Michael Reiss has resigned from his position as the director of education of the Royal Society.
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 a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.
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.
The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss’s efforts in furthering the Society’s work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.
The second paragraph above is a short, clear outline of how creationism should be handled in the classroom. Reiss may have been trying to say the same thing, but unfortunately his words got all tangled in the appearance of an unwarranted accommodation to creationism.
Although I disagree with Michael Reiss, 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. Scientists divide into two camps over this issue: the accommodationists, who ‘respect’ creationists while disagreeing with them; and the rest of us, who see no reason to respect ignorance or stupidity. The accommodationists include such godless luminaries as Eugenie Scott, whose National Center for Science Education is doing splendid work in fighting the creationist wingnuts in America. She and her fellow accommodationists bend over backwards to woo the relatively sensible minority among Christians, who accept evolution. Get the bishops and theologians on the side of science — so the argument runs — and they’ll be valuable allies against the naive creationists (who include a worryingly high proportion of Christians and almost all Muslims, by the way). No politician could deny at least the superficial plausibility of this expedient, although it is disappointing how ineffective as allies the ‘sensible’ minority of Christians turn out to be. The official line of the US National Academy, the American equivalent of the Royal Society, is shamelessly accommodationist. They repeatedly plug the mantra that there is ‘no conflict’ between evolution and religion. Michael Reiss could argue that he is simply following the standard accommodationist line, and therefore doesn’t deserve the censure now being heaped upon him.
Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prizewinning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste. Nevertheless — it’s regrettable but true — the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he!” If the Royal Society wanted to attack creationism with all fists flying, as I would wish, an ordained priest might make a politically effective spokesman, however much we might deplore his inconsistency. This is the role that Kenneth Miller, not a priest but a devout Christian, plays in America, where he is arguably creationism’s most formidable critic. But if the Society really wants to promote the accommodationist line, a clergyman is the very last advocate they should choose. Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society’s Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.
Accommodationism is playing politics, while teetering on the brink of scientific dishonesty. I’d rather not play that kind of politics at all but, if the Royal Society is going to go down that devious road, they should at least be shrewd about it. Perhaps, rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders?
I particularly like that last point. Dawkins and I are both often slandered as being relatively uninterested in promoting good science education, preferring to fight the culture war against religion (a claim that ignores the fact that we may feel strongly that the only way to achieve a lasting investment in understanding science is by reducing the pernicious influence of religion) — we are told that we think atheism more important than science. Let us ask, though, if these brave paladins of Jesus-compatible science would be willing to set aside their religion to better endorse science…and I think we all know what the answer would be.