British priest scientist says teach pupils creationism. No. Reiss says science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism if it comes up genuinely in class (subtle crucial difference)

September 11, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools

The education director at the Royal Society says science teachers should treat creationism as legitimate

Oh dear.  Scientific and religious views are getting so muddled up these days … along with political ideologies.  No wonder people are confused.

Look at this quote from today’s article in The Times:

Professor Reiss used to be evangelical about promoting the theory of evolution when he taught biology in schools but eventually decided his approach turned some pupils away from science.

How can one be evangelical teaching science?  Presumably in the sense of being ardent, and perhaps it’s the extreme intensity of this approach that may turn people away—from anything.

Update: You can listen to this (Friday) morning’s interview on the BBC Radio 4 TODAY programme here, introduced thus:

Creationism should be discussed in science lessons, according to the professor in charge of education at the Royal Society. He says that with more children coming into class who do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe, creationism should not be treated as taboo. Professor Michael Reiss, of the Royal Society, and Dr Simon Underdown, of Oxford Brookes University, discuss whether creationism has a place in the science classroom.



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  1. It came over quite differently when he was interviewed on Today (R4) this morning – he simply said that if creationism is raised in a science lesson then the teacher should be prepared to address the issue.

    “Evangelical” would be a delightful way of describing Richard Dawkin’s atheism!

  2. Hello SomeBeans,
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree with you—the media headlines don’t in any way do justice to Reiss’s mild-mannered, sensitive and moderate approach.
    I listened to the interview this morning on Radio 4 and wondered how I could change the title of this post, because it was clear to me that he did not state “teach creationism” but rather his point is “science teachers should be prepared to answer questions on creationism when they are raised, quite naturally, in class”. I changed it from the blunt:
    British priest scientist says teach pupils creationism
    to the lengthy title you see now!
    (This highlights part of the problem with soundbites and headlines.)
    My concern with Reiss’ approach is that most science teachers cannot be expected to know the nuances of creationism understood by various faiths. Similarly, most religious teachers should not be expected to teach science topics.
    Having said that, a Reverend Professor who is both a priest and a scientist—and a well-educated and highly regarded one at that—appears to be missing a grounding in the reality of the way our current society works and the power of well-connected lobbies to twist words to support their own goals. I have no idea why he made this statement now, but the rise of Sarah Palin as candidate for VP in America has raised the profile and amount of discussion of creationism at this time. There is no doubt Reiss can easily handle scientific and religious topics comfortably and knowledgably, and I can understand his academic approach to this topic, but it does not play well in the real world. This morning’s interview made me wonder whether he has any knowledge of the way science has been hijacked by special interest groups including those who hold specific political ideologies in America? (Perhaps I just don’t like to see another well-respected member of the British establishment falling into the same kind of holes the Archbishop of Canterbury digs for himself …) Some remarks that go down well in the hallowed halls of academic and ecclesiastical settings don’t play well in the public arena through mainstream media outlets or the blogosphere.
    It seems to me the American media are hung up on the idea of presenting ‘balance’, and I put that in inverted commas for a reason. Reporters balance one opinion against another for politics and it works fine. However, when journalists use the balancing act on scientific topics, spreading doubt and creating debates in the public arena that serve to benefit special interests (e.g. smoking lobby, free market global warming contrarians), they are performing a disservice to the advancement of science, and displaying a great disrespect for scientists.
    I do think science teachers should stick to science and religion teachers should stick to religion. I have taught both—science to graduate engineers in Europe and Christianity to elementary school children in America. There are scientists who are comfortable discussing their own personal beliefs, but many are not. Britain is having enough trouble recruiting good science and maths teachers as it is, without having to be concerned with their ability to handle the occasional faith-based question in class too.
    In my mind, science and religion both help us appreciate or understand the miracle and wonder of the world in different ways. However, there is still an important discussion to be had about the situations in which it is appropriate to use one approach or the other—knowing the difference between accepted scientific evidence and faith-based personal beliefs. These can coexist without conflict, but media like to stir up controversy and people are attracted to debate, so sensitive considered statements by highly educated professionals can end up as blunt headlines, consequently polarising communities around the very topics they seek to treat with respect.

  3. oops – my bad for stimulating a rather unattractive change in post title 😦

    I guess there’s two issues here:

    1. How comments are reported in the media; what this chap appears to have said originally was really quite reasonable but the original reporting of it looks wilfully inaccurate. This is very widespread, and the idea of ‘balance’ is not just an American vice. It’s difficult to know how to counter this, I suspect the answer lies in framing (as discussed by Chris Mooney). Traditionally scientists have not thought particularly deeply about framing, they probably have a lot to learn from politicians in this regard.

    2. How should school science teachers address creationism. It seems to me this is a good opportunity to address the difference, in general terms, between a scientific explanation and a religious explanation. This doesn’t require a knowledge of different creation myths. I assume that an organisation like the Royal Society can provide suitable teacher support material. In a way the fact that the professor is a reverend professor is helpful, because this message is more likely to be accepted by the religious coming from him than it is coming from Richard Dawkins (whose basically going to wind them up from the moment he opens his mouth, if not before).

  4. Hi SomeBeans,
    I don’t think you need to apologise about my post title: the revised version is unattractive, and that’s part of my point. The media need to market stories and choosing a (controversial) snappy headline to attract audiences is definitely part of the issue here.
    I agree with you that evolution and creationism present school science teachers with a golden opportunity to teach the difference between scientific and faith-based approaches to topics, but it seems to me that it would be good to bring the religious studies teacher into the classroom for a discussion too. Now, if the Royal Society and religious leaders could work together to produce guidance for teachers, that would be something. In the back of my mind the objections to the showing of An Inconvenient Truth in schools, and the court case that ensued over that, highlights the problem with providing guidance to teachers on purportedly ‘controversial’ issues.
    I do think the concept of ‘balance’—providing equal weight to opposing views that are not equally widely held—is overused in America, to the point of unbalancing American reporting. By contrast, good British science reporters have more often represented the accepted scientific assessments (at least on climate change) more accurately in UK quality papers.
    Here’s a quote from a FAIR article on journalistic balance that’s relevant to Reiss’s remarks:

    According to media scholar Robert Entman, “Balance aims for neutrality. It requires that reporters present the views of legitimate spokespersons of the conflicting sides in any significant dispute, and provide both sides with roughly equal attention.”

    Reiss specifically stated that equal attention should not be given to creationism and evolution. He’s right. But the media ran the story about his comment with a headline (echoed by me in my original post title) that gave full attention to the minority view!
    Yes, framing would help, but that is the job of reporters, not scientists. (Just as in the corporate world, framing is the job of marketing staff, not of engineers…!) Science writers are meant to perform a role for their audiences, which is taking what scientists say and presenting it accurately to their audience in a form that can be more easily digested.

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