More God delusion

September 16, 2008 at 10:37 pm | Posted in Education | Leave a comment
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Professor Michael Reiss, who’s caused something of a storm with his recent comments about the role of creationism in science lessons, has been forced to step down from his position as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. Here’s part of their statement:

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.

Of course, how the Royal Society conducts its internal affairs is entirely their own business, but these two short sentences reveal everything that’s absurd about the situation. Look again at that statement and then take a look at Michael Reiss’ own thoughts on the matter, and you’ll find that they share the same position. At no point did Reiss even hint that creationism had a scientific basis or that it should enjoy a place in the curriculum. Indeed, all he was really guilty of was discussing a practical way of approaching the topic if it was brought up by a pupil:

When teaching evolution, 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. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said.

I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science.

It’s worth remembering for a moment that Reiss has actually taught science in schools, unlike some of his critics. But whether you agree with the practicalities of his suggested approach or not (and I’ve some related thoughts on the subject here), he certainly doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s received for merely offering his own personal elaboration on how the Royal Society’s position might work in practice.

I understand, of course, that science has always endured a difficult relationship with religion; indeed, the Church of England is only now thinking of issuing an apology to Charles Darlin for the way they tried to wreck his life’s work. In the present day, as in the past, I can sympathise that scientists may feel threatened by the spread of unthinking religious dogma. But I’m afraid it demeans the Royal Society and the scientific community in general when a man like Professor Reiss encounters such a wave of outrage upon offering a few humble thoughts that he’s forced to step down in ignominy. Scientists can ill afford to behave as dogmatically as the creationists themselves.

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