (allegedly) benign, so I give them the edge”

    PS the last sentence is a (sort of) joke.

  • Tony GM says:

    I have seen Dawkins try (brilliantly, but with considerable difficulty) to do just what Reiss advocates, and am much in favour. But I don’t, as a scientist, think it at all pedantic to maintain doggedly the qualitative distinction between conclusion and fact – just as between convicted and guilty, acquitted and innocent, sound and convincing or accepted and true. The weight of evidence for evolution (also, though less so, for natural selection as the sole driving force) is so vast and fascinating that it is absurd to exaggerate it. This would put you in the camp of those who recognise that their argument is weak. But my main concern was to support Reiss’s thesis and what I thought was a fair presentation by the BBC, not to attack Dawkins.

  • Now that I have listened to the Guardian’s original recording, I’m not quite so sanguine about Reiss’s views, Thw report that he said

    “Rather than dismissing creationism as a “misconception”, he says it should be seen as a cultural “world view”. “

    seems to be quite accurate, and quite unacceptable (see follow-up).

  • Dr Aust says:

    Oh dear. Sloppy wording, at the least. I would have said

    ” A cultural worldview which gives rise to clear factual misconceptions”.

    The problem here is that religious folk have to give other religious folk a kind of all-encompassing benefit of the doubt, on the basis of the piety of the other believers and their joint “fellowship”.

    What I mean by this is that it is incredibly difficult for a moderate religious person – let us say, for the sake of argument, a scientist who view the Biblical creation story 100% as metaphor – to critique the views of the religious fundamentalists. Why? Because the fundamentalists have faith, and all religions regard faith as one of the highest, if not the highest, virtue.

    Or consider if a creationist evangelical Anglican were to say:

    “I believe in Creationism because of my love for God”.

    How, then, does the religious moderate criticise this? He cannot really criticise the devout fundamentalist’s love for God. But given that, how does he criticise the statement?

  • tomwootton says:

    Dr Aust,

    Faith is a requirement of all religious belief, not just that of fundamentalists – what fundamentalists seem to lack is its crucial counterpart – doubt.

    A moderate member of any religion can criticise the fundamentalist’s statement the way anyone else could, by saying that it’s ignorant and foolish; wrong, in short.

    God’s love does not, as far as I am aware, require a belief in Creationism, but a belief that He created the universe.

  • Dr Aust says:

    Fair enough, Tom, but I would argue that moderate members of religions nowadays rarely, if ever, criticise their own fundamentalists to any effect. They ought to, though, because the criticism is clearly much-needed.

    Where, for instance, are the moderate religious voices in the US criticising Sarah Pailn and her creationist stance?

    I still think the “we are fundamentalists and thus more devout than you moderates” must be part of what tends to make this criticism rather muted, to put it mildly.

  • tomwootton says:

    I suppose so. I wonder why that is? It may well be a feeling that to attack your own is to weaken an already weak position yet further through internal faction – at least that may be the case in England, where Christianity has been in decline for some years. As you suggest, I’m not sure if they are right to think that.

    I really couldn’t speak for the States though, as the only US Christians I know are in fact fundamentalists. Perfectly nice people of course – I just wouldn’t want them to teach a science course or run a school.

  • Dr Aust says:

    ..And Amen to that, tom. (I’m speaking strictly allusively).

    Just heard on the news that Reiss has resigned (as DC notes above). Not surprising – but sad to my mind as it indicates how difficult it is to avoid polarizing the debate. I don’t mean between “reality and non-reality” so much as the debate between co-existence (on the one hand) and mutual loathing (on the other). Though I am personally wholly without any kind of religious belief, I tend more towards the Gouldian “non-overlapping Magisteria” viewpoint than the Dawkins position… if only because I feel that the mutual loathing is not getting anyone anywhere and is taking up far too much time. But in the context of a world where politicians feel compelled to accommodate all religious viewpoints, no matter how far out, and and seem unable to distinguish facts and faith (Mr Blair springs to mind), I can see why Dawkins and Kroto (and DC!) take the stance they do. Indeed, when I read the bit on Wikipedia about Gould’s ideas, and Dawkins’ critique, I reckon they are both right.

  • I don’t think that in my case it is a matter of mutual loathing. Perhaps it is more simply resentment at the time people spend arguing about fairies at the bottom of the garden, when they could be doing something useful.

    Most of what Michael Reiss said was simply common sense, but the wording was unfortunate and in his (ex)-position you just can’t do that.

    The problems arise not so much from believing the Nicene creed (whatever that means) but the practical consequences for the rest of the world that comes from cultivating the ability to believe impossible things. Mr Blair certainly springs to mind, but even he suddenly seems less of a threat when one considers the possibility that Ms Palin could easily become president.

  • tomwootton says:

    Oh I’m not sure it’s just a case of fairies at the bottom of the garden. Most religions, as well as doing all sorts of more or less useful and destructive mundane things, have also spent a thousand years or so attempting to delineate the soul and its position in the universe.

    The fairies at the bottom of the garden formulation gets dangerously close to the scientist who says he or she doesn’t understand the point of fiction because it isn’t true – as ignorant and wayward as the Creationist who denies scientific discovery to live in a warm nest of intellectual blindness.

  • Yes they have spent an enormous amount of time on the “soul” and got precisely nowhere,

    I don’t see that there is any analogy at all with fiction because fiction , unlike religion, does not claim to be true. I think that reading Middlemarch was one of the things that got me interested the whole business of fantasy science.

  • gimpyblog says:

    Dr Aust,

    The trouble with Gould’s NOMA viewpoint is that it fails to take into account the nature of religion. Most religions (if not the adherents) use appeals to the supernatural, whether the threat of eternal damnation or a claim of moral superiority, to demand respect for their viewpoint.
    Clearly delineating between religion and the state does not work to quell the distortions of the devout. Take the USA for example. They have a well defined and very strict separation between church and state on paper but in practice religion has been allowed to permeate almost every public pronouncement or decision by a democratically elected or appointed member of that state. It is not enough to make a decision based on logic, reason, political ideology or even self-interest – it has to take supernatural powers into account as well.
    This situation has arisen because of the respect religion demands with menaces. Religion holds itself to be above criticism, to criticise it is to challenge the divine. And that leads to the destruction or eternal damnation of your soul we are told.
    NOMA falls apart because religions insist that their belief in the supernatural allows them to interfere in the lives of others who don’t hold their beliefs without criticism. This sets them up as a target for those who don’t share their beliefs and believe in a rational understanding of reality. Secularists demand that religion cannot use the supernatural as justification for interference but religion without the supernatural is just a philosophy, and those are ten a penny.
    Unlike most philosophies or political ideologies in democracies religion cannot tolerate dissent, criticism or condemnation because such arguments are not just an attack on the religion but an attack on divine. And this attack must mean, to those of religious belief, that those who instigate it are less moral and doom their souls because they do have that belief.

    I would also state that this argument is why the moderate religious cannot be relied on to curb the excesses of their faith. They do not want to be seen as challenging the authority of the divine.

    Sorry, I’ll cut it off there before this turns into loser length.

  • tomwootton says:

    “Yes they have spent an enormous amount of time on the “soul” and got precisely nowhere,”

    I’m not sure that’s true, or at least, what they explore is not about GETTING anywhere; religion is not utilitarian.

    “I don’t see that there is any analogy at all with fiction because fiction , unlike religion, does not claim to be true.”

    No, but it may contain truthes.

    Faith is a different matter of course. Not having faith myself, it’s difficult to comment, but I understand that even aside from whatever rewards there may be in Heaven, those who have faith feel that they are amply rewarded also on Earth.

    As I say, I’m not religious, but I’d defend people’s right to be, and I’d want my children to be able to choose to be so. It does not need to be the path of ignorance. Humans can hold contradictory beliefs at the same time and should exercise their right to do so.

    The eradication of religion from education and society would be a most unpleasant action.

  • I don’t know of anybody who wants to ban religion, and I don’t know anybody who wants to ban homeopathy. I believe that irrational beliefs will simply wither away as people become more educated.

    In Europe at least, christianity has been in continuous slow decline for a long time now. It isn’t entirely monotonic for sure, but the influence of far-right fundamentalism of the Sarah Palin type has been pretty small in Europe. I suppose the major setback in the UK has been Blair’s endorsement of “faith schools”, Tom Wootton says that he wants his children to be able to choose, and I agree entirely. The effect of faith schools is to deny that choice by presenting one view as the truth.

    I would love to know, but of course I never shall, whether Islam will eventually die out in the same way that christianity is, slowly but surely, becoming an irrelevant myth. I don’t want to ban it, but I don’t mind doing a little to speed its decline.

  • Tony GM says:

    I’m horrified at what the RS has done, and I think it will rue the day. It’s as if it totally fails to understand science education. This is not about telling students what they should believe, but about getting students to see how some ideas (certainly not all) can be and have been shown to be true or false. Some of creationism is clearly contrary to evidence. Some is unverifiable and not worth discussing. Some is attractive metaphor. God help us (in other words, there is no help for us!) if science teaching becomes a set of tick boxes for conventional scientific wisdom.

  • Tony, I think your are erecting a straw man. I’m sure that the RS does not believe for a moment, any more than I do that science teaching should become “a set of tick boxes”.

    It should, though, maintain a clear line between what is science and what isn’t. If a pupil believes fervently in creationism, then of course teachers should discuss it with them, as the RS statement makes clear. But they should not, in my view, blur the line between what is science and what isn’t because it might be offensive to the pupil. I still don’t know what Reiss meant when he talked of “respecting” alternative world views. It is precisely that lack of clarity that led to the furore and its consequences.

    Nobody wants to offend anyone, but as Dawkins has often pointed out, that is never applied fairly when it comes to matters of religion. I find young earth creationist views very offensive. I find it even more offensive that every time you struggle up a mountain in the Italian Alps you are greeted with graphic scenes of torture in the form of crucifixes. But political correctness dictates that only religious people can be offended. Atheists must grin and bear it. Hey ho.

  • Lindy says:

    David, I am not sure that it is a matter of political correctness, so much as the entrenchment of the church in the state, in this country at least.

    In the past twenty years or so I have been puzzled that, despite the fact that adhering to religious doctrine is no longer practised or even endorsed by the majority in this country, the ‘default’ position is that no one must offend god or its followers. Atheists and agnostics can be insulted at will, regardless of their feelings. The same applies to a certain extent in the realm of medicine and quackery: slam the doctors but spare the homs.

    Often it can be difficult to do so, but I feel that this position needs challenging at every opportunity, just as quackery does. It is easy to make such challenges on a friendly scientific website, harder when in a social setting: essential nonetheless.

  • Tony GM says:

    I fear it is the RS has created DC’s straw man in its own image. Reiss proposed the careful refutation of wrong ideas, and the RS engineered his resignation. Ergo the RS is seen to be in the embarrassing position of apparently opposing the careful refutation of wrong ideas. Of course the RS doesn’t actually oppose this. That’s why it’s such a dangerous and clumsy action. The RS even says more or less that neither it nor Reiss oppose it. So it lends credence to the false idea prominent in the press, that Reiss tacitly favours presentation of creationism in science classes. He doesn’t, so far as I can see. He promotes identification (and tolerance if necessary) of such views (if they arise from pupils) as alternatives that can be shown to be unscientific. He is trying sensibly to tackle one of the major problems of science education, and he has been (more or less) sacked. I don’t know that the issue deserves to fade away.

  • Dr Aust says:

    Yes, that was kind of what I meant about Gould and Dawkins both being right, Gimpy. The problem with NOM is that organised religion and its representatives cannot keep out of stuff where it is quite clear that religion has no special insight (though this is not true for religious people, who in my experience come in all shades of opinion, including thoughtful and circumspect).

    And the tendency of even fairly obviously non-believing politicians to lace their soundbites with appeals to God has me wincing. When I was a kid and teenager back in the 70s, religious figures and religion generally were widely seen as an irrelevance in the UK political debate, cf. DC’s comments above. The comeback of real and faux public religiosity among politicians is mystifying. I guess they must feel there are votes in it, though the more a politician does it, the less likely he is to get mine.

  • tomwootton says:

    Yep, agree with all of the above. It’s a lot easier to be sanguine about the effect of religion than it is in the States, I think.

    Rather a silly piece in today’s Guardian by Mark Lawson, to which I have responded under the name Waring.

    It does annoy me this idea that just because there are things that are unknown, it means we should doubt things that ARE known, or be credulous of the bloody silly.

    Also, just to bang on about ‘bloody humanities graduates in the media’. I do think it’s important for trained journalists (preferably with scientific backgrounds) to try and convey in the press the correct interpretation of scientific discover. I understand Ben Goldacre’s repeated frustation with scientific journalism in the press, but I don’t think to stop it altogether is the solution.

    However it seems to me very important that people realise that just because scientific experiments and discoveries have been put into words, it doesn’t mean they can be pulled apart in the same province, as if it were a debate about the plot of a novel or an interpretation of history.

    There, I’ll stop banging on now, cos I’m becoming a bore. Great site though by the way.

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