Friday, September 19, 2008

Creationism in science classes

Norm thinks that the "Royal Society should be ashamed of itself". Harry's Place called for its readers to "Defend Michael Reiss". Chris Dillow thinks the episode shows that "[s]ome scientists seem to do a bad job of defending science".

The background is as follows:

[Reiss's] resignation comes after a campaign by senior Royal Society Fellows who were angered by Professor Reiss’s suggestion that science teachers should treat creationist beliefs “not as a misconception but as a world view”.

The furore came after a speech given by Professor Reiss to the British Association for the Advancement of Science last week, in which he said that teachers should accept that they were unlikely to change the minds of pupils with creationist beliefs.

“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,” he said.

“I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn’t lead some pupils to change their minds at all. 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.”
There is a context which Reiss's supporters haven't seemed to take into account. Creationism was Reiss's topic, rather than Astrology or Alchemy - each of which have arguably a better claim for inclusion in broad discussions in science classes because though unscientific, they were both in some ways precursors to the genuine sciences of astronomy and chemistry. Why creationism?

There is a fierce campaign under way to crowbar this superstition into science classes - it is already included in religious education lessons. You'll have read about the various court battles in the USA. An extremist creationist has won a court order in Turkey, banning access to Richard Dawkins' website for the entire country. In the face of this campaign, Reiss's comments were completely unacceptable. Although a minister himself, and therefore unusually religious, he was speaking as an officer of one of the most important scientific institutions in the world. And he was trying to open the gates to the enemy.

What happens in science classes now when teachers are confronted by children who subscribe to these primitive delusions? Steve picked up recently on a television series made by Richard Dawkins:
In this episode he confronted a group of science teachers about their reluctance to challenge the creationist views of some school children. He blamed multi-culturalism:
The compromised values of multi-cultural Britain mean that teachers hesitate to offend the religious beliefs of their pupils, even when these directly contradict scientific fact.
The exchange with the teachers is illuminating, if somewhat depressing. Cowed by the fear of what might happen to them if they offended religious pupils, they had clearly given up the fight.

One teacher, trying to explain how difficult it is to change the mind of someone brought up to believe creationist myths as truth, revealed just how far multi-culturalist language has seeped into schools.
All we can do is present this as a way of thinking. It's one way of interpreting life. We believe this is the way because we are scientists.
Dawkins was incredulous. His voice rising, he asked:
We believe it because we are scientists?! Do you really mean that? Or do you mean you believe it because the evidence is there. Their evidence is not there. It's just made up.
There was an embarrassed silence as the penny dropped. Indoctrinated by years of multi-cultural relativism, these scientists had found themselves saying that science was just one way of understanding how the world was created. Whether or not they believed that was beside the point. Judging by their faces, I don't think they did but they knew what they had to say to survive in today's classrooms.
Teachers are already besieged by creationism and under perceived or real pressure not to challenge it too confidently. Reiss must be aware of this background, as the (now former) director of education at the Royal Society. He was placing the teaching of rationalism under even greater pressure than it faces already.

He should have been sacked, not allowed to resign.


cabalamat said...

There's a commonly held sentiment that people should respect others' people, and that doing so involves respecting their beliefs.

However some beliefs don't deserve respect, for example the belief that people with AIDS should stop taking their proper medication and take vitamin pills instead. This belief is factually wrong, and people who spread it are killing others, as surely as if they had strangled them.

Another factually wrong belief is creationism. I have zero respect for this belief. I think people who beleive it are stupid, deluded, irrational, and beleive it because they have an irrational tendency to believe things they want to be true. I therefore have difficulty in having any respect for creationsts

dearieme said...

Creationism is stupid rubbish. However “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,” is an empirical statement that I'm in no position to judge, but which seems plausible. He goes on to draw inferences from it which seem to me to be worth discussing. Instead, the Royal Society's authoritarian tendency pounces. I fear that "The Royal" is misbehaving regularly, as does one of my friends who is a Fellow.

Matt Wardman said...

>There is a fierce campaign under way to crowbar this superstition into science classes - it is already included in religious education lessons

Can you point me to some sources on that, John?

I see a lot of stuff arguing that such a campaign exists, but I don't see any significant groups mounting such a movement.


Peter Risdon said...


The best place to get an overview is this lecture by Kenneth Miller, a (Christian) biologist heavily involved in the court cases in the USA. I'm afraid it's nearly two hours long.

The latest battleground over there is North Carolina.

Here, two reports showing creationist materials had been introduced to UK science classrooms as early as 2006:

Guardian (piece categorised as 'controversies in science', which it isn't).

BBC on how OCR included creationist ideas in their GCSE syllabus.

Creationist campaign group Truth in Science sent packs of creationist teaching material to every school.

How long do you have? I could go on.

cabalamat said...

Matt and Peter,

There are apparently 40 UK schools -- all superstition schools, incidently -- that teach creationism in science lessons.