And it doesn’t feel good. Kroto is a Nobel-winning chemist, and I’ve had dinner with him — he’s a good guy, a very outspoken atheist, strongly on the side of science education, and all around smart and personable. So I hate to say it, but this opinion piece on the Michael Reiss affair is just too exclusionist for even me. Reiss, you may recall, was the education director for the Royal Society who resigned after making some conciliatory (or reported as conciliatory) remarks about creationism.
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 of my Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different matter. An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) 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. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom. This is where the intellectual integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss affair.
This is too close to blacklisting people for their personal affiliations, and it should not be acceptable. I agree that being an ordained minister implies that the guy is fairly deeply into weird old woo, but surprise: people are really good, for the most part, at holding a lot of disparate ideas in their heads, and people trained as scientists are especially good, for the most part, at keeping the spiritual blather out of their science. Keep in mind that generic religiosity can be rationalized to avoid conflict with specific issues in science (in ways that are deplorably vague and pointless, of course); this isn’t like discovering that Reiss was a card-carrying creationist with an a priori commitment to anti-science. If we’re going to start kicking scientists out of organizations because they have some bit of irrationality in their lives, we’re all going to be in trouble. Do I need to start expunging the space operas from my bookshelves and the old cheesy horror movies from my DVD collection?
I say that qualified scientists should be awarded positions like Director of Science Education solely on the basis of their record as science educators. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they understand the difference between science and their private hobbies, and aren’t going to mix the two up. And, of course, if they do mix them up, go after them for the specific infraction, and not for their private interests.
This is also difficult for me to say because I do think religion is a taint that corrupts the thinking of otherwise intelligent persons, and I do find it personally suspicious when an ordained minister is given authority in a scientific organization…but no one is perfect, it’s a rational principle to judge by only appropriate criteria, and it’s simply an injustice to shut people out with such an unyielding criterion.