The 'C' Word

Michael Reiss, the education director for the Royal Society, stepped down from his post yesterday after several Royal Society fellows called for his resignation following comments he made last week on addressing creationism in the classroom. After reading his comments, it seemed to me that he was consistent with the Royal Society's position: "The Royal Society's position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific." (If you're curious, ACS's position on teaching evolution can be found here.) Many moons ago, I went to high school in the Bible Belt where the discussion on evolution in my advanced biology class was relegated to an exercise as "some believe this, some believe that, now write a statement on what you, personally, believe" in an effort to not offend. (This was likely a move to pacify parents rather than students, and I am grateful that at least I did not learn about evolution from "South Park" teacher Mr. Garrison.) I would have preferred a discussion, one that addressed how creationism is not based on scientific fact and evolution is, and I think that Reiss's comments and the Royal Society's position are entirely appropriate. You might also find of interest a letter Richard Dawkins, a Royal Society fellow, sent to New Scientist prior to Reiss's resignation. What do you think about the situation? Did Reiss receive unfair flak? Are people too reactionary as soon as the word "creationism" comes up? Does the fact that Reiss is an ordained minister affect your view at all (as Dawkins discusses in his letter)?

Author: Rachel Pepling

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  1. Speaking as a believer, I think it is important to clearly define what science is and to keep the content of the class on science. Admitting Young Earth Creationism in a biology class is the same as discussing alchemy in a chemistry class or astrology in an astronomy class–they represent a view held by people who are not part of the daily practice of science. It misrepresents the work of science to allow a “teach the controversy” discussion in a science class. There is no controversy. Although our economy is currently a mess because of greed, the strength of our economy for the last half century has been innovation based on technology that is impossible with a the science associated with a 10,000-year-old earth. High tech electronics is based on modern physics. Creationism rejects Einstein and all who followed him because if the speed of light is the constant we all know, the universe can’t be 10,000 years old. And the immense and growing biotech industry cannot use an 18th century model.

  2. I’m not a fan of the “teach the controversy” approach. But I think, certainly in some areas, creationism is still going to be brought into the classroom, even if the teacher doesn’t include it as part of the curriculum. (If you haven’t already seen it, the NY Times has a great profile of how a Florida teacher tackles this issue.) And teachers should be prepared to address it, even if only by saying, “Creationism is based on faith and is not supported by the scientific facts we are discussing today.” I don’t think teachers should take up class time defending evolution but should be willing to discuss the issue further with a skeptical student afterward. (I realize I’m a Dawkins’ accommodationist.)

    I believe this is along the vein of what Reiss was saying, and I think he was unfairly attacked for saying it, mostly because his comments were completely inline with the Royal Society’s position. It seemed to me that the Royal Society fellows (and others) who called for Reiss’ resignation based on his comments displayed a knee-jerk reaction to the word “creationism,” condemning him for advocating the teaching of it (which he was not).

  3. After reading the comments I agree with you in this specific case. But I have no idea what the general solution is because, as someone who knows combatants on both sides, there is no more respect and sympathy between these opponents than between the current presidential candidates. A Creationist who accepts the stuff in the Creation Museum believes that Cain and Abel were having dinosaur races, all of modern physics and biology is fundamentally flawed, and the people who dream up the Creation museum content are therefore smarter than Einstein. I know they see at as simply taking the Bible literally, but the implications of that literalism is a breathtaking arrogance.

    And I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to work your whole life in science and have that work dismissed out of hand by someone who thinks they can learn “Deep” science in a three-hour seminar hosted by the Institute for Creation Research.


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