Following this week's exploration of
“religion” versus “science”, I’d like to conclude this theme by looking at this
issue in current affairs.
Earlier this week, Professor Michael Reiss (pictured) stepped down
as director of education for the Royal Society, a prestigious learned society which serves as
the academy of science in the
What were these scandalous comments? Professor Reiss suggested that rather than dismissing creationism as a “misconception” teachers should see it as a cultural “world view”, take the time to explain why creationism had no scientific basis, and added that this was more valuable than simply “banging on” about evolution. In a later interview he added:
(Why are there an
increasing number of children with creationist views? It is because of the
increase in Muslim families in the
The problem, it seems, was not the actual comments that Professor Reiss made, but the way they were reported in the media. Even the moderate BBC news coverage ran with the misleading headline “Call for creationism in science”, and the fact that Professor Reiss is a Church of England Minister as well as a biologist doubtless added to the confusion.
The media coverage inflamed the anti-creationist lobby leading, to comments like the following from Mr. Porteous Wood: “Creationism is anti-science. Teaching it to children is a form of intellectual child abuse, because it gives them the wrong facts about life.” This viewpoint clearly draws on Professor Dawkins polemic that teaching anything but ‘the correct science’ is child abuse, a position that is monstrously naïve in terms of philosophy of science, presuming that the science of any one given era can be treated as absolute truth despite the manifest evidence that scientific beliefs change over time.
My view on this debacle is
echoed in the voices of other scientists in the
The chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Roland Jackson, stated: “I was at the actual discussion and what I heard him say, however it has been reported, was essentially the position advocated by the Royal Society.” He also suggested the Royal Society “should have supported him and used this opportunity to further a reasoned debate”.
All this dovetails with my position that creationism is a reasonable topic to discuss in schools when the students hold this belief, and attempting to suppress discussion is utterly counter-productive. Creationism is no longer considered a valid scientific theory, but this does not make it anti-science, and the discussion of why creationism is not a scientific theory is a legitimate scientific topic. It lays out the boundary conditions for our modern understanding of the scientific process. Similarly, phlogiston is no longer considered a valid scientific theory, but there is nothing anti-scientific about discussing phlogiston – in fact, discussing failed theories teaches far more about the scientific method than enforcing a dogmatic interpretation of science. The use of phrases like “anti-science” reveals partisan psychology at work.
Modern scientists should be sufficiently secure in their scientific beliefs to have discussions on any topic relating to science without it being a cause of cognitive dissonance. When this is not possible, the objective perspective which scientists strive to attain (but never truly can) is entirely lost, and in the absence of even the intent of objectivity the essence of the modern scientific method is obscured. Since the scientific community disagrees on so many facts, it is absurd to treat any aspect of modern scientific knowledge as dogma – when this happens, we have fallen into the nightmare of epistemic dictatorship I lampooned earlier this week in the nonsense piece about the Science Pope.
Professor Reiss’ resignation is an embarrassment to the Royal Society, whose distinguished history spans almost 350 years. When the Royal Society was founded, various forms of creationism were the dominant theories of the origin of life. To contend that these older beliefs are no longer permissible topics for discussion is to irreparably harm the credibility of the scientific endeavour, to violate its assumption of neutrality, and to radically fail to uphold the grand tradition of discussing any and all aspects of human knowledge in a spirit of open debate, upon which all scientific institutions are alleged to be founded.
Sir Isaac Newton, one of the progenitors of modern science, held views that accorded with those of the proponents of Intelligent Design, saying of the Universe: “This most beautiful system could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Holding this belief did not invalidate his scientific work, which included the publication in 1687 of the most influential book in the history of science, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. But he knew full well that future scientists would see further than him:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been
only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then
finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great
ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Today’s would-be Science Popes would do well to heed Sir Isaac’s advice that “tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.”