Michael Reiss tries to put lipstick on creationist pigs

As reported today in the Guardian, the director of education of the Royal Society, Michael Reiss, believes that creationism should be brought into the science classroom as an alternate "worldview" to evolution. It is not a misconception, fairy tale, or jumble of nonsense, Reiss argues, but just another way of looking at the world. What a bunch of bunk...

For years creationists have argued that the long public argument over evolution is not one of science, but of worldviews. We have all the same facts, they say, but we look at them through different "glasses." Reiss' position plays right into their hands, essentially tacking on an "ism" to the end of evolution and treating it as a philosophical viewpoint rather than as science. (While not explicitly stated in the article, I think this is an implicit consequence of the strategy.) The danger in this is that the study of evolution should not dictate our ethics, and I do not see casting evolution as a competing worldview with fundamentalist religion as being profitable. It would only serve to underline creationism propaganda about the great "war of the worldviews" that they feel so threatened by.

I'm sure that Reiss' position as a minister in the Church of England somewhat colors his view on this subject, but even if it does not I find his approach to be too relativistic. "It's ok to reject reality because you don't like it; any worldview is acceptable." As has been pointed out over and over again "alternate views" of history (i.e. Holocaust denial) or other sciences (i.e. geocentrism) would not be tolerated in the classroom, so why must we bend over backwards to accommodate nonsense in biology classes?

In the articles Reiss says that he took up his present position because creationists in his classroom were not changing their minds when he covered evolution, yet there was something very telling in one of his quotes. Reiss said that students rarely change their world-view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, but if that is all the time evolution is getting then there's a major problem. As I have said many times before, biology teachers need to make evolution a central part of their lesson plans rather than relegating it to one lecture. How can anyone be expected to understand it if we continue to take such an approach? Even students who already agree that evolution is a reality are shortchanged by such tactics.

If creationism is to be discussed in classrooms at all, it should be placed in the context of the history of science. If we really must cast it as being indicative of another worldview then that's something for the philosophy class, but I see Reiss' proposed technique as raising a white flag rather than making desperately needed changes to science education.

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For years creationists have argued that the long public argument over evolution is not one of science, but of worldviews. We have all the same facts, they say, but we look at them through different "glasses."

Watching people with an authoritarian mindset who profess an adoration for the "literal truth of Scripture" turn around and serve up cafeteria relativism is an amusing spectacle. Occasionally, one finds post-everything academicians endorsing some brand of pseudoscience, but the flow in the other direction seems more common: pseudoscientists resort to relativizing jargon to deflect critiques of their claims. Alan Sokal wrote a fascinating essay on this nexus, which is reprinted and updated in his recent book Beyond the Hoax (2008).

(I recommend this book not because I agree with every detail, but because it's remarkably clear in what it says, and because it moves beyond the dreary "Science Wars" of the 1990s into areas which, frankly, matter a whole lot more.)

High school biology put the pretty red letters on my report card and to this day I just don't understand why. I love investigating nature, animals, microorganisms, and studies of how life is interdependent on the planet.

And somehow this was lost on me; a world full of fascinating creatures and their transformation over eons was reduced to memorization drills of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. It was essentially taking a classic literature class and being required to read page 79 of a different book every day of the school year. Sure, page 79 was important, but so was the rest of the story.

Topics like mathematics, grammar, literature, and even physical education follow a certain logical pattern; students are not taught algebra before addition, complicated language before basic, Shakespeare before Seuss, or gymnastics before basic stretching (or that goofy parachute game).

Topics like science and history are often not given the same focus; either pieces are presented without thought towards chronology or blatant censorship. We jump into animal identification before evolution, geological distinction before formation, and American Revolution without equal coverage of modern turmoil (seriously, Rambo was pretty much my only exposure to Vietnam until I was in my 20's...and even then I hated Stallone). I'm 37 now, and it is amazing how much I still learn about these two topics that I was never exposed to before.

I'll admit, I was a pretty smart kid but was still an idiot in high school, and I'm sure I didn't learn as much as I had the opportunity to. Today I'm appalled at the idea of creationism being forced into science classes, but I'm also somewhat relieved that most kids will probably be writing swear words on the desk or sleeping through the lecture anyhow.

But I DO remember the classes where a structure worked - to this day, I'll credit my 9th grade English teacher for instructing me how to do research based on a half-year process she made us follow. I'd go as far as to say that experience has made me a more marketable professional.

So, I think I'm agreeing that an evaluation of educational processes, especially in some disciplines such as science and history, is mighty important...much more than what our current No Child Left Alive program is accomplishing.

(For the record, I'm mostly avoiding a religious/political/educational rant...I'm still irked at the McCain rally yesterday that, by intelligently taking place in a place with no parking and 500 yards from my office, caused a hoard of attendees to illegally take all our parking, including the spots dedicated to a medical rehab center...no need to go down that blood-boiling line of thought again.)

I didn't change my world view in 50 minutes either. It took me about 5 to 7 years to go from being moderately religious (but never a creationist, I hasten to point out) to being an atheist. I credit the horrible religious education at my school (I went to a Catholic school) and the thoughtful, enlightening education I received while doing my BA.

If high school students are going to change their minds about evolution, they will do it when they are well taught and are able to make informed decisions on their own, not because someone yammered at them for an hour about trilobites and early horses.

When I first read the article, I didn't get it quite right. I thought that the goal was to study creationism as an obsolete worldview, and to show how the progress of biology and the building of the theory of evolution refuted it. "Just hammering on about evolution and natural selection isn't enough", said the article, as it doesn't really help pupils understand things. That would be a commendable idea, even if it'd be likely to take up a little too much precious class time.

But I read further, and I saw I was wrong. Yes, they were advocating creationism as an "alternative". This is pathetic, but at the same time, it's a good opportunity to explain what science is, why evolution is science while creationism isn't, why both ideas are not symmetrical...

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

Reiss says that he took up his present position because creationists in his classroom were not changing their minds when he covered evolution

That's a really lousy reason. Lots of kids never really get calculus either.

Reiss is very careful to point out that "genuine discussion...does not mean equal time". In no way is he saying that intelligent design or any other form of creationism is scientifically valid. Quite the opposite:he states that he agrees with the statement "The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning". What he is proposing is that science educators reach out to those students who believe that their religious views prevent them from accepting evolutionary theory as scientific fact.

The vitriol present in this article and in these posts will never cause a creationist to change his ways. I know-I used to be one. I was always ready for an argument. I had read books and received extensive training in "refuting evolution". And if I was cornered by a better argument, I shut down, dismissed my opponent as ignorant, and continued believing what I had always believed. It took years of discussion and mentoring from professors and clergy such as Reiss for me to change my mind.

If our goal as scientists is to make ourselves feel better by belittling those whose culture precludes them from accepting modern science without a fight, then you're on the right track, but keep in mind that it won't change anyone's beliefs. Reiss proposes a way to reach across the divide. The scientific community's excoriation of his charitable attempt at reconciliation is depressing evidence that these culture wars are far from over, and will only bolster religious fundamentalists' separatist tendencies.