Royal Society shows how not to deal with the C word

Science pedagogue, bioethicist and Christian priest Michael Reiss has today fallen on his sword, and is no longer the Royal Society‘s director of science education.

Last week Reiss made some seemingly controversial remarks concerning creationism and science teaching. At the British Association’s Festival of Science in Liverpool, Reiss expressed a view about how science teachers could deal with creationist beliefs if they were expressed in class by students. Instead of simply telling pupils that religious creation myths are nonsense, Reiss urges teachers to discuss the issue openly, and present the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

Nobel laureates Richard Roberts, John Sulston and Harry Kroto reacted so negatively to Reiss’s heretical words that they mounted a campaign to have the UK’s premier science educationalist defenestrated. We also had parliamentary science committee chairman Phil Willis demand from the Royal Society an explanation of Reiss’s comments and the society’s position on the matter. Britain’s science academy initially stood by its education director, but appears to have caved in under pressure and forced Reiss to quit.

To my mind this a typically managerialist way of dealing with bad PR. It is also a slur on the character of Michael Reiss, who contrary to popular belief has never called for the teaching of creationism in school science lessons. Maybe Reiss was a little naïve in the wording of his comments, but he is at least partly right, and should have been supported by his colleagues.

So what exactly did Reiss say?

“My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science.”

Who could possibly argue with that?

“I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn’t lead some pupils to change their minds at all. Now I would be more content simply for them to understand it as one way of understanding the universe.”

This makes me feel uneasy, but at the same time I think I understand what Reiss is saying here. As well as being the scientific theory that best fits the evidence, evolution by natural selection is a world view, and as such it must compete with religious cosmologies that continue to have a powerful cultural pull on a significant minority of the population.

“Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from the science lesson… 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.”

Absolutely. Teachers shouldn’t avoid the subject if it is raised by students. Reiss is no ‘intelligent design’ propagandist calling on schools to ‘teach the controversy’.

Look what happened when Richard Dawkins led a school biology lesson as part of his outstanding television series on Darwin, and had students raise religious objections to evolution. Dawkins faced them head on, and spent valuable lesson time explaining that the theory of evolution describes how organisms develop over millennia, and how religious ‘truths’ cannot compete with a testable scientific theory that fits the evidence present in the world around us.

Explaining its official position, the Royal Society said:

“[C]reationism 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.”

How is this any different from what Reiss has said? I have to agree with the words of Imperial College professor and celebrity scientist Robert Winston:

“I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

A year ago Reiss remarked that the teaching of evolution was being made increasingly difficult owing to the rise of creationist beliefs among school students. Increasing numbers of children from practising Muslim households have made this an issue that must be addressed, he said. I would add that the rise of fundamentalist evangelical sects within the wider Christian church, and the relative decline of enlightenment-friendly liberal Christianity, is also relevant here.

Reiss estimates that one in 10 people in Britain believes in literal interpretations of religious creation stories. If he is right, then we have a serious problem. Education is about more than imparting bite-sized facts to children, and demanding that they accept them. As a pedagogue Reiss is acting responsibly in calling for serious public debate on how to address the issue, and advising teachers on how to react to students who raise religious objections to evolution.

Returning to Dawkins’ TV documentary, I found it depressing that a group of teachers with whom he spoke felt that the path of least resistance was the best one in the circumstances. Rather than confront the issue, these science teachers felt that it was better to compartmentalise science and culture, and head off any confrontation between them.

But this is exactly what Reiss is warning us against.

They should be working together, Michael Reiss and Richard Dawkins, and not on opposite sides of a row cooked up by science grandees who appear to have no idea about the challenges involved in educating children in a complex, multicultural world. This is not about ‘accommodationism’, as Dawkins argues on his blog; it is about teachers showing respect for children as sentient human beings, and teaching science without alienating their subjects.