Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Unneccessary ouster by Royal Society

A follow-up from yesterday's post: Michael Reiss, Royal Society's Education Director, has now resigned because of his comments regarding creationism (the headline in this news-story gives a wrong impression):
Last week Prof Reiss - a Church of England minister - said creationism should be discussed in science lessons if pupils raised the issue. He was criticised by other scientists - though misquoted as saying creationism should be "taught" in science classes. The society said some of his comments had been "open to misinterpretation".
It was quite clear that he was not talking about teaching creationism in classrooms. In any case, here is the statement from Royal Society on this matter:

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.
And before this resignation took place, Richard Dawkins had sent a letter to New Scientist about this row and had considered this affair close to a witch-hunt (tip Pharyngula):

Although I disagree with him, 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.

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-prize-winning 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!"

My sympathies generally lie with accommodationists, however, I like the way Dawkins ends his letter:

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?

Read the complete letter here.


Tom Rees said...

A complication is that it's not what Reiss believes, but what people think he believes. As a result of some loose wording, creationists are now using his name and role to support their case. So his reputation is damaged, and he's caused a lot of confusion and muddle. Rumour mills being what they are, it's hard to say whether it can ever be repaired.

Salman Hameed said...

But I think this is where a clarification was needed not calls for his resignation. And yes we expect creationists to take words out of context and then exploit them. Even Dawkin's words about Cambrian explosion have been taken out of context: "It is as though the fossils were planted there without any evolutionary history". This was a set-up to start a chapter. Reiss' statement is clearly worse than this, but when we clearly know the context, we should not let creationist exploitation lead to rash decisions.

Marina said...

Since when is that the kind of thing that leads to a resignation? What happened to the "official retraction" or the "apology press conference"?

Tom Rees said...

Oh I agree that the resignation was not appropriate. But I have some sympathy with the RS. The problem is that it's a genie out of the bottle. I don't think you can return to the untarnished state. We're talking PR here, not common sense! If he wasn't an ordained minister, then his statements wouldn't be so easy to exploit. But he is and they have been and, well, it's difficult for him to be a figurehead for education. But yes, the RS should've shown more backbone.

Sir Harold Kroto said...

The Reiss Affair – a Matter of Intellectual Integrity
Various letters, such as that from the Bishop of Lincoln (Guardian) etc, contain a significant amount of self-righteous criticism of the Royal Society with regard to the Rev Michael Reiss’s position as Director of Science Education. It is clear that there is almost total ignorance about the fundamental issues involved and an abysmal understanding of Science – the culture that created the modern world – from anaesthetics and penicillin to jet engines, mobile phones and the Internet. Of course “The Origin of the Universe and Living Organisms” is a perfectly respectable question for the Science lesson (perhaps the most exciting and fundamental one) - as long as someone with Intellectual Integrity is there to answer it! There is a major problem however for the religious person, scientist or otherwise, in answering this question and it involves, first and foremost, Intellectual Integrity.

Let me clarify the fundamental philosophical issue - The Scientific Mindset: Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested, examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant - that is to accept absolutely NOTHING whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any FUNDAMENTAL validity. A lemma: One can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and Intelligent Design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc., etc., etc., are all basically indistinguishable, from the Freethinker’s perspective. It really does not matter whether someone believes a mystical entity created the Universe five thousand or ten thousand million years ago - both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity. Unfortunately Michael Reiss who is, according to reports, a nice guy, was just in the wrong job. He, together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not - fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest philosophical scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance. Note that I did not say value (positive or negative!). In the Jeffersonian sense Church and State (including education especially on Sundays) must be separated - otherwise our democratic freedoms are undermined. A secular socio-political framework is an absolutely necessary (though unfortunately not always sufficient) condition to guarantee freedom of religion - as well as freedom of non-religion.

I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs - for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious. However I, and many Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different issue. An ordained minister must have accepted that there is a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) and thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. An ordained minister cannot have his religious cake in church on Sunday and eat a scientific one with intellectually vulnerable kids in the classroom on weekdays. This is where the Intellectual Integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial aspect in the Reiss Affair.

I suggest that the Rev Reiss, the Bishop of Lincoln and any others who presume the authority to dictate how religious issues should be handled in the science classroom read from Sam Harris's book "Letter to a Christian Nation" at their Sunday sermons. Then perhaps some of their flock may understand what Intellectual Integrity and true humanity actually involve. Furthermore I suggest that this wonderful little book be a set text for young people at Sunday School, so they recognise that the really dangerous people can include the religious who are hell-bent on dragging us back into the Dark Ages, rather than the Freethinking Humanists who are struggling to save the democratic freedoms of “The Enlightenment” for our grandchildren. The Pope is the 21st Century disciple of Cardinal Bellarmine.

Sir Harold Kroto

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