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Has the Royal Society’s rough handling of Michael Reiss backfired?

On 11 September 2008, Professor Michael Reiss, then Director of Education of the Royal Society, addressed a British Association Festival of Science meeting and suggested that science education must incorporate respect for the individual and teachers need to recognise that creationists have a worldview which differs in significant ways from our secular culture.  Consequently, teachers should not go into battle and treat creationist students as enemies, but engage with things their students do understand in order to communicate science issues.  For this, Reiss was treated in a very hostile way and this culminated in him resigning from his post in the Royal Society.  The Press Release declared that Reiss was considered to have said things that "led to damage to the Society's reputation". It should be noted that Reiss has never expressed any sympathy with creationism and that he defends evolutionary explanations of origins. 

In an article in the November issue of Evangelical Times (also in an article here), I suggested that the Royal Society has struck a blow against academic freedom in its treatment of Michael Reiss.  A secularised science perspective has been elevated to "consensus science" and is being used as a means of control and the standard for assessing the legitimacy of all other points of view.  Worldview thinking is evaluated in the same way, with the secularised naturalistic mindset being the reigning orthodoxy.  Reiss is tolerated but regarded as an embarrassment; theistic evolutionists are accepted on condition they keep their theism out of science; but creationists and advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) are excluded completely from the scientific enterprise.

This hard-nosed secularised face of science creates a major problem for science educators, because most students find it alienating (for more on this, go here).  To his credit, Michael Reiss recognises the problem.  He knows that many students find a tension between their religious worldviews and secularised science.  This is part of the background to his professional advice for teachers to recognise that these students live in a different world from the secular scientists.  In their world, God is the Creator and Upholder of all things and he is the Lord of history.  This God gives meaning and purpose to our lives and to the natural world, and these students are open to science as the study of God’s handiwork.  Once this analysis of the situation is accepted, it becomes perfectly reasonable for theists to recognise design in nature.  Furthermore, it is possible to have a rational discourse about science, design and creation when worldviews are respected.  Sad to say, it is this discourse that the secularisers within science fear and seek to avoid.

Recently, a Teachers TV poll of science teachers found overwhelming support for Michael Reiss: 87.9% took the view that creationism and intelligent design could be discussed in science lessons if students raise questions.  The Chief Executive of Teachers TV said:
"Nearly half of teachers also agreed with Professor Michael Reiss' sentiment that excluding alternative explanations to evolution is counter-productive and alienates pupils from science.  Perhaps most telling is the fact that, almost nine out of 10 teachers take the pragmatic view that they should be allowed to discuss creationism or intelligent design in science, if pupils raise the question."

This means that these teachers do not endorse the secularist view that creationism and ID are nonsense, not science, and have no place in the classroom.  The Royal Society has no warrant to say that Reiss’ views have damaged its reputation.  Rather, the consensus among science educators is supportive of Reiss and suggests that the Royal Society has damaged its own reputation as an opinion-former in science.

More significantly, 31.1% of teachers agreed that creation and ID should be given the same status as evolution. Whatever they meant by this, this is a remarkable statistic for the UK, because this is not the guidance that teachers have been given by science leaders.  Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, had a predictable comment to make.  It simply regurgitates the standard secularist response to these issues:
"The findings in this survey are extremely alarming. It is time for the Government to issue instructions to schools that creationism is not to be given credence in science lessons. The place to discuss it is in religious education classes."

Adam Rutherford expressed “serious concerns” about these dissenting science teachers, and said that people with these views “need retraining or should be taken out of the classroom if they refuse to change their opinion”.  In other words, if you do not toe the line, and you are not prepared to be retrained to adopt ‘correct’ ways of handling these issues, then you need to be removed from your post.  This is real “Big Brother” stuff and professionals everywhere out to reject this advice as a dangerous move towards totalitarianism in education (for more on this, go here).  Curiously, Rutherford has made a 30 minute video (accessed here), with the participation of Michael Reiss.  Somehow, Reiss is cast as an ally of Rutherford and we hear nothing of Reiss’ call for the recognition of creationism as a worldview.  For more on his approach, go here.

On the one hand, secularists present science as objective, ideology-free and universal.  On the other hand, secularists retreat into demarcation arguments, insisting that science is secular and that philosophical naturalism is the only foundation on which science can build.  These two stances are fundamentally incompatible!  Teachers are now being embroiled in controversy to a significant extent and badly need some anchors to orient their thinking.  Michael Reiss’ worldview approach is a good place to start and teachers may go on to recognise the secularist worldview behind many pronouncements made in the name of science.  This then can feed into a “teach the controversy” approach – where teachers are free to explore the evidence through different perspectives coming from different worldviews. 

BCS does not have a policy statement on the way origins should be approached in schools – nor do we intend to have one.  However, we do encourage teachers and policy-makers to recognise the importance of worldview thinking in science and introduce students to worldviews affecting science.  This is supremely important when creationism and ID are being discussed, because students can be helped to recognise that the same facts can be understood in quite different ways when scientists approach the evidence with different worldviews.  A genuine debate is possible!  Furthermore, we find the “Teach the controversy” approach very useful for introducing students to issues where scientists disagree and where students are stimulated to think for themselves and develop skills of analysis and critical appraisal. 

Instead of secularists declaring incessantly that creation and ID are nonsense and have no place in the science classroom, it is time those involved with educational theory to gather some data on which to base their arguments.  What is the evidence that students exposed to such thinking are adversely affected?  What if research shows that students exposed to creation are more strongly pro-science than students who are exposed only to evolutionary theory?  What if students experiencing the “Teach the controversy” approach have a greater enthusiasm for science than other students?  The educational discourse about these questions has been soured by a dogmatic insistence that we already know the answers to these questions.  We consider that a few surprises are on the way if educationalists ground their thinking on evidence rather than evolutionary dogma.

For further reading:

Letter to the Secretary of State for Education regarding the teaching of origins
Teaching Controversy – the creation vs evolution debate
Teaching that does justice to the data about origins
Intelligent Design - Science education and design in the natural world

David J. Tyler (November 2008)

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