What Michael Reiss said

I’m sure you all remember the fiasco that broke out back in September about the comments made by Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education for the Royal Society, on the topic of teaching creationism. I just thought I’d take this opportunity to look back and clarify what really happened.

It all started on Thursday 11th September with a blog post that Michael Reiss wrote for the Guardian online Comment is Free section. The gist of the article is putting forward the argument that science teachers should take pupils’ questions seriously and answer them fully when they have questions about evolution from a creationist or intelligent design standpoint. I agree with this. The teacher doesn’t have to make any comment on the relisgious viewpoint but they can present the evidence and the arguments for evolution as a theory of how life developed on Earth. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Reiss wasn’t quite careful enough about the exact wording. For example, the subheading includes the phrase “openly discussing creationism and intelligent design as alternatives to evolutionary theory”. I don’t know if Michael Reiss chose this subheading or whether a guardian journalist did, but this is problematic. The article specifically discusses the teaching of science and creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories. Science classes should address questions which arise from them, but these are not scientific theories with hypotheses, predictions and evidence; they are religious accounts of the origins of life.

What happened next is that the media got hold of this ambiguity and it hit the headlines. The Guardian, the Times and the BBC reported that Reiss suggested that creationism and intelligent design should be taught in schools. At this point, the whole thing explodes. The Royal Society issues a press statment clarifying that it has not changed its position and it still believes that creationism and intelligent design have no place in science classrooms. Leading scientists, including nobel laureates, are outraged and start to speak out to the media condemning this suggestion and calling for Michael Reiss to stand down as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. This also draws attention to the fact that Michael Reiss is an ordained priest in the Church of England, and some commenters start to suspect a conflict of interests and question whether a religious person should hold such an eminent scientifc post at all.

Finally, on Tuesday 16th September, Professor Michael Reiss resigns from his post Royal Society Director of Education. The Royal Society released another press statement stating that while Prof. Reiss’ views were misinterpreted it was agreed that it would be best for everyone if he stepped down. Furthermore, the Royal Society clarified that it did believe that teachers should do their best to answer children’s questions on creationism and explain the evidence for evolutionary theory and how creationism in contrast is not a scientific theory. Once again, the media enthusiastically covers the story of the Director’s resignation following a misunderstanding (although not a single article acknowledges that the ‘misunderstanding’ occurred in their very own publication) and include plenty of leading figures expressing regret at this resolution. The BBC provides a quick overview, the Guardian includes the critical comments of Barry Sheerman, chair of the Commons education committee, whereas the Times includes criticisms from Lord Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London and the Daily Mail jumps on the bandwagon to blame ‘militant atheists’ for the resignation.

The whole affair seems a bit unfortunate. Personally, I fully agree that teachers should make every effort to listen to and address pupils’ questions as fully and clearly as possible. I also agree that scsience teachers should not dismiss or belittle those whose questions arise from creationism or intelligent design but should clearly explain the evidence for evolution as a theory and explain how creationism and intelligent designs are not scientific theories but religion based explanations for the origins of life. It is not the teacher’s place to judge the religious beliefs held by a pupil and likewise creationism and intelligent design have no place in science curricula. Unfortunately, Prof. Michael Reiss was ambiguous and unclear when presenting these arguments and as a representative of a long-established, scientific organisation, this was a gross error. This then compounded when the headlines all ran with this misunderstanding, naturally scandalising the scientific community. Professor Reiss’ resignation occurred, not because of his views, but because he failed in his profession capacity. As a spokesperson, such a dangerously ambiguous statement should not have occurred. However, Professor Reiss continues in his role as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education and the Royal Society has wished him all the best with that.

1 Response to “What Michael Reiss said”

  1. 1 Tim Mills November 4, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    Thanks for this thorough summary. I remember the event, but never got a clear picture of what had happened to set it all off.

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