Michael Reiss Speaks – Steps Down

Michael Reiss’ Webpage at the Institute of Eductation


Royal Society statement regarding Professor Michael Reiss
16 Sep 2008

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.


The British Association for the Advancement of Science, A BA Festival of Science, Liverpool, September 6-11, 2008

The Speech

Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?

Speaker Details:
Name: Professor Michael Reiss
Job title: Director of Education. The Royal Society
Organisation: The Royal Society

Presentation Details:
Event: Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?
Talk: Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?
Date of delivery: 11/09/2008

Presentation Brief:
1. Details of your presentation
Definitions of creationism vary but about 40% of adults in the USA and perhaps over 10% in the UK believe that the Earth is only some 10,000 years old, that it came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur’an and that the most that evolution has done is to change species into closely related species. For a creationist it is possible that the various species of zebra had a common ancestor but this is not the case for zebras, bears and antelopes and still less for monkeys and humans, for birds and molluscs or for palm trees and flesh-eating bacteria.

At the same time, of course, the overwhelming majority of biologists consider evolution to be the central concept in biological sciences, providing a conceptual framework that unifies every disparate aspect of the life sciences into a single coherent discipline. Equally, the overwhelming majority of scientists believe that the universe is of the order of about 13-14 billion years old. Even though evolution and cosmology are well established scientific theories, they are at the centre of a prolonged, possibly deepening, religious controversy.

Evolution and cosmology are understood by many to be a religious issue because they can be seen to contradict the accounts of origins (inorganic, organic and human) described in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures. The issue seems like an ongoing dispute that has science and religion actively battling to support the credibility of their explanations for origins. The lower visibility of presentations of moderate views creates the impression in many people’s minds that a clear delineation exists between those who support scientific theories and those who adhere to scriptural teachings.

My central argument of this article is that creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a worldview. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally aspire to is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific worldview is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14-16 year-olds? The first thing to note is that there is scope for young people to discuss beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things in other subjects, notably religious education (RE). In England, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) and QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) have published a non-statutory national framework for RE and teaching units which include a unit asking ‘How can we answer questions about creation and origins?’. The unit focuses on creation and the origins of the universe and human life, as well as the relationships between religion and science. It can be downloaded from http://www.qca.org.uk.

(See also How can we answer questions about creation and origins?
Learning from religion and science: Christianity, Hinduism,
Islam and Humanism – Year 9

In the summer of 2007, after months of behind-the-scenes meetings and discussions, the DCSF Guidance on Creationism and Intelligent Design received Ministerial approval and was published. As one of those who helped put the Guidance together I am relieved it seems to have been broadly welcomed. Even the discussions on the RichardDawkins.net forum have been pretty positive while The Freethinker, ‘The Voice of Atheism since 1881’, described it as “a welcome breath of fresh air” and “a model of clarity and reason”.

The Guidance points out that the use of the word ‘theory’ in science (as in ‘the theory of evolution’) can mislead those not familiar with science as a subject discipline because it is different from the everyday meaning (i.e. of being little more than an idea). In science, of course, the word indicates that there is a substantial amount of supporting evidence, underpinned by principles and explanations accepted by the international scientific community. The Guidance goes on to point out: “Creationism and intelligent design are sometimes claimed to be scientific theories. This is not the case as they have no underpinning scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the science community as a whole. Creationism and intelligent design therefore do not form part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study”.

The Guidance points out that the nature of, and evidence for, evolution must be taught at key stage 4 as these are part of the programme of study for science, while key stages 1,2 and 3 include topics such as variation, classification and inheritance which lay the foundations for developing an understanding of evolution at key stage 4 and post-16. It then goes on to say: “Creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science. However, there is a real difference between teaching ‘x’ and teaching about ‘x’. Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory”.

This seems to me a key point. Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them. For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine asserts “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support”.

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. 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.

In an interesting exception that proves the rule, I recall one of our advanced level chemistry teachers scoffing at a fellow student who sat with a spoon in front of her while Uri Geller maintained he could bend viewers’ spoons. I was all for this approach. After all, I reasoned, surely the first thing was to establish if the spoon bent (it didn’t for her) and if it did, then start working out how.

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. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time. However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. 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 such as ‘how interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories’; ‘that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address’; ‘how uncertainties in scientific knowledge and scientific ideas change over time and about the role of the scientific community in validating these changes’.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said. The DCSF Guidance suggests: “Some students do hold creationist beliefs or believe in the arguments of the intelligent design movement and/or have parents/carers who accept such views. If either is brought up in a science lesson it should be handled in a way that is respectful of students’ views, religious and otherwise, whilst clearly giving the message that the theory of evolution and the notion of an old Earth / universe are supported by a mass of evidence and fully accepted by the scientific community”.

I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science. Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct, as careful science teaching might hope to persuade a student that an object continues at uniform velocity unless acted on by a net force, or that most of the mass of a plant comes from air. Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, that is a very different way of seeing the world. One very rarely changes one’s worldview as a result of a 50 minute lesson, however well taught.

My hope, rather, is simply to enable students to understand the scientific worldview with respect to origins, not necessarily to accept it. We can help students to find their science lessons interesting and intellectually challenging without their being threatening. Effective teaching in this area can not only help students learn about the theory of evolution but better to appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.

2. What is the key finding of the work/research described in your presentation?
Creationism and intelligent design are growing in extent and influence, both in the UK and elsewhere. I argue that we should take seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science. Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, a very different way of seeing the world.

3. What is new and interesting about your work?
Two things. First, most scientists and science educators believe science teachers should not discuss creationism in school science lessons. I disagree. Secondly, I argue that a belief in creationism is better understood not as a scientific misconception that can be straightforward corrected by the presentation of evidence but as an alternative worldview that is much more resistant to change.

4. What is the relevance of your work to a general audience?
I believe that if my work was taken on board we would (i) achieve better teaching of evolution in school science; (ii) students who do not accept the theory of evolution would be treated with more respect.

5. What is the next step for your work/research?
Determine the extent to which UK students believe in creationism and intelligent design and the views of their teachers about this.

6. Others working in this specific area
James Williams, Sussex

7. Details of relevant publications
Jones, L. & Reiss, M.J. (Eds) (2007) Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism, Peter Lang, New York.
Reiss, M.J. (2008) Creationism, Darwinism and ID: what are biology teachers supposed to do? Biologist, 55, 28-32.


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Biologically incorrect


Biologically incorrect
September 20, 2008

At least Galileo was afforded the benefit of a trial by the Inquisition. No such process was observed by Britain’s prestigious Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific body, when it summarily dismissed its director of education for saying that creationism should be treated as a “world view” and not simply a misconception.

The culprit, Professor Michael Reiss, who is also a priest in the Church of England, made some remarks that are sensible enough, except to those who adhere, dare we say, religiously, to scientific dogma. Prof. Reiss was not preaching creationism from his Royal Society pulpit; he strongly defended evolution. Indeed, his main point was that children from religious upbringings should be engaged in science lessons, rather than dismissed out of hand as cranks: “There is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts that they have – hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching – and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion.” This is a perfectly lucid argument, one to which you would think the Royal Society would gladly adhere. When children raise questions based on what they have learned at home or in church, synagogue or mosque, they should be respectfully engaged. Their minds will not be changed by outright dismissal or ridicule, but possibly by respectful and dispassionate debate.

Some of the eminences who serve as Fellows of the Royal Society, however, mounted their lecterns to enthusiastically condemn Prof. Reiss. His enlightened views were then adamantly rejected by the Royal Society, which claimed they had “damaged its reputation.” Its dismissal of Prof. Reiss makes it clear that, when opinions diverge even slightly from accepted scientific wisdom, they will be met with ruthless suppression. This says something sorry about the state of scientific enquiry as practised by that august body. Prof. Reiss has not been forced to recant or placed under house arrest. He has only been packed off to his old job at the Institute of Education. But the loss of a job over such a minor heresy suggests a new inquisition has been convened, absent a certain due process of the old.


The Royal Society has treated Michael Reiss badly

He is a victim of a culture where all arguments must be expressible in a sentenceTom Whipple
“On the word of no one” is the Royal Society’s motto. Authority, it contends, is nothing: evidence everything. Scientific papers, even by the most distinguished thinkers, should live or die by the facts alone.

This week senior members of the society forced the resignation of Michael Reiss, its director of education, after a speech in which – parts of the media implied – he advocated teaching creationism in schools. On the word of no one.

His speech is online, so let us assess the evidence. The first thing you notice is that, if this were a scientific paper, it is no Principia Mathematica. Its conclusions seem obvious: almost truistic. Professor Reiss, while strongly defending evolution, says that teachers should be respectful to creationist students and not ridicule their views – because it is counter-productive, and puts them off science. He concludes: “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.”

But take one sentence out of context, “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view”, prefix it by explaining that Professor Reiss is a clergyman, and suddenly he is a creationist.

The strangest thing is that the Royal Society accepts that he has been badly treated. “Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments… were open to misinterpretation,” it says. “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.”

So he resigned not because he was wrong, nor even because he was particularly controversial. He resigned because others ascribed to him beliefs that were not his own.

He is not the first. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a 6,000-word lecture about Sharia in the UK, it was summarised in headlines implying that he advocated public executions and the stoning of women. When Patrick Mercer, the Conservative defence spokesman, talked about the use of the word “nigger” while he was in the Army, he was sacked – not for being racist, but for allowing people to think he might be.

In an odd pact between journalists who want to write sensation, and readers who want to buy it, we choose cartoonish half-truths over complex reality. Professor Reiss is the victim of a culture where all arguments must be expressible in a sentence, and all sentences able to stand on their own. But don’t take my word for it: read the speech.



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