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Free speech in science

Tom Feilden | 10:39 UK time, Saturday, 20 September 2008

So did the Royal Society do the right thing or not? Was professor Michael Reiss merely reiterating stated policy when he said science teachers should debate creationism in the classroom, or was he undermining the very foundations of the scientific world view?

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is a spat about whether Michael Reiss (who was the Society's Director of Education) was forced to step down over something he didn't actually say...that he was misquoted, but that the damage was done and he had to go. This row goes to the heart of what science in a modern democratic society is all about.

First the facts....Michael Reiss was talking at the British Association's 'Festival of Science' last week in a debate about creationism. He was talking about what a teacher should do if, in a science lesson about evolution, one of the pupils raised doubts or brought up creationism. He said the teacher should engage with the child, and try to explain why the creationist view was not a scientific explanation.

At first the Royal Society defended him, insisting he had been misquoted in the papers. But it seems something of a campaign was mounted to rid the society of this turbulent priest. On Tuesday the Society threw in the towel, announcing that even though Michael Reiss had been misquoted he had agreed to go.

But that announcement has sparked quite a backlash. Many want to know why, if Michael Reiss was misquoted in the papers, the Society didn't defend its man? And what does it say about the state of science in Britain if the Royal Society can't tolerate or debate alternative world views?


  • Comment number 1.

    Nothing should be beyond discussion by teachers with children.
    We need informed, confident youngsters who can accept or reject theories as they encounter them in life and learn from adults not to fear or favour any view without balanced consideration.
    I've been following this story since I heard it on Today and I'm mystified. At best this decision represents a sad lack of confidence and at worst a rejection of reasoned argument - which I always believed was the fundamental strength of science.

  • Comment number 2.

    A neat definition of education is to persuade children to ask better questions. There is a problem for teachers in the so-called faith schools where some questions are ruled out, but in many schools, and among many parents, to 'teach' means persuading children to believe that some statements are true without needing evidence. "You will understand this later" they say "For the time being just accept it". The solution may be to try to encourage young people to dare to live with uncertainty. Scientific statements have levels of probability. Faiths make statements of certainty. Obviously the thought processes cannot mix and perhaps should be kept apart.


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