Reiss forced out

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2008

Michael Reiss has been forced to resign as Director of Education of the Royal Society . Absolutely shocking, in my view. Several of those calling for his head, such as Sir Richard Roberts, made much of the fact that he is an ordained minister. But since at least two FRSs—John Polkinghorne and Bernard Silverman—are also priests, that’s hardly a reason for the Society not to employ him. The RS statement says:

“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.”

Well, no, they weren’t “open to misinterpretation”, they were wilfully misinterpreted by those who were always going to be determined to do so, and it shows real spinelessness on the part of the RS that they didn’t back him. As I blogged a few days ago , Reiss didn’t call for creationism to be part of the science curriculum, he said (absolutely clearly, in his original statement of his view) that teachers should, as a matter of good pedagogical practice, be willing to engage with students they encounter who come to the class with creationist views. That seems to me to be a perfectly legitimate position for someone concerned with science pedagogy to take. Others may disagree with the substance of his view. That’s fair enough. But to push him out for saying it? Dreadful.

(A list of issues where partisans are only willing to tolerate a simple straightforward and unequivocal expression of the party line (on either side) and will seek to punish deviants: anything touching on religion and education (including this issue); Israel/Palestine; abortion/right to life, ….etc. )

Update: see also James Wimberley here .

{ 89 comments }

1

Adam 09.17.08 at 11:09 am

didn’t Dawkins suggest that he resign his religious post, not this one?

[Absolutely correct Adam, I’ve edited the post to reflect that. Sir Richard Roberts called for his dismissal, Dawkins — to his credit — did not. Thanks.]

2

Alex 09.17.08 at 11:41 am

Oh, how hopeless. They’ve just let him become one more looney demanding to teach creationism in schools.

The quote attributed to Lord Winston is spot on; it’s nothing but damaging. It isn’t simply that they’ve acknowledged (erroneously) that what he said was “open to misinterpretation”. They’ve actually gone and played the creationists’ favourite game of polar opposition. What’s the point in publicly denouncing a movement if you do so in a way that enables it?

3

stuart 09.17.08 at 12:01 pm

The response by the RS just empowers creationists – it makes them look bigger and more powerful than they actually are in the UK, and it gives any journalists with creationist sympathies a great way of getting more creationist headlines in the paper – if someone else talks about the subject they can create a biased editorial and the mainstream papers will jump on it because they love to get a load of cheap provocative headlines about some new ‘trend’ or flavour of the week topic. Think how a few high profile knife attacks making the news allowed them weeks worth of cheap headlines on the subject.

4

Barry 09.17.08 at 1:36 pm

‘Engaging creationism’? Does he do this with other things? If I come into the classroom with 2+2=17-ism, does he ‘engage’ me?

Creationism is not science; those who allege it is are either ignorant or lying. The professional creationist are all lying, without exception.

Unless a bunch of his former students come forth, stating that he was willing to ‘engage’ with errors and junk science in other fields, the guy goes down in my book as a fraud. His job is to support science education. Sorry, ‘was’.

5

Harry 09.17.08 at 1:45 pm

Barry — if a math teacher had a 13 year old in class (sincerely) insisting that 2+2=17, and failed to engage them, that teacher would be a crap teacher. Of course, there are no social forces out there insisting that 2+2=17, so it doesn’t usually arise for math teachers; kids who do that are either incredibly dumb or making a joke. Science teachers really do have to confront this, and for most of them their training hasn’t equipped them with it very well. I presume that you have read the original statement of his views, so you know what they are (unlike, for example, the writer of the leader in the Times who seems not to be able to read).

Of course, teachers can ignore the ignorant and ill-formed beliefs of their students, and just insist that they are wrong without giving them any reasons why they’re wrong, as you recommend. Would that be science education? Maybe. The effects? Well, probably no worse than many other bad practices.

6

Brian 09.17.08 at 2:15 pm

Really, you have it backwards. What Reiss said was idiotic and plays into the hands of the ignorant; his critics are perfectly reasonable. No one believes that you ought not “engage,” in the sense of politely explaining how and why they are incorrect, ignorant students about creationism if you must; Reiss’s “engagement,” however, ought not be the default position of an organization dedicated to the advancement of science. It should fall under the rubric of good teaching not course content. Unless you also advocate gentle and appreciative “engagement” with those who believe in fairies, gnomes, and witches, I don’t see how your position is not incoherent. I suspect you are equivocating on a certain term of art…

7

Alex 09.17.08 at 2:18 pm

Creationism is not science

That’s true, Barry – I believe Reiss made the exact same assertion himself.

It is, however, always in line with scientific discovery to ask questions, and it is the job of any good teacher to provide answers and guidance surrounding those questions as much as it is to appease a curriculum. Better students explore topics – even in the interests of disagreeing with them – than dumbly copying down facts as dictated.

Of course, the problem is different from student to student. Someone who clearly has been engaged, as it were, respectfully, yet clearly exists to provide a contrary disruption, should probably be left to his own idiocy. Of course there’s a difference between inquisitive debate and a tiresome fool kicking up a fuss because he’s found something to disagree with.

8

Chris Bertram 09.17.08 at 2:23 pm

#6 It should fall under the rubric of good teaching not course content.

Since it was not part of Reiss’s position that it should form part of the curriculum, you obviously haven’t read and understood what he wrote Brian.

9

Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 2:24 pm

It should fall under the rubric of good teaching not course content.

My reading of his article was that it did.

10

Harry 09.17.08 at 2:38 pm

Brian,

actually, what teachers should do is teach their students; elicit actual learning. If politely telling them they are wrong and explaining how and why succeeds in that they should do so. Maybe, as you say, no-one believes they shouldn’t do that. Reiss is in the uncomfortable position of actually knowing a great deal about what teachers actually do, and is trying to correct their errors. One of the problems with this debate is that Reiss’s critics don’t know anything about the actual practice of science teaching, and haven’t spent time observing or engaging with teenagers of varying degrees of ability who believe falsehoods very strongly. That is why Reiss, rather than, say, Dawkins, is well qualified for the post he has left.

11

Dave (the one who dissed Yeats a while back). 09.17.08 at 2:48 pm

“The response by the RS just empowers creationists – it makes them look bigger and more powerful than they actually are in the UK, and it gives any journalists with creationist sympathies a great way of getting more creationist headlines in the paper”

I have to say, I’m quite looking forward to Melanie Philips’s (oh so predictable) piece on this in the Daily Hate. It’ll probably take the following form.

1) defending Reiss because he didn’t say that creationsim should be taught.
2) Compare the RS to some kind of historical religious persecution.
3) Use above to defend the teaching creationism in schools.

She’ll probably display her impressive ignorance with the, ‘theory versus fact’ chestnut as well.

12

Lex 09.17.08 at 3:08 pm

@11 – point 3): but presumably not if it’s Islamic Creationism, which would be, for MP, one of the stepping-stones to sharia, dhimmitude, and the nuclear annihilation of Israel…

The coincidence of dogmatism between Christo-maniacs and the Axis of Islamism provides, amusingly, for much knicker-twisting amongst those whose political outlook only embraces ‘Us’ and ‘Them’…

Maddy Bunting will doubtless have something amusing to say likewise.

13

Steve LaBonne 09.17.08 at 3:17 pm

Since it was not part of Reiss’s position that it should form part of the curriculum, you obviously haven’t read and understood what he wrote Brian.

Clearly a lot of people (admittedly, most of them reporters with the stupidity typical of the breed) weren’t able to do that, which means he didn’t choose his words carefully enough. When you occupy a position like his, there’s a price to be paid for that, and he paid it. I feel bad for him, but that’s how the world works.

14

Hidari 09.17.08 at 3:22 pm

‘Unless a bunch of his former students come forth, stating that he was willing to ‘engage’ with errors and junk science in other fields.’

But this is bizarre. I’m sure he would (and hopefully did).

Are you seriously arguing that at school if a child raises some issue of pseudo-science, or even non-pseudoscience (such as asking, for example ‘how do we know that relativitiy is true’ or ‘how do we know that astrology is false’), instead of being debated with, that child should simply be disciplined and thrown out of the classroom? That way, frankly, lies lunacy.

15

Kathleen 09.17.08 at 3:24 pm

When I was a student at a large, public, Southern U.S. university in the early 90s, I had an evangelical Christian roommate. She had a pamphlet explaining to her that she was allowed to learn about evolution for science courses, in order to give the required answers, and could in good conscience continue to believe in her heart that it was all wrong without feeling a religious obligation to argue the point in every class or drop out of science courses.

This struck me as a surprisingly reasonable attitude, and one that I have adopted as a professor — I don’t require that my students believe in their hearts everything that I teach them, I only require that they learn the current standard of scientific knowledge. You can believe in your heart in creationism all you want. Only writing about it in lieu of a proper exam answer will get you an F. It sounds to me as though Reiss was making this sort of distinction; asking for more is like insisting on some sort of creed, which is of course totally unscientific.

16

Chris Bertram 09.17.08 at 3:25 pm

#13 I’m afraid that once you’ve taken the “he didn’t choose his words carefully enough” line, you’re deep into “Lipstick on a Pig” territory. (i.e. Obama may not have meant to call Palin a pig, but he should have anticipated that someone would take it that way, so he shouldn’t have said it, so he should be treated as if he called her a pig, and so on …).

A few years in the blogosphere has convinced me that there is no way to choose one’s words so as to prevent deliberate misunderstanding by those determined to misconstrue.

17

Hidari 09.17.08 at 3:28 pm

Incidentally I speak as someone who once derailed an entire economics class for a good month because I wasn’t willing even for a second, to grant Econ 101’s initial (absurd) assumptions, and so we ended up talking for an hour every morning about whether or not there really was any such thing as a free lunch. Eventually they chucked me out.

I find most of the so-called ‘skeptic’ movement hard to deal with as they are so loathe to turn their skepticism against Economics and (most of) cognitive psychology, both pseudo-sciences as much as astrology or homeopathy and, in the case of so-called ‘neo-classical’ economics, a good deal more harmful than most. But when the pseudo-science results in conclusions that fit one’s own political prejudices, it seems, we must forget all that blather about facts, evidence and argument. (Michael Shermer being the pre-eminent example).

18

Andrew Bartlett 09.17.08 at 3:38 pm

I wrote this e-mail yesterday, but feel that I’d like to say these things to more than one person:

The defenders of reason are at it again… behaving like mentalists with no connection to reality.

There is a letter circulating demanding the sacking of Michael Reiss. Phil Willis MP, Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee has said he is ‘horrified’. Dawkins calls it a Monty Python sketch, showing that he believes that his mandate is not science education, as it is and as he shares with Reiss, but the demonising of the religious. Harry Kroto is quoted as saying; ‘The thing the Royal Society does not appreciate is the true nature of the forces arrayed against it and the Enlightenment for which the Royal Society should be the last champion’.

At what is all this directed? At the suggestion that if you are a science teacher in a class dominated by children who believe in a creationist explanation of the world, then you need to deal with that fact. And deal with it sensitively, not by shouting and dismissing, else you will teach those children nothing.

If they are horrified by that, if they think that teaching science well – as in, actually teaching children evolutionary ideas, rather than having them shut out the teachings all together – is some kind of challange to civilisation then they are mental.

It appears that it boils down to one (or more) of these three things:

1] All these eminent people are utter idiots, who read a tabloid and bark about it like disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. In which case, who is the threat to the Enlightenment?

2] These people have a problem with a ‘reverend’ being head of science education at the RS, irrespective of his performance, or his standing in educational studies. In which case they are whipping up a controversy as cover for the pursuit of their prejudices, mis-informing millions of people along the way. In which case, who is the threat to the Enlightenment?

3] These people would rather that children were not taught evolution, if to teach evolution to children who believe in creationism involves teaching with more sensitivity than simply ‘shut up, you’re wrong’. If Reiss is right, and it is his field of expertise, not Kroto’s, not Richard Roberts’, and, despite his job title, not Dawkins’, and children learn more about evolution by being taught this way, then who is the threat to the Enlightenment?

But, a day after I sent this e-mail, and the people who behaved with unreason, without engaging in the facts of the world, without recognising the genuine expertise of Reiss in the field of education, and their own total lack of expertise, have won.

19

Steve LaBonne 09.17.08 at 3:38 pm

Chris- look at the previous thread on this. I DID understand him, and said from the start that I thought he wasn’t proposing anything novel or objectionable- but that he had failed to express himself clearly. I’m not accusing him of anything. I think he meant well. But as a purely practical matter, if you become a liability in an exposed position like that your ass gets fired. Nobody ever said life was fair.

20

novakant 09.17.08 at 3:46 pm

Of course, there are no social forces out there insisting that 2+2=17, so it doesn’t usually arise for math teachers; kids who do that are either incredibly dumb or making a joke. Science teachers really do have to confront this

But there are social forces insisting that black/brown people are genetically inferior and anybody who has had tried to engage one of the more intelligent and energetic racists on the internet knows, that they can go on and on throwing studies and data at you until one finally is forced to give it up.

Shall teachers engage students who act like that too? How much time exactly should be allocated to engaging them, given that they theoretically could go on forever with that shtick and that the time taken to engage them will decrease the time spent on teaching actual science? Why should pupils who want to learn about science instead of pseudo-science be required to endure such arguments?

Reiss has tried to blur the lines before:

The days have long gone when science teachers could ignore creationism when teaching about origins (…). By not dismissing their [the creationists’] beliefs, we can ensure that these students learn what evolutionary theory really says – and give everyone the understanding to respect the views of others.

Now mutual understanding is of course a wonderful thing, but there are limits, especially when it comes to teaching young people, no? I don’t think he was suitable for the position he held and his dismissal is a good sign.

21

Andrew Bartlett 09.17.08 at 3:47 pm

“Nobody ever said life was fair.”

But his sacking is the result of self-proclaimed defenders of the Enlightenment deliberately misreading him. The letter from Roberts says nothing about the Guardian article or his paper (or even his book). It displays a refusal to engage with the ideas at hand.

Instead, the letter demonstrates that the objection is all to do with Reiss being a reverend, as it mentions the disquiet at his initial appointment. Given that it has nothing to say about the current, entirely manufactured farce, it can only be read as, ‘we didn’t like him then, and now we have a pretext to demand his sacking’.

It really is disgraceful. Not so much demanding the sacking of someone you don’t like, but dressing it up as part of a noble intellectual quest.

22

Andrew Bartlett 09.17.08 at 3:59 pm

Sorry, I’ll go away in a moment.

“Why should pupils who want to learn about science instead of pseudo-science be required to endure such arguments?”

The apparent reason why this is such a big issue is because creationism is seen as a threat to the very foundations of the Enlightenment, not simply because it is psuedo/non-science, but because this particular peice of pseudo/non-science cuts away the very heart of modern biology. There is no class on the ‘biological equality of humanity’, and there is no real mass of children arriving at school with an ‘education’ in the pseudo-scientific principles of the inequality of humankind. The assumption that there is a mass of children arriving at school with an education in creationism is an assumption that is shared by Reiss, who argues that the teaching of evolution will have to deal with this, and his detractors, who appear to be arguing that creationism is a major threat but plan to deal with it by SHOUTING LOUDER.

Suggesting that if we follow Reiss’ advice we would have to accomodate into our teaching the fact that some children might come to school arguing that 2+2=17 demonstrates a curious argumentative mode. First, because we ought then demand that Dawkins doesn’t just go round and shout at people who actually believe silly things, but that he go into a field and shout about all the hypthetical silly things that people might believe. Second, it is curious because coming from a defender of science, it displays a flat refusal to engage in the empirical reality of what goes on in actual classrooms.

Reiss is telling us that creationist kids are a problem in classrooms, and I am sure that they are in America, and I am sure the problem is growing in the UK. ‘Race realist’ (or whatever) kids are not a problem. If they were, if we had schools where large portions of the class would likely switch off when being taught a crucial part of biology as a result of this, then I would expect teachers to take this into account.

23

John M. 09.17.08 at 4:26 pm

I do not think he should have been forced to resign but I do think that this notion that you have to engage with creationists is a malign one. This whole issue is not a matter of engagement, or shouting louder.

This is a case of not having to engage, debate or entertain such opinions at all, ever. What do you tell schoolchildren who profess to believe in creationism etc? Tell them they are wrong. Since when has it become a relationship of debate between teacher and pupil?

(For my own part, I refuse – ever – to argue about creationism with people. It is a religious belief and not subject to argument – the key reason I find Dawkins & Co’s endless squawking so laughable.)

24

abb1 09.17.08 at 4:27 pm

I think you should engage with those who have relevant points and ignore those who don’t. As far as creationism goes, I think something like that “mousetrap” thing, scientifically framed “the divine watchmaker” concept – you not only can, you must engage.

If indeed his article can be interpreted as a suggestion to discuss angels and fairies, then… I guess then they could ask him to clarify?

25

Chris Bertram 09.17.08 at 4:36 pm

#23 _What do you tell schoolchildren who profess to believe in creationism etc? Tell them they are wrong. Since when has it become a relationship of debate between teacher and pupil?_

I remember arguing vigorously with my teachers on all kinds of topics. Some of them didn’t appreciate it and simply told me that I was wrong, others listened, responded, convinced, gave ground (sometimes). I have fonder memories of the latter kind and was much more receptive to what they had to say.

26

Andrew Bartlett 09.17.08 at 4:40 pm

“What do you tell schoolchildren who profess to believe in creationism etc? Tell them they are wrong. Since when has it become a relationship of debate between teacher and pupil?”

Because Reiss, who is an expert in the study of science education, argues that this is not a productive practice.

Now, of course, he might be wrong. But he is wrong from a position of expertise. People like Roberts and Kroto are not even wrong. They have no real expertise in the study of science education, and the letter circulated by Roberts demonstrates an unwillingness to even engage with the ideas. I mean, I could understand if Roberts and the rest hadn’t read his book, but they show no evidence of reading his article.

It’s funny, watching an expert – acknowledged as a leader in his field by his peers, being forced out of a post with a remit suited to his expertise, for making comments on a subject within the bounds of his discipline – being forced out by the political power of non-experts. Sounds like some of these scientists have learned something from the disreputable playbook of the creationists.

27

Alex 09.17.08 at 5:28 pm

I think this passage of Yehudi Menuhin’s on the subject of teaching is quite relevant:

The teacher offers guidance here and there, but the primary factor, the driving force, in your relationship and work together is the student’s own commitment and desire to learn. Tecahing is like sailing: the wind and the sails give the boat its motion; your role is to steer and guide.

The teacher must never forget that he isn’t making all the important moves and contributions; he isn’t in control. He has before him a child with a living motive element. The child will do much of his own finding and discovery, once he has learned how to experiment.

I think Reiss would agree. If a teacher’s purpose is to guide his student, as Menuhin says, then to push directly against what is driving them – whatever that might be – is counterproductive. It’s not just that it leads to failed exams but it leads to students learning nothing whatsoever. Reiss is describing something that a good teacher should be doing anyway. The whole argument has become massively sidetracked because the word “creationism” is in there.

You don’t acknowledge creationism as valid in science class, and he appears to be well aware of that – but you do acknowledge the student! If you are unable to do that, you have no right to call yourself a teacher.

The RS has mirrored a stagnant attitude to teaching beautifully by dismissing Reiss. The message is: if it’s disagreeable, chuck it out. This attitude is neither scientifically or pedagogically viable. It’s inert.

On a side note, teachers are often expected to cope with and attempt to educate dysfunctional children who disrupt lessons, refuse to cooperate with work, attack each other and sometimes attack the teacher. But this teacher, who suggests that a student with an impractical belief system be acknowledged and engaged with in civilised discourse in the noble interest of reconciling them with the subject they are trying to f***ing teach gets the sack. Come on.

28

Alex 09.17.08 at 5:30 pm

My apologies; there are typos in there. “Juguide” is not a word. Also that Menuhin quote covers the two paragraphs and not one, both should be in italics and I don’t understand why they aren’t.

[fixed: you have to italicize each para separately with this software for some reason. CB]

29

novakant 09.17.08 at 5:43 pm

I remember arguing vigorously with my teachers on all kinds of topics.

So did I, but I didn’t advocate creationism, racism, anti-semitism, flat-earthism, alchemy, neo-nazism, astrology or witchcraft and I presume neither did you.

Why? Firstly because I didn’t believe in any of these things and secondly, if I would have wanted to just wind up my teachers, it wouldn’t have been very effective, because such positions were regarded as totally outside the realm of reasonable and civilized discourse – and I think that was a good thing.

The fact that the boundaries seem to have shifted so far, that science teachers are asked to seriously engage creationists, makes me shudder.

30

notsneaky 09.17.08 at 5:44 pm

“Nobody ever said life was fair.”

Yeah, but it should be. And since when has this been an excuse for PEOPLE (in positions of power) behaving unfairly?

31

Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 5:49 pm

The fact that the boundaries seem to have shifted so far, that science teachers are asked to seriously engage creationists, makes me shudder.

I really don’t get it. If someone raises a hand and spouts a silly idea, that provides an opportunity to teach. Why not teach?

32

engels 09.17.08 at 6:00 pm

If a teacher’s purpose is to guide his student, as Menuhin says, then to push directly against what is driving them – whatever that might be – is counterproductive. It’s not just that it leads to failed exams but it leads to students learning nothing whatsoever. Reiss is describing something that a good teacher should be doing anyway. The whole argument has become massively sidetracked because the word “creationism” is in there.

I think the spirit of this is absolutely right but I also wonder how you can teach evolution without ‘push[ing] directly against what is driving’ a creationist, or at least a certain kind of creationist…

33

Alex 09.17.08 at 6:10 pm

I think the spirit of this is absolutely right but I also wonder how you can teach evolution without ‘push[ing] directly against what is driving’ a creationist, or at least a certain kind of creationist…

You can’t teach a person anything by deriding or dismissing their fundamental beliefs. Nothing was ever gained by calling a person stupid or misguided other than mistrust. A teacher need not acknowledge the validity of creationism but they need to cultivate the trust of the student and encourage the asking of questions, and pose questions to them as well. Being seen as opposing them will only serve to create distrust and distance.

As I say about two comments in, some students are so hopelessly driven by the need to fight and disrupt that they are impossible to engage. However many children (and adults) are disruptive and argumentative out of a sheer desire to be acknowledged.

If you are faced with someone you consider to be ignorant and deluded, and they themselves consider you to be ignorant and deluded, then you can fight that person forever and get nowhere. A mutual acknowledgement must be reached, or else the purpose itself may as well be abandoned.

34

Kaveh Hemmat 09.17.08 at 6:18 pm

The point of racist ideology is not to convince somebody of a belief, so that they will behave rationally as if that belief were true. The point of most racist ideology is to say something that is patently untrue, and by doing so, to demonstrate that you have power over the target of your racism. It’s a meta-statement: “I can say something that everybody knows is BS, but nobody can stop me from saying it, and some people will behave as if it were true. And you can’t do the same to me.” At least that is a big part of it. It’s like how people say rape is about domination rather than sex. I suspect it’s often about both, but clearly it’s not just about the latter. For racists, including the more casual or polite ones as well as the clumsier ones, the point they are trying to make is not about average IQ levels over a large population, or inherent liberality or authoritarianness of a people, their point is to demonstrate their personal power over somebody whom they can marginalize.

If you were conversing with a rational racist who really believed that, say, people from Asia were genetically disposed to be obedient, or whathaveyou, and whose behavior is governed by that belief, rather than by a desire to assert power and gain a sense of belonging for themself, then it would make sense to engage them with facts, as it often makes sense to engage teenage creationists. If a student has bought into the theory of The Bell Curve, you don’t just tell them to shut up, you explain the flaws in the science. If somebody calls somebody else a racist epithet, or tells other students that they are going to hell, then you tell them to shut up.

35

engels 09.17.08 at 6:18 pm

Yes, I agree with all that too, but I think you’re defending a slightly different point now. (And to be honest, I don’t think it’s a contested one: I’m pretty sure no-one here is in favour of teachers ‘calling a person stupid’ in class or otherwise showing open contempt towards her pupils). The specific query I was trying to raise was how you might try to act on your interpretation of Menuhin’s advice in this instance…

36

engels 09.17.08 at 6:20 pm

(The previous comment should have been addressed to Alex.)

37

engels 09.17.08 at 6:30 pm

To try to make things clearer, what I have in mind is someone who is not ‘hopelessly driven by the need to fight and disrupt’ but just has a seemingly unshakeable conviction of the correctness of her anti-scientific views perhaps coupled with a desire to evangelise to others. Her religion is an important motivating force for her. How do you teach evolution to such a student while respecting your (generally, I think, excellent advice) not to ‘push against’ what is driving the student?

38

Alex 09.17.08 at 6:31 pm

The specific query I was trying to raise was how you might try to act on your interpretation of Menuhin’s advice in this instance…

But that’s dependant on who’s teaching and who they are teaching, right? Creationists is people too.

Whether it is viable remains to be seen in practice and I think denying even that possibility is the problem here. The insistance that teachers should not even try to engage with a creationist student is hopeless.

39

leederick 09.17.08 at 6:42 pm

“Reiss didn’t call for creationism to be part of the science curriculum, he said (absolutely clearly, in his original statement of his view) that teachers should, as a matter of good pedagogical practice, be willing to engage with students they encounter who come to the class with creationist views.”

He did far more than that. These are the key quotes:

“I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.”

“Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one’s world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.”

I can see why scientists are outraged.

His ‘engagement’ isn’t ‘arguing vigorously’. It’s giving up. Suggesting to these children that scientists believe in evolution, to explain to then what evolution is, but with the understanding that creationism isn’t misconceived and they just have a different world-view.

It’s entirely proper that he was forced to resign. The whole purpose of a scientific education is to teach the value of a scientific worldview, and he’s rejecting that. It’s not acceptable to reject teaching the scientific world-view in a science classroom. That’s exactly what science education should be about. That’s exactly what the Royal Society exists to promote. We shouldn’t tell students who don’t believe in science that that’s okay and not a misconception, just a different worldview they have.

40

novakant 09.17.08 at 6:58 pm

I was just about to write something very similar to what leederick posted, anyway, here’s the link to Reiss’ statement.

41

Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 7:02 pm

they just have a different world-view.

He judges the world-view as non-scientific. That’s not giving up.

42

abb1 09.17.08 at 7:08 pm

His ‘engagement’ isn’t ‘arguing vigorously’. It’s giving up.

True, his ‘engagement’ isn’t ‘arguing vigorously’, but it doesn’t exactly sound like ‘giving up’ either.

His engagement is “taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it.”

43

engels 09.17.08 at 7:08 pm

Leederick, that’s very unfair. There’s no implication in your quotations that Reiss holds creationism ‘a non-scientific way of seeing the world’ to be of equal value to science. Actually, if I read him right, he answers the question I trying to press to Alex above. If one is faced with a student for whom evolution conflicts with their deepest and firmly held religious convictions then in this case one can’t hope to ‘teach’ evolution. All one can really hope to do in this case is enable the student to understand the scientific position (and hopefully also to engage in some sort of a positive dialogue). Any more than this would be evangelism, not education. (This wouldn’t require acknowledging any merit in the religious view, or abandoning the desire to displace it, but would show a realistic deference to human psychology and a principled one to the values of education.)

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novakant 09.17.08 at 7:33 pm

A not wholly unimportant point: how do you grade such pupils?

Do you fail them all? Do you expect them to regurgitate something they consider as manifestly untrue, as we would if we were forced into a class run by creationists, just to get a good grade? Do you judge them on how well they can explain creationism? Do you give them a passing grade automatically simply to get around the problem?

None of these options are satisfactory.

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Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 7:38 pm

It’s not satisfactory to do the work you’re assigned?

46

Roy Belmont 09.17.08 at 7:53 pm

It gets clearer and clearer that these “wars”, against science, against religion, are more accurately a war against reasonableness and humane tolerance.
Reiss went valiantly into the laser blast of intolerance, and got hit from both sides.

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voyou 09.17.08 at 7:57 pm

novokant, I don’t think that’s a difficult question at all. You ask students to explain the theory of evolution, and why it is generally held by scientists; if they can do that, they pass, if they can’t, they fail. It doesn’t matter whether or not the students believe it, and one doesn’t ask them merely to “regurgitate” things; the important thing is for them to understand the theory well enough to explain it.

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notsneaky 09.17.08 at 8:16 pm

“Do you expect them to regurgitate something they consider as manifestly untrue, as we would if we were forced into a class run by creationists, just to get a good grade?”

That one. Though I wouldn’t use ‘regurgitate’ – I’d ask’em to explain.
If I took a class on Marxism, which I consider to be something like 89% nonsense, I’d still expect to learn what it is that Marxists believe and why, and be graded accordingly. And I’d expect to get failed if I tried to submit some Capitalist Manifesto instead. I don’t think Reiss would disagree with this approach.

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Steve LaBonne 09.17.08 at 8:36 pm

And just for the record I agree with Righteous, voyou and notsneaky.
AND I don’t think Reiss was trying to say more than that, despite his inartful way of phrasing it.

50

abb1 09.17.08 at 8:51 pm

Capitalist Manifesto

Would it be The Law or Atlas Shrugged?

51

Mordaunt 09.17.08 at 9:06 pm

As it happens I have had the experience of discovering that one of my students was a creationist. This happened in the context of a confirmation class. My reaction was as follows. a) Be polite and respectful about her beliefs b) Explain why I thought them mistaken c) Find an accessible text which sets forth the problems with creationism by an actual scientist and lend it to her.

Result: She’s not a Creationist.

So, basically, my sympathies are with Fr. Reiss. Do those who think that throwing a hissy fit or ducking the issue is a better response have similar stories to tell of their success in debunking creationism?

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Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 9:14 pm

If I took a class on Marxism, which I consider to be something like 89% nonsense, I’d still expect to learn what it is that Marxists believe and why, and be graded accordingly.

Not only that but you could probably get a decent grade by tangling in an adversarial way with X Marxist tenet depending on the assignment. That shouldn’t be out of bounds for evolution either, but as is painfully obvious creationists don’t have arguments that would merit a passing grade.

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Mrs Tilton 09.17.08 at 9:40 pm

(A list of issues where partisans are only willing to tolerate a simple straightforward and unequivocal expression of the party line (on either side) and will seek to punish deviants: anything touching on religion and education (including this issue); Israel/Palestine; abortion/right to life, ….etc. )

Quite so. Drawing lines in the sand isn’t really helpful at all. We can and should painstakingly differentiate all day long on every topic under the sun. Unless and until, that is, some manifest scumbag tries to defend the traicíon franquista against the Spanish Republic.

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peter 09.17.08 at 10:02 pm

The issue here boils down to whether one thinks the education of children is about filling their heads with facts and with the current scientific consensus, or is rather about teaching them to think for themselves. The panjandrums of the Royal Society have shown us that they side with the former view. Shame on them.

In this, however, they have form: when the subject of GM foods came to prominence in Britain eight years ago, they also tried to shut down public debate on the topic.

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novakant 09.17.08 at 10:40 pm

Do those who think that throwing a hissy fit or ducking the issue is a better response have similar stories to tell of their success in debunking creationism?

I’m not throwing a hissy fit, neither am I ducking the issue. Indeed I applaud your behaviour and I hope science teachers treat these young people tactfully and respectfully – after all, it’s not their fault that they have been indoctrinated with a manifestly false ideology (and let’s please not throw it in with Marx, some of whose works, for all their faults, are still a worthwhile read both as part of the history of ideas and as a critique of certain excesses of capitalism; also they are intellectually on a wholly different level, though probably far too complicated for most high-school students).

Reis, however, is arguing something completely different, I think it’s worthwhile repeating some of what he said:

I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.

Creationism is a misconception, it’s simply wrong and doesn’t employ scientific methodology at all, but rather tries to put a pseudo-scientific veneer on what’s written in ‘the good book’.

The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

This is a capitulation. As opposed to Mordaunt, who tried to and convince a creationist and succeeded, Reiss has thrown in the towel already.

Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

Reiss wants or at least feels the need to discuss creationism in science class, there is no doubt about it. Now maybe his physics class was full of little geniuses, who digested the curriculum in no time, got bored and started throwing ideas by Kuhn, Feyerabend or Quine around, merrily chipping away at the very foundations of scientific methodolgy – if so, good for him. But firstly these were all extremely interesting and knowledgeable scientific minds in their own right, as opposed to creationists who are nothing of the sort, and secondly it’s rather likely that the pupils in your bog-standard science class will have enough on their hands comprehending the very basic principles of science. I really don’t see how discussing ridiculous and unscientific ideas like creationism is going to be fruitful in this context.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion.

As I said, if your class is highly intelligent and advanced, then why not discuss writers such as the ones I mentioned above. But creationism simply doesn’t lend itself to a genuine discussion because it is unscientific bogus and someone who doesn’t understand the difference between the two shouldn’t set educational policy. Also, creationism isn’t mainly about spontaneous and creative doubts that spring up in student’s minds, but rather a political-religious agenda set by a group of adults, who have been trying to push it through the curriculum for decades investing an inordinate amount of time, effort and money in the process.

So everybody’s tolerance here is a nice touch and please be gentle and tactful towards young people with creationist beliefs, but don’t fall for the trap set by religious kooks and allow discussion of creationism in science class.

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Righteous Bubba 09.17.08 at 10:55 pm

Reiss wants or at least feels the need to discuss creationism in science class, there is no doubt about it.

There is doubt about it. Here is what he says:

If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

In other words, if nobody’s worried about creationism the question never arises and you can go on with the lesson as normal.

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engels 09.17.08 at 11:08 pm

Novakant:
(1) calling something a ‘world view’ isn’t an endorsement
(2) saying ‘we can’t normally expect to bring about X’ does not imply ‘and so let’s not try!”

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voyou 09.17.08 at 11:35 pm

In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

This is a capitulation. As opposed to Mordaunt, who tried to and convince a creationist and succeeded, Reiss has thrown in the towel already.

It’s only capitulation if you think the point of education is to get students to believe certain things. Why should that be the goal of science education? Do you think this should be the goal of education in other areas, too? Because that strikes me as quite an odd understanding of education; furthermore, I would have thought that, in any area except the sciences, the inappropriateness of basing education around inculcating beliefs is fairly obvious. Why would science, then, be different?

it’s rather likely that the pupils in your bog-standard science class will have enough on their hands comprehending the very basic principles of science. I really don’t see how discussing ridiculous and unscientific ideas like creationism is going to be fruitful in this context.

How can you comprehend the basic principles of science without some understanding of what distinguishes science from non-science? I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Reiss, but I’m begining to think that it’s necessary to discuss non-scientific ideas in science classes. Of course, the non-scientific example needn’t be creationism, it could be alchemy or Ptolemaic astronomy, and the philosophy of science should only be a comparatively small amount of the syllabus; but if we want students to understand what science is, talking about why creationism isn’t science seems like a good way to do it.

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notsneaky 09.17.08 at 11:37 pm

“the non-scientific example needn’t be creationism, it could be alchemy or Ptolemaic astronomy”

I think Ptolemaic astronomy was science (along the lines of Daniel’s joke about Astrology and Popper). It was just a failed theory.

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notsneaky 09.17.08 at 11:37 pm

“the non-scientific example needn’t be creationism, it could be alchemy or Ptolemaic astronomy”

I think Ptolemaic astronomy was scientific (along the lines of Daniel’s joke about Astrology and Popper). It was just a failed scientific theory.

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mijnheer 09.18.08 at 3:54 am

This seems to be a shocking capitulation by the Royal Society to the forces of creationism — an implicit admission that evolutionary theory is so shaky that anyone who suggests engaging with students about its scientific credentials must be thrown overboard. It’s as if one of Obama’s advisers were to be fired for daring to suggest engaging with McCain supporters to explain why they should vote for Obama. It’s like keeping Palin away from the media, lest they ask embarrassing questions.

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Sperry 09.18.08 at 5:58 am

“it’s rather likely that the pupils in your bog-standard science class will have enough on their hands comprehending the very basic principles of science. I really don’t see how discussing ridiculous and unscientific ideas like creationism is going to be fruitful in this context.”

That’s interesting- because as person who was raised in a conservative/evangelical atmosphere and who attended a Christian school throughout primary education, I was taught to wholeheartedly swallow the creation/ID/YEC pill. Videotapes, lectures, books, pamphlets reenforced the drivel on a daily basis. I am convinced that the sort of brainwashing my brothers (who, studying at Liberty University, have yet to break free) and I received during our formative years was nothing short of abusive.

In any case, upon entering the public school system in my 9th year, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to challenge my Earth Science teacher with my own ‘science’. I was smarmy and smug, but the teacher kept her cool and instead asked me some very simple questions in return. After a little while, smug and smarm didn’t come quite as easily, and with a few more questions, some books thrown my way, and the occasional encouraging email, I ‘dared to think for myself’.

I was not alone in this transformation, several other students in the class underwent a similar liberation. In any case, I cannot imagine where I’d be (maybe I can, but I’d rather not) had it not been for that engagement. It is unbelievable how many Americans (the majority) still approach the study of evolution with hostility. It is equally remarkable how quickly, in many instances, such rubbish can removed.

If this sort of engagement isn’t ‘fruitful’ in a classroom setting, then I’m not sure what would be.

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Lex 09.18.08 at 7:30 am

A thoughtful and almost productive discussion, but coming late I must remark on this:

“Nobody ever said life was fair.”
Yeah, but it should be. And since when has this been an excuse for PEOPLE (in positions of power) behaving unfairly?

Like, since ever?

And life should be fair? That and £5 will get someone with terminal cancer a hot lunch. Science, on the other hand, might just find a way to cure them.

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notsneaky 09.18.08 at 7:37 am

“Like, since ever?”

Ok. A valid excuse. When a meteor falls out of the sky and hits you on the head, even though there’s someone who deserves it a lot more that’s life being unfair. And that’s the way it is. But if somebody leans out a window and drops a big rock on your head that isn’t “life” being unfair.

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Lex 09.18.08 at 8:05 am

Yes it is – life is unfair in many ways, and one of them is that a lot of the other people in it are total f*ckers who would do something like that. It’s why doors have locks, houses have insurance, states have prisons… Until we invent ‘Magic Nice Powder’ and sprinkle it on everyone, life will be unfair because of people, as much as because of random acts of nature.

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notsneaky 09.18.08 at 8:22 am

Sure, but the total f*ckers shouldn’t get a pass, shrug of the shoulders and a meaningless “life’s not fair – look at me how cynical I am!” quip. They should get called on their total f*ckedness. And that’s what the above commentators were doing.

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John Meredith 09.18.08 at 8:52 am

But isn’t it true that Prof Reiss said something more than simply that science teachers should ‘engage’ with creationist views when expressed by pupils. Didn’t he suggest that science teachers should not treat creationism as a ‘misconception’ but rather as a ‘world view’? And that gives some legitimacy to creationism, doesn’t it? How can a science teacher argue against creationism without treating it as a misconception? Should science teachers treat scientific racism as a world view rather than a misconception if pupils bring it up? Or would that just be plain wrong?

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Lex 09.18.08 at 8:58 am

Looked to me more like people were playing the victim card on behalf of Reiss. The trouble with “it’s not fair!” is that in these days of highly-proficient pressure-grouping, it becomes a Russian-doll scenario: everyone is oppressed… so the whole “fair” issue is just bloviation. The more credit you give it, the wider the range of people who will assert it on their own behalf. It’s not “fair”, for example, that some people get more sex than others – it’s a basic human need [for most adults], after all – but should we be pressing for legislation to ration it?

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Andrew Bartlett 09.18.08 at 9:04 am

Any ‘total f*cker’ who deals with criticism of the way that they behave as a ‘total f*cker’ with a “shrug of the shoulders and a meaningless “life’s not fair”” has pretty much abandoned any moral claim to being treated decently; only their [relative] power protects them. Their ability to enrol the power of the state does protects them, but, in a situation where state retribution is unlikely, and if, having sized them up and down and judged that you are stronger then them, their own moral vision more or less demands that you kick them in the balls. At least. Hell, they deserve it even if they haven’t behaved like a ‘total f*cker’ – Reiss did not say what he is accussed of saying – all they need do is to hold to a moral vision in which the behaviour of ‘total f*ckers’ is given a pass by a reference to the inherent unfairness of the world.

And anyway, its more than behaving as a ‘total f*cker’. In this case, the people that forced Reiss from his job claimed to be defenders of the Enlightenment while acting on the basis of ignorance and unreason, and were successful in their demands not because of the power of their argument, but because of the power derived from their cultural status and authority. Secular bishops? They are making the express claim that they are not ‘total f*ckers’ even as they behave as ‘total f*cukers’.

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Chris Bertram 09.18.08 at 9:10 am

#67 I know the apologists for the RS’s actions make much of this “world view” comment, regarding it as code for some kind of anything-goes relativism, but it is perfectly plain that this wasn’t how Reiss intended it. Your comment about scientific racism also shows that you haven’t understood him, since the point about “world views” was about non-scientific stances and was that they aren’t easily amenable being overturned in the mind of the holder (including many school pupils) by scientific means, since the holder doesn’t buy into the criteria that science deploys. And no, it doesn’t give “legitimacy” to creationism to call it a “world view” – why would you think that?

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John Meredith 09.18.08 at 9:23 am

“And no, it doesn’t give “legitimacy” to creationism to call it a “world view” – why would you think that?”

If it is true that Prof Reiss suggested that science teachers should not treat creationism as a ‘misconception’ (the bit you missed out in your response to mine) but as a ‘world view’, that seems to lend legitimacy to creationism, just at it would seem to me to lend legitimacy to scientific racism or theories of white supremacism if science teachers were urged not to treat them as a misconception. What is creationism if not a misconception?

“Your comment about scientific racism also shows that you haven’t understood him, since the point about “world views” was about non-scientific stances and was that they aren’t easily amenable being overturned in the mind of the holder (including many school pupils) by scientific means, since the holder doesn’t buy into the criteria that science deploys. “

But then, in what way can a science techer meaningfully ‘engage’ with creationist views? That would be an argument for leaving it out of the science class altogether. But that doesn’t seem to be what he was advocating. If it is legitimate to discuss in science classes it muct be in terms of scientific claims and that means explaining to pupils that they are labouring under a misconception. What is a scince teacher to do with ‘I don’t buy into the criteria that scinec deploys’ but I still insist you are wrong. How can he or she ‘engage’ with that? As someone esle has suggested, it is like asking an English teacher to enegage with the views of a pupil who holds that Shakespear’s sonnets are written in French and rejects a priori, any evidence to the contrary.

I like and admire Prof reiss and think he has been unairly treated. I am not an apologist for anyone, least of all the RS, but it was right to call Reiss on this at some level.

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Lex 09.18.08 at 9:31 am

“Their ability to enrol the power of the state does protects them, but, in a situation where state retribution is unlikely, and if, having sized them up and down and judged that you are stronger then them, their own moral vision more or less demands that you kick them in the balls. At least. “

Sweet. The exercise of superior force through violence for the purpose of upholding self-assessed moral superiority. You are being ironic, of course, but you are also being silly.

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Andrew Bartlett 09.18.08 at 9:58 am

Being silly, sure. But it isn’t about me upgolding my moral superiority through violence, it about be demonstrating the utter emptiness and brutality of the moral vision that is entailed by shrugging your shoulders when a wrong is done and remarking that ‘life is unfair’.

And don’t think that justifying the sacking of Reiss on the grounds that ‘life is unfair’ is anything other than ‘might makes right’. And ‘might is right’, with its rejection of reason, is far more an affront to the Enlightenment than anything that Reiss has said.

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Alex 09.18.08 at 10:00 am

As someone esle has suggested, it is like asking an English teacher to enegage with the views of a pupil who holds that Shakespear’s sonnets are written in French and rejects a priori, any evidence to the contrary.

Well now you’re speaking in hypothesis, having decided for yourself (as many commenters here have) exactly how every last creationist (students especially) thinks and behaves. The student may believe something absurd but the suggestion that they are a closed book on the matter is a) wholly speculative and b) a crappy attitude to teaching.

Disciplining or sacking a teacher who suggests they should be spoken to is monolithic – but I expect that such action has been largely accepted by many due to the fact that hated creationism is the topic at hand. There’s a hint of an underlying fear that any acknowledgement that the subject be allowed mention in our schools will open the way for it to be applied to the curriculum.

Commenters in favour of Reiss’s sacking have been hasty to pull apart his argument like worried pedants scrabbling for words and sentences that are “open to interpretation”, in the acknowledgement that he didn’t actually say anything resembling what he’s been accused of or what he’s lost his job for. I’m pretty sure the newspapers, driven by sensationalism, soundbites and a desire to court outrage, handled his speech in much the same way. If we are intelligent enough to construe his genuine meaning from what he wrote, why on earth would we defend the malicious actions of those who can’t, or won’t? What, they’re justified in destroying someone because they couldn’t understand him?

Oh, sod it – he’s a heretic. Let’s sacrifice him to our god.

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Andrew Bartlett 09.18.08 at 10:05 am

“Commenters in favour of Reiss’s sacking have been hasty to pull apart his argument like worried pedants scrabbling for words and sentences that are “open to interpretation””, which is, interestingly, part of the creationist playbook when it comes to dealing with utterances of scientists.

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Zamfir 09.18.08 at 10:12 am

A big diference between creationism on the one hand and 2+2=17, or French sonnets on the other hand is that creationism is part of a much larger and deeper worldview, making it much less likely that a purely science-focussed class will convince someone.

In my experience, creationists (and their parents) have a deep, deep belief that morailty comes from God, through the Bible, and only belief in God and adherence to the Bible will keep people on the straight path. They do not care so much about evolution in itself, but tend to see it as an attack on morailty.

In such a situation, a purely scientific defense of evolution misses the point, and is usually not enough on its own to convince people.

What is needed is also the conviction that acceptance of evolution can be combined with christianity, and more important the idea that less strict christians and outright atheist can still be very moral people. If people believed that 2+2=17 was required for morality, math classes on their own wouldn’t help either.

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Chris Bertram 09.18.08 at 10:29 am

#71 No John, you still aren’t getting it. The “misconception” point is precisely the one about science and scientific criteria (so I didn’t miss out that bit in my response to you). I also don’t think that your Shakespeare analogy is appropriate: a better one would be trying to teach an atheist theology, somemething that is not only possible but often accomplished.

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dsquared 09.18.08 at 10:29 am

By the way, as Private Eye this week points out, if anyone wants to see a real-life example of how one might engage with a classroom of creationist pupils, treating them respectfully and explaining the scientific viewpoint in terms that they can understand, there’s an excellent example of current Charles Simonyi Professor Of The Public Understanding Of Science doing exactly that in the documentary “Dawkins on Darwin”, still available on BBC iPlayer I think.

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John Meredith 09.18.08 at 11:06 am

“there’s an excellent example of current Charles Simonyi Professor Of The Public Understanding Of Science doing exactly that”

And the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has, of course, supported Prof Reiss in this.

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Nick 09.18.08 at 11:34 am

If people believed that 2+2=17 was required for morality, math classes on their own wouldn’t help either.
Interesting point but a bad example. May I commend to the readership the Second Book of Chronicles, Chapter 4, beginning to read at the second verse? (You’ll have to go and look it up).
This text will be of interest to historians of science as it suggests that Bronze age middle east architects had a geometry which was familiar with the concept of pi and that they reckoned its value was integer 3.
For reasons which completely escape me Creationists do not thump the desks of maths teachers demanding the teaching of Biblical Mathematics. (Maybe its because their project is incoherent nonsense by the standards of most believers . . .)
Just as well for the RS that they don’t though, as that body seems to be making a dreadful hash of defending science education . . .

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novakant 09.18.08 at 1:16 pm

It is equally remarkable how quickly, in many instances, such rubbish can removed.

If this sort of engagement isn’t ‘fruitful’ in a classroom setting, then I’m not sure what would be.

Sperry, I don’t think we’re as far apart as it seems, in fact, I think that Reiss’ position runs counter to much of what you and Mordaunt have said. You both describe cases in which creationists students have come to renounce their previous beliefs in favour of a more scientific worldview. Reiss, on the other hand, isn’t very hopeful that such a thing could take place:

most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one’s world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.

Yet, in the cases you both described the conversion did happen and it seems in a rather short period of time. Reiss seems to think that the chances of such a thing happening are slim and that we should resign ourselves to this alleged fact.

He also says that we should try our best to have a “genuine discussion” about the issue. At least to me a “genuine discussion” means a discussion with an open, not predetermined outcome in which the original viewpoints are sufficiently rational to be weighed against each other. If one of the viewpoints is irrational to begin with, then the proponent of that viewpoint will either stubbornly stick with it or abandon it in favour of the more rational viewpoint, but the latter choice will not be the result of the dialectical process indicative of a genuine discussion about positions on which reasonable people can disagree. Rather, the participant will adopt the rational viewpoint because he chooses rationality and empirical evidence over irrational belief.

That’s why I said that giving equal weight to both the irrational and the rational viewpoint at the beginning of such a discussion will hardly be fruitful. Confronting students with the scientific viewpoint and making a good case for it in the hope that they will adopt it, without making concessions to the religious position, however, can be fruitful as both your examples have shown.

Where we do seem to differ is on the question, if the religious viewpoints should be discussed in science class – I think they shouldn’t, because, well, they are unscientific and it is not the task of science teachers to debate religious matters. Furthermore, it has long been the political strategy of the creationists to try to make inroads such as “teaching the debate” in science class, as Sarah Palin puts it:

Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.

Unfortunately it is not only kooks like Palin who make such arguments, but Michael Reiss himself seems to veer in a similar direction, though he phrases it much more carefully (2006 on the new GSCE science courses):

Supportive of the move, Reiss describes the new courses as a “significant shift” away from the traditional aim of school science – to prepare candidates for A-levels. (…) Controversially, Reiss also says the new courses increase creationism’s presence in the science classroom. “I think all the new GCSE science courses open up the possibilities for discussions about socio-scientific issues, including creationism”

This sounds very similar to what Truth in Science, a group affiliated with the creationist Discovery Institute, had to say about the same subject at the time:

But the new GCSE science syllabus that schools have begun teaching this term brings “a fresh opportunity to reconsider what is taught about origins“. (…) The Truth in Science website says: “We consider that it is time for students to be permitted to adopt a critical approach to Darwinism in science lessons.”

I hope this sufficiently explains my opposition to both Reiss and the discussion of religious matters in science class. This does not mean that teachers should simply ignore the ideological preconditioning of their students and I certainly welcome attempts to take them seriously convince them by having a chat after class or recommending books to them – but let’s keep “the debate” out of the classroom.

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Chris Bertram 09.18.08 at 2:16 pm

How extraordinarily selective of you novakant. After all, only three paragraphs below the one you cite, in the very same article we get:

bq. But, following the Royal Society’s line, Reiss stresses his opposition to the teaching of creationism in science classes (though teachers should be able to deal with it if it comes up in discussion). “There is a role for science teachers. Religious education teachers can’t be expected to know about the evidence for and against evolution,” he explains.

That is hardly a more carefully phrased version of what Sarah Palin said, is it?

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abb1 09.18.08 at 2:51 pm

Novakant,
Where we do seem to differ is on the question, if the religious viewpoints should be discussed in science class – I think they shouldn’t, because, well, they are unscientific and it is not the task of science teachers to debate religious matters

Believing that Eve was created from Adam’s rib is unscientific and irrational, but what about more scientifically dressed species of creationism, like the ‘irreducible complexity’ argument – should it be rejected out of hand too? That would look kinda dogmatic, no?

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Zarquon 09.18.08 at 11:12 pm

‘Irreducible complexity’ isn’t rejected out of hand – it’s rejected because it’s already been shown to be wrong. Sheesh.

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Righteous Bubba 09.18.08 at 11:38 pm

‘Irreducible complexity’ isn’t rejected out of hand – it’s rejected because it’s already been shown to be wrong. Sheesh.

The point is not that it’s wrong but that it isn’t in itself a religious dogma. Would novakant’s scheme allow a student to bring it up and receive a response or would it receive some sort of “do not think about this in science class” order?

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Righteous Bubba 09.18.08 at 11:44 pm

I still think the crux of the complaint here involves the misunderstanding of what “lesson” generally means to folks in the UK and what it means to North Americans. Reiss:

“Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson.”

A North American might take this to mean that non-science must be included in the curriculum whereas other practitioners of English might read “lesson” as “classroom interaction”.

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notsneaky 09.18.08 at 11:55 pm

“I still think the crux of the complaint here involves the misunderstanding of what “lesson” generally means to folks in the UK and what it means to North Americans.”

Doubt it. Had no trouble understanding what he meant, same as you.

88

Righteous Bubba 09.18.08 at 11:57 pm

Doubt it. Had no trouble understanding what he meant, same as you.

You’re probably right.

89

Roy Belmont 09.19.08 at 2:14 am

Lex:
That and £5 will get someone with terminal cancer a hot lunch. Science, on the other hand, might just find a way to cure them.

Is that it?
Just keep curing every affliction in sight? That’s science?
Or is that more exactly how science gets pimped to a progressively more nervous public?
And it isn’t it more accurately the world-stance of medicine?
Isn’t it at least possible that “science” may proivide us with the uncomfortable suggestion that letting people die of cancer could help us improve ourselves, as species and as residents of an increasingly overcrowded world.
In fact that that’s how our immune systems evolved to their current proficiency?
Because people died, some of them, and others lived?
If I take over a tidepool, or better still a pool in a freshwater creek, and I decide that everything that lives in that pool gets to benefit from my progressively superior ability to control that pool’s ecology, and that’s what I do, I keep everything alive in that pool alive, only there’s living things there I can’t identify with my cheap-budget instruments, so they die. And then everything starts getting cyclically more and more out of whack.
Same as if I just keep alive the things I like like subtropical landscaping everywhere, and humans, and dogs and cats, contrasted to at the expense of birds and fish and wild animals generally…
So keeping people alive no matter what means polar bears, lions, elephants, all get replaced by obese people in big energy-consumptive vehicles.
Instead of them, them.
So what?
What does medicine have to tell us about the extinction of the great cats?
Anything?
Is there a way through that?
Well so with these godlike abilities come godlike responsibilities.
So keeping people alive won’t pull the world back into its harmonic imbalance, as contrasted to this feedbacking shriek of dissonance we’re entering, the back and forth of harmonic imbalance being how we walk, how our brains work, how our eyes work, the conditions we evolved under, and to, and with, what we owe our living at all as well as our present mighty configuration to, but science isn’t able to provide us with any other mandate than the medical one?
Bad news: science and medicine are not identical disciplines.

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