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Michael Reiss and the Royal Society

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William Crawley | 19:53 UK time, Friday, 19 September 2008

michael_reiss_140x140.jpgDebate continues about the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's former director of education. Reiss gave a speech to this year's Festival of Science, on September 11, titled "Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?" This debacle does not seem to have done much for the reputation of Britain's oldest and most respected scientific institution. The Royal Society's official statement suggests that Reiss's speech was open to misinterpretation (like most speeches by intelligent people on complex subjects?) and that he had inadvertently damaged the Society's reputation. Reiss has now stepped down from his position at the Society and returned to his regular job as professor of science education at the Institute of Education in London.

No official statement has mentioned the fact that Professor Reiss is also a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England. The National Secular Society was unafraid to emphasize the Reverend Professor Reiss's clerical status. Without taking the time to read Michael Reiss's actual speech -- or the book he wrote last year, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism -- some might conclude that the Royal Society's head of education had given a lecture defending flat-earthism. In fact, Michael Reiss's crime seems to be this: he proposed that it could be appropriate for science teachers to discuss creationism in classrooms with a view to explaining why this worldview perspective is non-scientific. Some teachers and academics may regard that as a strategically questionable proposal in the context of the continuing culture war over creationism and evolution, but is this really the basis for asking a highly qualified science educator to leave the room?


  • Comment number 1.

    Well said. The Royal Society has behaved disgracefully. Michael Reiss is a top flight professor of science education, who has made a sensible and coherent case for an educational approach to creationism. Instead, the Royal Society wants to bury its head in the sand and pretend that one in ten students are not affected by this non-scientific perspective. The best way to deal with ignorance is education. When will the Royal Society accept that?

  • Comment number 2.

    The Panda's thumb has been highly critical of the BBC in this affair, accusing it of alarmist reporting. Reiss (who is not a creationist) was merely stating that creationism should be discussed and those pupils who believe that it should be taught in science class should be shown why it is not science. Even Howard Conder's Revelation TV (which puts out loads of YEC material daily now) managed to report the situation correctly.

  • Comment number 3.

    Reiss should have been immediately forced out, fired before he had a chance to resign. A science class in no place to discuss a religious theory such as cretinism. That should be reserved for a social science class where comparative religions and how they fit into the modern world are discussed. Bringing it up in a science class would only confuse students and lend credibility to a doctrine which does not deserve any.

  • Comment number 4.

    It could be discussed in the history of science Marcus. Don't forget that at one time that was what the majority believed.

    I remember when I did geology at school (under the guidance of the well known Belfast geologist, Herbie Black) we often discussed theories that, although now defunct, were believed by the majority of gologists at one time. In this respect creationism is no different.

  • Comment number 5.


    You assume that the teacher raises the topic. But what if the pupil does? All Reiss was saying was that if pupils raise creationism in a Science class, then the teacher should deal with it but indicate that it should not be seen as comparable to evolution, which is backed up with solid evidence.

    This is eminently sensible. And, I would add, it doesn't even have to be a Science class. When an adolescent mind is developing, it naturally addresses basic questions; what is the meaning of life? what happens when we die? How old is the universe? was the universe created?

    You mention sociology. But suppose it is not taught in the school. No teacher worth his salt, irrespective of the subject, should silence a questioning mind with: "that's not relevant". Or: "Ask your RE teacher".

    I never evaded such questions in a Politics or Economics class. In any case, I felt that the pupils received enough religious propaganda from other teachers, to last a lifetime, so I was keen to do my bit for the secularists.

  • Comment number 6.

    No Brian, that is not the correct answer. The correct answer is that this is a science class that deals with observations of the natural world and conclusions drawn from it which are restricted to the natural world. Creationism and Intelligent design are religious theories which suppose the existance of a supernatrual being. They are not science and therefore cannot be taught in a science class. Religion does not use the methods of science and often reaches different conclusions. You can learn about them elsewhere through voluntary religious instructoin.

    In the US, an examination of the theory of creationism in any detail as an alternative to evolution is not covered in a history of religon or social science curricula because there are too many other important topics to discuss at the high school level in public schools. Private schools can discuss whatever they like. Besides, if a public school were to discuss this Christian theory, it would have to give equal time to every other religious theory such as those told as lore by native American Indian tribes. No it's out of the question. At home, in church, or in college but not in public high schools in the US and the Courts have said so in the Dover Pennsylvania case. There is no such thing as Creation Science, it is an oxymoron. Creationism and ID are not alternative scientific theories, they are alternatives to scientific theory. But even if we did not have evolution, that would not make Creationism an acceptable scientific explanation by default. It just is not science.

  • Comment number 7.

    No, Marc, your answer is not correct. I am certainly not suggesting that creationism should be taught any more than the flat earth theory. But the fact of the matter is that it is often talked about: your Republican candidate's running mate believes in it! (just think, Marc, there conceivably could a President worse than Bush!). Read my post. The teacher should respond to inquiries by EXPOSING it for it is, not ignoring it.

    You tell me that creationism is not on the public school curriculum but private schools can discuss whatever they like. As a great 'libertarianism', surely you would welcome discussion of anything in any class in any type of school.

    You are beginning to sound almost 'communist'!
    (BTW: as a free marketeer, do you support all this current government intervention in the banking system? And is the US economy still 'essentially sound', as you have been telling us ad nauseam?).

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment from Tom Whipple writing in The Times, "So he resigned not because he was wrong, nor even because he was particularly controversial. He resigned because others ascribed to him beliefs that were not his own," pretty much identifies the issue.

    Brian in this instance I agree with you, a classroom is not a place for ignoring or stifling questions.

  • Comment number 9.

    peter, Brian, I did not say that the question should be ignored or stifled but that is not the right answer. The right answer is that creationism and ID are not science and therefore cannot be discussed in a class whose subject is science. The time of the entire class and the time devoted to the scientific curriculum cannot be wasted because someone or some group wants to discuss something else. Suppose they wanted to discuss Elizibethan poetry in a science class, should that be allowed too? A classroom is not a democracy, it is a place where a teacher has a predetermined approved agenda of material to cover. They can discuss their religious theories including with the teacher if the teacher is disposed to it after class on their own time.

    BTW Brian, Sarah Palin is not "MY" candidate. IMO she is wrong on this issue. I'm not sure who I am voting for yet and I may not vote at all. Fortunately, even if she does become President of the United States one day, she will not be able to dictate what can and can't be taught in public school classrooms. If that were the only issue in the campaign, I would surely vote against her.

    I don't know why you brought up this issue of the current financial crisis here or what it has to do with this discussion. There are other forums for that. What do you do, bring up any subject that pops into your head and feel anytime and anyplace is suitable to discuss it? Read my entries on Robin Lustig's latest thread on his blog site for my views, I've posted extensively there. The US government always intervenes in the banking and financial systems in the US. What do you think the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the GAO, the House and Senate banking committees do, the SEC does, and a lot more government regulators do. If you must know, regardless of how we got to where we are, IMO the government has no choice except to intervene now. If it doesn't, he entire world's system of finance may collapse. It still could. This is not the end of it by a long shot.

  • Comment number 10.

    The real reason is that Michael Reiss's comments were a little too close to "teach the controversy". That was unfortunate, and actually I think his (forced) resignation was not the right path here - a clarification should have sufficed.

    However, we know from the creationist dunderheads we have here that if you do start discussing this in science classes, it will generate more heat than light, and waste valuable educational time. Teachers should probably be provided with information on how to deal with creationist nonsense if it arises in class; perhaps encouragement to divert it to religious education classes instead.


  • Comment number 11.

    If Professor Reiss suggestion had been accepted then well funded creationist pressure groups would have bombarded schools with information packs like "10 questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution". Given some children's natural tendency to embarrass their teachers anyway this would just lead to massive timewasting.
    However, I do think that this issue needs to be tackled headon and the educationalists should devise some framework for that to happen at some stage in the school curriculum.

  • Comment number 12.

    This Science/Creationist argument seems to be getting increasingly intolerant on both sides.

    From my point of view, creationism isn't a physical science. Fair enough. (Note the "physcial", for, as we all know, the "physical" sciences are not the only fruit.)

    Fundamentalist/literalist creationsism should be confined to the RE class.

    However, i think this entire issue stems from a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived arrogance of the physical sciences.

    the incorrect reaction, granted, but, in the physical sciences, I would suggest that there should be more discussion and acceptance of the limits of science, and of the philosophical assumptions involved in scientific method.

    There is a tendency, when teaching the physical sciences, for the implication to be that these physical sciences are the only way to gain knowledge of the "real" world. There is little discussion of universal cosmology (which has implications for the physical sciences), of basic aristotelian metaphysics (which have vast implications for a physical science of rational entities) or of the epistemological roots of the scientific method.

    In my experience, the method of the physical sciences is taught as the self-evidently correct way to grasp "reality"...

    it may well be...I'm a big fan of the physical sciences...

    But there are larger questions of cosmology and metaphysics which have massive implications for the scope and validity of the physical sciences. No doubt these cannot and should not all be squeezed into a science class...I think however, that "science" as taught in schools should have some degree of discussion about the wider questions that evade science, but within which science operates, and has its presuppositions.

    On the basic point, however, fundamentalist/literalist creation should not be taught in the physical science classes. Professor Reiss didn't say that...he may have been getting at something more akin to what I have just said.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think the story here is the power of the media. An academic has been prevented from furthering academic debate.
    Creationism is not a Scientific Theory, and I doubt that Intelligent Design can be so construed. But all sorts of issues can be raised in a Science class that are not, strictly speaking, Scientific issues (assuming we can come up with a clear definition of Science).
    For example, environmental priorities, animal experimentation, animal rights, GM foods, historical and biographical questions etc etc. It would be insane for a Science teacher to refer the students to History or Religion classes.
    This would shelter students from diversity of opinion. In my school, students prepare debates and speeches on ethical issues in English. The focus is on communication, but an additional benefit is that students get a perspective on these issues beyond my own.
    To suggest that Science teachers keep their noses out of the Creationism debate is insane. Cynical students will assume that the Teacher cannot answer Creationist arguments. Others that Science has nothing to contribute to the Big Questions.
    We also want to pull students away from the mentality that we study to gain employment. If we cannot apply what we learn to our lives, education will be seen as a means to an economic end. And it is much more than that.

    Nice dodge on the Free Market, M. I guess all that deregulation may not lead us to Shangri-La after all. Still, we can always count on the Socialists in New Labour and the Republican party to bail Free Traders out when we get into trouble.


  • Comment number 14.

    Noble Dee
    What exactly is wrong with having ten questions to ask your science teacher?


  • Comment number 15.

    Nothing. If they are your own questions asked in a spirit of genuine enquiry. A lot, if you have been spoonfed them by a well funded pressure group whose devious ways were exposed in a public trial in the US.
    See Kitzmiller V Dover school Board 2006 for perjury and intellectual dishonesty in the preparation of Creationist materials for schools.

  • Comment number 16.

    What is everone's obsession with the Dover trial? Whatever else happens, keep the lawyers and politicians out of this debate. Otherwise we might do something really silly, like fire the head of the Royal Society for saying Creationism is wrong.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 17.

    Come on M. If you can call Rev Ian out on the bananas we can call you out on the Free Market.
    Should the government have kept it's nose out and let HBOS go under? Yes or No?


  • Comment number 18.

    Gveale, nobody is "obsessed" with the Dover trial.It is quoted simply because it is a brilliant exposure of the creationists arguments. By the end of the trial they had been completely demolished in public and on the record, for the whole world to see. If you doubt this watch the NOVA re-enactment available on the internet.
    From your comments I don't think you really understand what happened. A group of ordinary parents went to law in order to stop a clique of creationists bringing creationism into the science classroom and they succeeded. How can you not see the relevance to Professor Reiss comments and the reaction to them?

  • Comment number 19.

    Same old same old.

    Attempts to narrow knowledge into isolated categories is not good science. And it's certainly not the way to teach children.

    It's nonsense to teach evolution in science and creationism in an RE class. Truth cannot contradict itself.

  • Comment number 20.

    I know enough about Judge Jones' decision to judge that he didn't really understand the issues (or more likely, didn't really care.)
    How exactly does Dover relate to Reiss? Was he part of a clique trying to introduce Creationism into the classroom? Where is the large and powerful Creationist lobby in the UK? Do you think 10% of students could force a change in the Science syllabus, where 33% of the people believe in a personal God, and only 25% believe in the Judaeo-Christian God?
    It is absolutely insane to criticise Reiss. Worse to fire him (or make him resign).


  • Comment number 21.

    So Gveale, Judge Jones is a fool and the people who criticise Reiss are insane.Charming.Judge Jones spent 40 days listening to expert testimony on these issues, he then spent 5 weeks working on his verdict, before producing a 139 page document which explained his thinking.Even a cursory glance at the main conclusions shows that he had a crystal clear understanding of the issues, and for this he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Most importantly the Dover trial exposed the deceitful tacticts and fraudulent approach of the creationists and this is the key point because they are unscrupulous in their approach to influencing young minds, so any idea of an open and honest debate in the biology classroom falls at this hurdle.
    Critics of Reiss include Richard Dawkins and two Nobel prize winners. I know that authority does not prove them right but I wonder where you get your authority to dismiss them as insane.
    As for UK creationists. Check out the BBC site for the 15th September, the page titled "Who are the British creationists" for some interesting stats.See also the BCSE website for and excellent breakdown of British creationism.Funding is provided by people like Reg Vardy in his schools where creationism is taught but mainly funded by the taxpayer. The Templeton Foundation is another source of creationist funding.
    In NI the head of the education committee is an outspoken creationist who has already forced the minister to make concessions to his point of view.
    The relevance of Dover to Reiss is this, and please pay attention.The "creationist clique" in Dover were backed by the Discovery Institute who provided them with a dubious textbook "Of Pandas and People" which they would have used to influence children in the biology class. If Reiss had his way the same type of people eg Lisburn City Council backed by the same style pressure groups eg Answers in Genesis would turn the biology classroom into a battle for minds.

  • Comment number 22.


    Odd, I've never been accused of being charming before. In any case, I never accuse Judge Jones of being a fool. He's not qualified to define the nature of science, he's not an expert in the field and I don't think he really used the expert testimony in forming his opinion. This may have been a case of judical activism, or more likely, a case were a judge erred on the safe side. It was a sensible decision, but I don't think Historians of Science will be quoting him as an authority.
    Funnily enough, some people think that I can follow an argument without being told to "pay attention". Still, you sounded very intimidating. Well done.
    Now, as it stands, a Biology teacher in Northern Ireland is relatively free to address students questions, and can discuss students' opinions on Creation, so long as the Teacher does not aggressively promote Creationism.
    And yet the Battle for Minds has not commenced. Furthermore, I've worked in a School (Emmanuel College, Gateshead) were Creationism was promoted. The senior students were not converted to this way of thinking.
    (I'm not a Creationist, at least not in Mr Vardy's sense of the term).
    Without parents and a Church culture to promote the view, teenagers are not swayed. After all Creationism depends on an acceptance of Genesis, and a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Without this theological framework you are just talking about problems with a large scale scientifc theory. And senior students find that every large scale theory has gaps and problems to solve).
    The Evangelical Subculture is absent in England, but not absent in America. There is an evangelical subculture in Northern Ireland. We do not have Creation Wars, nor will we, even if the Media wants a good story. The DUP cannot create a consensus WITHIN IT'S OWN PARTY on the issue.
    But you enjoy your moral panic. You seem to be having a good time.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 23.

    By the way
    BBC sites, Dawkins quotes, TIME magazine. That's a remarkable amount of academic study. Isn't the internet great!

  • Comment number 24.

    Williams speech on the Malachi O'Doherty thread directly addresses this topic.

  • Comment number 25.

    gveale, since it seems you want to divert the discussion to the current economic crisis, I'll give you my opinion for what it's worth. Should HBOS have been bailed out? IMO no. A bank is a privately owned enterprise which borrows money from depositors and lends it at a higher rate of interest, the difference minus its operating expenses being its profit. It manages credit risk. If it is mismanaged, then it derserves to take a loss for its shareholders. If it takes too much bad risk, it should be allowed to go out of existance through bankrupcy. I was thinking about the great depression. In the US, the federal reserve tightened credit to punish the lenders who made foolish loans on stocks. Banks and brokerage houses went out of business. The depression did not end until WWII when the government created credit by buying military hardware in vast amounts and issued bonds to pay for them. Ultimately, money will have to be printed to advance credit. IMO, the government, the US Treasury should find a different mechanism to create credit for good risk borrowers rather than keep the failed banks afloat and work through them. Their debt should be bought out for on pennies on the dollar just as the private sector would do. In this way, the banks run by incompetents would go broke, new banks would be created, and the taxpayer would make a profit on the eventual sale of houses instead of taking a loss. As for HBOS, that could be done by the British treasury also if it wanted to. But my hunch was that as in the case of Northern Rock in the corrupt system where a single prime minister can sign away the sovereignty of an entire nation with the stroke of a pen without so much as even his rubber stamp Parliament getting a chance to vote, he would instinctively bail out his banker friends, and so he did. In the US, Congress will not buy that pig in a poke so fast no matter how much lipstick Paulsen, Bernanke, and the Administration put on it.

  • Comment number 26.

    Hello Graham,

    "In any case, I never accuse Judge Jones of being a fool. He's not qualified to define the nature of science, he's not an expert in the field and I don't think he really used the expert testimony in forming his opinion. This may have been a case of judical activism, or more likely, a case were a judge erred on the safe side. It was a sensible decision, but I don't think Historians of Science will be quoting him as an authority."

    You don't see what level the creationists are on, do you? Judge Jones didn't need a PhD in the philosophy and history of science to see through the creationist lies. When the defendants propose altering the definition of science so widely that even astrology would be included, then it should be clear to any judge.

  • Comment number 27.

    Whatever way you look at it creationism is making big inroads into British society.

    Over half of Britain rejects evolution, says the BBC and doubtless this figure is growing;-


    I read a piece on BBC online a while back which said that many teachers were afraid to teach evolution in British schools because of the increasing numbers of Muslims in their classes.

    I suggest that Reiss is aware of this rising tide and is looking for a reasonable way to deal with it rather than burying heads in the sand.

    The problem is not going to go away.

    Incidentally, I think the recourse to the "which form of creationism do you mean?" question is a bit of a red herring.

    By my understanding the proto-history of all religions have so much in common that they are easily read as revisions of one series of actual events.

    Also of interest that those most strongly decrying any form of divine design are arguing without any scientific authority whatsoever.

    The personal attacks and insults, prejorative terms and reluctance to actually discuss the actual evidence is a point worth reflecting on for anyone wanting to objectively make up their own minds on the matter IMHO.

    I am always struck how the distinct and very seperate types of animals we see today match so closely with the fossil record and the genesis account ie plants, birds, fish, cattle, man, etc

    The phylogenic tree supposed to link all these together is 99% conjecture as anyone can see for themselves.


  • Comment number 28.

    The DFSC Guidance which Reiss helped to formulate states:"Creationism and intelligent design are sometimes claimed to be scientific theories. This is not the case as they have no underpinning scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the science community as a whole. Creationism and intelligent design therefore do not form part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study".

    I think that the Guidance provides an admirably clear assessment of the lack of scientific credentials of Creationism and ID. Any teacher who is being hasselled by time-wasting religious zealots could simply read them the above quotation. And tell them to pursue the matter in their RE class, which is where it belongs.

    On the other hand, if the teacher has world enough and time, then he or she may take on the Creationists and try to correct all the errors, distortions and misrepresentations which form the basis of their literature. Of course, the teacher will not persuade the Creationists of the error of their ways. That would be expecting a religious crank to appreciate rational argument. So the teacher will be stuck with an interminable distraction from the real science that is supposed to be the subject of those lessons.

    What about the other pupils in the class who want to do science and have no interest in discussions of ancient religious mythology? Why should they have to suffer? Why should their science lesson time be wasted?

    Reiss was right when he helped to formulate the Guidance. Creationism has no place in a science lesson. Its proper place is in RE and a science teacher should be able to say simply that.



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