A Furor over Creationism at the Royal Society

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
A Furor over Creationism at the Royal Society
Glenn Branch
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

The director of education for the Royal Society of London, Michael Reiss, resigned from his position on September 16, 2008, in the wake of a controversy occasioned by his recent remarks on creationism — even though Reiss, a biologist, accepts evolution, recognizes that creationism lacks any scientific legitimacy, and believes that students ought to be told, when the subject arises, that creationism has no scientific basis.

Reiss's remarks were apparently offered during the British Association for the Advancement of Science's Festival of Science, which took place September 6–11, 2008, in Liverpool; he subsequently posted a corresponding essay, "Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design," on the Guardian's science blog on September 11, 2008. In the latter, Reiss posed the question, "What should science teachers do when faced with students who are creationists?" and answered that "when teaching evolution, 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."

Reiss added, "The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time." He was also careful to note that whether such a discussion would be appropriate depends "on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body," adding, "I don't believe that such teaching is easy." Nevertheless, he insisted, "I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it — and to learn more science."

Unfortunately, the content of Reiss's message was distorted and sensationalized in the British media. For example, the story in the Times of London (2008 Sep 12) was headlined "Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools," and began, "Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government"; the Telegraph's story (2008 Sep 11) was similarly headlined "Creationism should be taught in science classes, says expert," and subheaded, "The theory of creationism should be taught alongside evolution in school science lessons, a leading biologist and education expert has said."

The Royal Society observed in a September 12, 2008, press release that "The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science," citing the 2006 Interacademy Panel statement (see RNCSE 2006 Jul/Aug; 26 [4]: 13–6) on the teaching of evolution, to which the Royal Society is a signatory. It also quoted a clarification from Reiss: "Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis."

Nevertheless, there was a quick outcry from a number of British scientists. Richard Roberts, a member of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize winner, was quoted in the Guardian (2008 Sep 14) as saying, "I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates — which would be sent to the Royal Society — to ask that Reiss be made to stand down." And Roberts indeed sent a letter endorsed by his fellow laureates Harold Kroto and John Sulston to the Royal Society, complaining about Reiss's remarks as reported.

Part of the outcry centered on the fact that, in addition to being a biologist and professor of science education, Reiss is also a clergyman, ordained in the Church of England. Richard Dawkins told the Guardian (2008 Sep 14), "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation — it's a Monty Python sketch," and Roberts's letter to the Royal Society commented, "We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?"

Subsequently, in a September 16, 2008, letter to New Scientist, Dawkins distanced himself from the call for Reiss's ouster, describing Roberts's letter's complaint about Reiss's clerical status as "a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste," characterizing his Monty Python comparison as "a little uncharitable," and commenting, "Although I disagree with him, what he actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take." (He also mentioned "Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America.")

Dawkins's limited defense notwithstanding, the Royal Society announced Reiss's resignation on September 16, 2008. According to a press release, "Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education."

It wasn't only scientists who were critical of Reiss's remarks as reported. After Reiss's resignation, Phil Willis, a Member of Parliament who chairs the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, expressed satisfaction with the result, telling the Times of London (2008 Sep 17), "I hope the society will now stop burying its head and start taking on creationism." Previously Wills told the Times (2008 Sep 16), "I was horrified to hear these views and I reject them totally. They are a step too far and they fly in the face of what science is about. I think if his [Professor Reiss's] views are as mentioned they may be incompatible with his position."

Not all members of the British scientific community were critical of Reiss. After his resignation, Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, told BBC News (2008 Sep 16) that his departure was a "real loss," adding, "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." Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London and a distinguished medical scientist and science popularizer, lamented, "This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists."

Paul Nurse, a member of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate who did not sign the Roberts letter, took a somewhat intermediate position, telling Nature (in a piece published on-line under the dreadful headline "Creationism stir fries Reiss"; 2008 Sep 17), "It does not matter what someone's religious beliefs are as long as he does the job properly. The issue for me here is his competency in the job. I only saw the media coverage of his speech, but it does not look as though he handled it well. Because creationism in the classroom is such a sensitive subject, you have to be very careful and very clear about what you say."

Across the Atlantic, Leslie S Jones of Valdosta State University, who coedited a recent anthology, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007; reviewed in RNCSE 2008 May/Jun; 28 [3]: 23–5), with Reiss, expressed shock at the events. She told Nature (on-line; 2008 Sep 17), "Michael has a rare blend of transdisciplinary credentials that give him critical insight into the social controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution. He has never advocated the teaching of creationism."

A subsequent editorial in Nature (2008; 445: 431–2) argued:

Those who argue that allowing discussion of creationism in a science class gives it legitimacy, and that students who ask about it should be firmly directed to take their questions elsewhere, are misguided.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, and a long-time advocate for the teaching of evolution, points out that in the real world, any such shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere response from the teacher will inevitably be perceived by the student (and his or her classmates) as a humiliating personal putdown. It will obstruct rather than encourage enquiry and understanding. It will also invite complaints from outraged parents.

What is more, it will squander what experienced educators like to call "a teachable moment". All too often, that moment is the one opportunity that a school has to engage resistant students and introduce them to what science has to say.

Reiss is returning to his position of Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London.

About the Author(s): 


Glenn Branch
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

Glenn Branch is NCSE's Deputy Director.