Royal society professor resigns after creationism row, according to articles in the Royal Society News 12 and 16 September 2008 and BBC News 13 and 19 September 2008.

Professor Michael Reiss has resigned from his position as Director of Education for the Royal Society because the Society claims comments he made on creationism damaged the Society’s reputation. Reiss is also an ordained Anglican clergyman and Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

Whilst speaking at the British Association Festival of Science Reiss commented: “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.” He estimated that about one in ten students believed creation. He went on to say: “What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 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’.”

Reiss also commented: “I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn’t lead some pupils to change their minds at all.”

These comments caused outrage by many other scientists, including Richard Dawkins, who commented that the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society’s Education Director was like something from a Monty Python sketch. Reiss then issued a clarifying statement: “Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. 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. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.” In spite of this, the Royal Society was not happy and Reiss was forced to resign.

A few scientists have not supported the Royal Society’s action. Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said: “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.”

Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science said that the Royal Society should have supported Reiss and used this opportunity to further a reasoned debate.

BBC, Royal Society

Editorial Comment: The over-reaction, misinterpretation and paranoia surrounding Reiss’s comments remind us the debate about creation and evolution is not just about science. It is a clash of world views, and the atheists and humanists know it. Furthermore, they know they are losing ground in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the general public. Reiss’s claim of one in ten families not believing in evolution is an underestimate. In a British survey reported by the BBC in 2006 only 48% of the sample said that evolution was the best explanation for the origin and development of life, and 44% said that creationism should be discussed in schools.

A UK Teachers survey released this week (19 September 2008) by Southampton University reported in the Telegraph suggests many teachers agree that religious beliefs should play a part in discussions about the origin of life. Some 36 per cent of teachers quizzed said they believed a divine hand played a role in the creation of humanity, while 28 per cent said it should be raised in lessons.

Evidence News 24 September 2008

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