Jun 4, 2009
Michael Reiss has given his first interview since he was forced to resign as director of education of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society back in September. The reason he was ousted? In a speech he made to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Reiss reportedly said that “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a worldview,” so students must be allowed to discuss it in class. Though creationism is “a nonscientific way of seeing the world,” he had realized that “simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn’t lead some pupils to change their minds at all. There is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts—hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching—and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion.” The comments led to an uproar and, according to an official statement, Reiss and the Royal Society agreed they he should step down immediately to prevent further “damage to the society’s reputation.”
Today, Reiss, an evolutionary biologist, ordained Church of England minister, and professor of science education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, stands by his comments. He says he had thought long and hard about the issue of dealing with creationism in science class—and “had taken a considerable amount of care to make sure I didn’t put my foot in it”—but given the chance to clarify his views, here’s what he says:
My interest has always been what to do if a pupil brings up creationism as a reason for not accepting evolution or the cosmological account of the origins of the Universe. If a science teacher doesn’t want to discuss it, they shouldn’t have to, and that’s fine. But supposing a teacher does feel comfortable allowing other children to discuss it. Providing it’s a scientific discussion, about evidence, then I think its a great opportunity to get pupils to understand how scientific knowledge builds up. Too many 14 and 15-year-olds find school science uninteresting. So if anyone asks a genuine question, we should use that question as a vehicle for teaching good science.In the same way that PE teachers spend time thinking about how to deal with children who are too embarrassed to do sports, or who think they can’t catch, or can’t swim, biology educators have to deal with pupils whose beliefs contradict the scientific viewpoint. That’s what teaching is all about. Anyone can teach the one child in 20 who loves science—the real challenge is to help the other pupils to understand it and perhaps come to love it.
Reiss is what you might call a theistic evolutionist: He separates himself from those who interpret Genesis literally—”good religion,” he says, doesn’t make scientific claims—yet he sees evolution as “God’s work” and science as the “outworking of God’s activity.” And he fully believes it’s possible to hold both a scientific and religious worldview at the same time.
As he tells The Times:
Our physiological perception of a sunset, using rods and cones, doesn’t take away from the beauty of a sunset. You can have beauty and science, in the same way you can have religion and science, or moral philosophy and science. There’s no clash between them, in my view. …
But nor do I think I see sunsets any more beautifully than [Nobel Prize-winning chemist] Harry Kroto does, just because I have religious faith. One might see things differently, but religious belief doesn’t make you a morally better person, a nicer person, a wiser person or anything like that.
Reiss will appear tonight at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, where he’ll participate in a discussion about “faith in evolution.” —Heather Wax