A Secular Age (4): “Religion” versus “Science”
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Don't Talk About Creationism, Or Else

Following this week's exploration of “religion” versus “science”, I’d like to conclude this theme by looking at this issue in current affairs.  

Michael_Reiss 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 United Kingdom. The implication of this resignation is that Professor Reiss has been forced out of his job as a result of his comments concerning creationism last week.

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:

An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species. What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for twenty years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn. I think a better way forward is to say to them ‘look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved.’

(Why are there an increasing number of children with creationist views? It is because of the increase in Muslim families in the UK, a proportion of which have traditional creationist beliefs. The percentage of belief in creationism in the UK has been estimated in 2006 to be about 20%; Professor Reiss suggests roughly one in ten students hold creationist beliefs).

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 UK. Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London said in respect of the resignation: “I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science - something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

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.”


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My wife and I merely emailed a couple of the more vocal critics of Reiss' position with Popper's comment that although one may not be able to have a rational discussion about such a topic, one should at least be able to have a reasonable discussion. No response, alas.

This is a shame ...

Are you sure about the proportion of muslim creationism? (I know, it's just a side-note) As far as I know the Quran does not feature a creation myth such as the one in the bible. It says the world was done by God, but that's about it. It does not even say, how It did it.
So, where does muslim creationism (I know there is some, I just doubt its significance) come from?

Peter: very glad to hear your made your voices heard on this. I have considered writing a letter to the Royal Society, but various prominent figures have already made my point, so I felt bringing this travesty to a wider audience via the blog was sufficient.

Shadaik: good question! I confess, before this debacle I had no idea there was an Islamic creationist movement. As you say here, the Quran doesn't include express information concerning a creation myth, and Muslims tend to believe that the book of Genesis, while linking into the wider context of religious texts they do acknowledge, is corrupted in some way, and thus unreliable. The vast majority of Muslims are not creationists.

However, there is a strong Islamic creationist movement in Turkey. The 19/20th century Islamic thinker Said Nursî is connected with what is called the Nurculuk movement that began in the 1970s. I imagine this was in response to the Logical Positivists ("the Vienna circle") and other European materialist philosophers in the early 20th century. Because of Turkey's position on the fringes of the European Union (which it wants to join), there are a lot of Turkish Muslims in the UK today.

Other places with an Islamic creationist influence include Indonesia and Malaysia - not sure of the story concerning these, however.

Finally, Muslims in the West sometimes seem to end up taking a Creationist stance as an act of solidarity with Christians (I imagine this happens in the US more commonly, because of the high numbers of Young Earth Creationists there). The somewhat fallacious argument is that which connects evolution with materialism, and thus rejects both as ungodly - thus making Creationism seem more appealing by making it seem more pious through contrast with "immoral" materialist beliefs. This allows Christians and Muslims in the US (say) to share solidarity via a common belief, which thus reduces intra-faith hostility - the silver lining to this particular cloud.

In this context, polemicists such as Dawkins make the matter worse - by arguing that evolution disproves God (which is inane metaphysics) he reinforces this mistaken idea that the theory of natural selection leads to the perceived moral vacuum many members of Abrahamic faiths associate with materialism. He drives certain people "back" towards Creationism, or entrenches people already there. This was the basis of my original criticism of Dawkins - not for attacking religion, but for being counter-productive to the role he is supposed to hold in bringing scientific issues into clearer light for the wider public.

The way to defuse Creationism (even assuming that this was necessary) is to come up with a theology of evolution that allows people to see natural selection as part of God's plan. Most liberal Muslims and Christians already believe this, but they keep their own council. I expect at some point we will have a few public religious figures who can express this idea in a way that will capture the popular consciousness, and this metaphysical tension will become greatly reduced. When this might happen is anyone's guess! :)

Thanks for asking this question! I found it interesting to investigate the subject further.

Best wishes!

We never discussed phlogistons and ether in science class either. Why should creationism be a special case?

And, if there was a topic "things which science shows evidence against", which includes the more disprovable forms of creationism, wouldnt there be a similar outcry from religious people, about attacking religions in schools and such?


I agree that it's bad that the media always blows things out of proportion, distorts things, and causes mistaken controversy. But that's a fault of the media, not some sort of anti-religious agenda or whatever. We see the exact same sorts of things regarding video game violence, immigrants and all sorts of other topics.

There was that controversy some months ago where a british priest was quoted to say that England would be subject to Islamic Law soon in the future, for example, which was reported completely in error and caused a storm of controversy.

Zeech: "We never discussed phlogistons and ether in science class either. Why should creationism be a special case?"

Because there are people around today you *do* believe in Creationism, and their viewpoint can't simply be dismissed.

Plus, my contention is that we *should* talk about phlogiston, ether et al in science classes, since I believe the philosophy and history of science is a vital subject currently being swept under the rug, contributing to the mistaken impression that "what scientists say is absolute truth". This helps no-one.

Although the media certainly shoulders some of the blame in this case, the anti-creationist lobby were the source of the political opposition, and the Royal Society caved in to it. I find the whole debacle shameful.

Best wishes!

Philosophy of science is often taught in universities tho, as a proper subject (along with other subjects like "ethics and issues in engineering" and stuff like that.) Heck, (I was an engineering student) the ethics in engineering class was *compulsory*, not an elective. (although probably most people would have taken it anyway since it's considered an easy-to-get-good-grades subject.)

The battle over the incredibly limited space in the high school curriculum is a fierce one, especially when even subjects like Art and Music are often casualties :)

Heh, when I was in uni (many years ago), I heard that U.S. students dont learn integral calculus until university. Is this still the case?

As for "cant dismiss the views of creationists", putting aside phlogistons, we dont get taught flat earth theory, or even superstring theory, in high school science class, and both of those have modern adherents.

There's many competing goals in HS education, I guess. For the university goers, we want to make things relevant and fun to give students a taste and spark an interest. But we also want to provide enough groundwork so universities dont have to teach from scratch.

However, HS education is also possibly the last education for non-university goers, so you want it to be useful and factual enough so they have a chance of understanding the issues. But then also you want to teach and discuss the issues themselves, etc etc.

Anyways, I've lost sight of my point. But I personally still dont think creationism deserves to be even mentioned in basic "science" class, be it for or against.

Dismiss it in a seperate "issues in science" class, and discuss it seriously in "theology" class.

zeech: you seem to have gone down a weird side line where you think this is about teaching Creationism on the syllabus. That's not what's involved here.

This is about teachers being allowed to discuss (briefly) creationism and its relationship to science if a student brings up the subject without this being viewed as an offence of sufficient magnitude to warrant dismissal from a post.

You think it shouldn't even be "mentioned" - but the point here is, what if the student mentions it? Ignore the student? Dismiss their views, as the anti-creationist lobby seem to want? Or treat the education process as a participatory experience and briefly engage in discussion?

I'm sorry, but no matter how packed the curriculum might be there's no reason that a science teacher can't take 5 minutes out of their lecturing to discuss issues like this which are culturally relevant to science, and especially when they are personally relevant to their students.

Ok, now that I read the original post again, it becomes clearer.

Still, teachers are currently perfectly free to respond to such questions however they want. That guy was making a personal suggestion I suppose, so the controversy is definitely overreacting.

Still if we're advocating that there be a certain defined response to questions of creationism as part of policy, then I'd still be against it.

In which case, the response will usually be determined by the biases of the teacher I guess.

Sure, I'm certainly not advocating pre-specified responses on any topic, just defending people who dare to suggest that it reasonable for science teachers engage their students on those related subjects that matter to them, and that includes creationism.

The idea that there are forbidden subjects (ones which could cost you your job if you mention them) strikes me as antithetical to the spirit of science.

Best wishes!

I'm not sure how many of the commentarists actually took the time to read either the posting, or Prof. Reiss' remarks, which is a shame, really, because he was saying nothing more than that which, on any other topic, would be taken as so obvious as to not be worth commenting on; namely, if a student asks a question that is based on a flawed premise, one should take the time to address the question constructively by, for example, addressing why the underlying premise is flawed.

For example, were a student to ask a question that was clearly premised on a racist assumption, would not your ordinary, average progressive take the time to exhaustively explain why racism is a flawed premise, rather than simply dismissing the student out of hand as an idiot?

And yet, as it stands, the orthodoxy would have a biology teacher wave his hand and dismiss a question premised on creationism with the statement "you're wrong, so sit down and be quiet." Is that really a constructive response, and doesn't it in fact feed the martyr syndrome that fuels so many creationist attacks on scientific endeavors?

Whitney: reading between the lines, you seem to be coming at this from a Christian background. I think it is easier for those coming from this direction (in whole or in part!) to feel what is so very wrong about refusing to discuss creationism in science classes.

The idea that teaching is about enforcing a doctrine and not about helping children learn about the world is perhaps one of the fundamental problems with our educational systems. It was wrong when it came from a Christian source (doubly so, as it contradicted the teachings of Jesus), but it is equally wrong when it comes from an ideological source.

And, while we're at it, welcome to the game! I'm guessing you're new here... I hope you stick around. There's a weird mix of content, but I talk about religion relatively often and I'm always keen to keep Christians (forgive me if I have jumped to this conclusion) involved in the discussions, as most of the commenters come from somewhere in or near the world of unbelief.

Nice to "meet" you!

Hi Whitney. At least one of the commenters did take the time to read both, and the comments of Reiss' critics :-).

One of the best physics lessons I ever had (back in the mists of time) occurred when one of my classmates wandered in with a "Nuclear power? No thanks!" badge on his blazer. The teacher threw away his notes for the session and it was open season on energy, fuel, generation, distribution and use. As a result, a class of 30 14-year-olds gained knowledge and insight into energy use, but also gained insight into the processes that led to the different opinions within society. I think most of us also gained more respect for the differences of opinions. Was this a poor use of a lesson? I don't think so. Would a discussion on creationism / not, that was facilitated so that it didn't turn into a debate or a stream of polemic, be a poor use? I also don't think so... but it takes a special teacher to be able to act as that facilitator.

Peter: isn't the tragedy of modern education that it is focussed on executing a script of planned learning (that many students aren't that interested in, and won't take in) when it could be focused on facilitating the learning of the pupils in a far more responsive manner?

Clearly the media over-reacted, but in my opinion, Dr. Reiss over-reacted also. Why didn't he stand his ground? Why didn't he insist on the reasonableness of his point of view and dare the Royal Society to be so petty-minded as to fire him? I don't want to blame the victim, but the victim here has allowed himself to be victimized rather than fighting for his position. He permitted others to put words in his mouth and failed to call them on that familiar, sleazy journalistic tactic. With a little more gumption he could have turned it into a discussion about the integrity of the British press.

I also think that his remarks reflect a certain naivety about the subject and the nature of the debate. There is no reasoning with young Earth creationists, no room for nuance. Their motivations have everything to do with social conservatism and nothing to do with science or the truth. They are not interested in finding common ground. They will push and push and push until school boards and other educational institutions give them some portion of what they want out of sheer exhaustion; at which point they will declare a partial victory and continue to push for the rest of what they want. Consider how watered-down American biology textbooks have become. They're already winning. In his position, Reiss should have known that.

When high schools start teaching philosophy of science, then there will be a place for discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of creationism in high school. But such debates do not belong in science class itself.

I acknowledge that science has changed throughout history and that it is by no means always correct about everything. But high school science classes are about the current state of scientific knowledge, whatever it may be, not about the philosophical roots of the discipline.

Permitting science classes to be disrupted by philosophical arguments of no practical value to the students does them a grave disservice. Should the 20% of British students who believe in creationism be permitted to change the agenda for the other 80% who are trying to learn biology? Hardly. Students get, what, one or two hours of science a week in school. There isn't enough time to teach them what they do need to know about orbital mechanics without bringing in Ptolemaic epicycles to confuse them.

Leave creationism for classes in the history of western thought, or folklore, where it reasonably belongs.

As for Mr. Crowther's remarks on nuclear power -- nice example, but not analogous. So far as I know, nobody's church claims that nuclear power is either beloved of or condemned by God in an ancient and inerrant holy book. Nuclear power is subject to a rational, fact-based debate about costs, benefits, and risks; and I agree that that was a good use of your class's time. Not so with a subject -- God's holy word -- about which a teacher is not even lawfully permitted to render criticism.

Nuclear power is subject to a rational, fact-based debate

It is? Where???

Ernest: You raise some good points here, particularly about Dr. Reiss not holding his ground.

But I disagree strongly on a few points.

"There is no reasoning with young Earth creationists..."

A shocking allegation! :) The Young Earth Creationists are a more diverse bunch than are usually considered. Sure, in the US they are a fanatical political presence - but then so are the Democrats and Republicans! :) Most people I have met with creationist viewpoints are perfectly capable of rational discussion, and I've seen no evidence whatsoever that children with creationist beliefs cannot be reasoned with.

"Permitting science classes to be disrupted by philosophical arguments of no practical value to the students does them a grave disservice"

On what basis do you judge this discussion to be of no practical value to the students? Learning about the interface between traditional beliefs and scientific beliefs strikes me as of incredibly practical value, especially given the lack of attention this subject is given.

"There isn't enough time to teach them what they do need to know about orbital mechanics without bringing in Ptolemaic epicycles to confuse them."

I hear this argument a lot - 'there's no time to teach other material in science classes'! I believe this argument suffers from a certain confusion since it misunderstands what I would claim most students get out of a science class. Yes, you and I who are good academics learn the detailed knowledge of the sciences - although if you were anything like me, I taught myself most of what I learned. But the majority of students in any pre-university class will not remember hardly anything of the scientific lessons they are taught beyond their exams. But they may remember discussions that break out in class that consider the practical aspects of science. I don't believe that the curriculum is the highest measure of learning, and I personally believe that a short aside on topical subjects is a healthy learning experience.

I contend that the attempt to perfectly delineate science classes so that "only science is taught" risks misleading students as to the nature of science. There is no perfect body of knowledge to be taught - just a collection of instruments and methods.

When I consider what kind of teacher I would want teaching the next generation of students, I would want one able to engage the minds of the students, and to discuss the issues of interest to them - whether or not that was part of the curriculum. That might make me a "scholastic heretic" but then, haven't we moved beyond believing that rote learning is the epitome of education? I certainly hope so!

Thanks for sharing your views on this!

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