When big mistakes are made, time for reflection is well spent. The departure of Professor Michael Reiss from the post of Education Director of the Royal Society counts as a big, big mistake. In an Editorial in Nature, the media are called to account:
"The headlines were damning. [. . .] The reports were wrong. [. . .] Nature was not privy to the conversations between the reporters and editors responsible for this story, so we will leave it to them to consider how such a gross misrepresentation could have happened, and what lessons to draw from it."
A teachable moment - but will anything be learned? (Source here)
The Editorial suggests there are lessons to be learned, but is not prepared to say what those lessons are. However, this is not good enough! Media reporters are not fools, making stories up. They have been encouraged by science leaders to respond to Creationism and Intelligent Design in quite specific ways: lumping them together as the same message, declaring them to be dogma and alien to science, etc. None of this is true, but that's what the science journalists have been groomed to write. So when Michael Reiss comes along saying things that could have been said by a Creationist or an ID advocate, he was treated like an apostate from the community of science.
What about the Royal Society, the public statements of some of its Fellows, and the behind-the-scenes crisis talks? "Nor was Nature privy to the Royal Society's internal deliberations about Reiss, so we will leave it to the officers and fellows of that body to reflect on who has done the most to damage its reputation." Although it is clear that the Editors of Nature are not impressed by the conduct of the Royal Society, they do not suggest any specific lessons to be learned. This is an inadequate response. They could easily have pointed out that Reiss' academic freedom has been overridden by 3 Nobel laureates and others who insisted in his removal. These men cannot be allowed the luxury of saying 'we misunderstood what Reiss was saying' - if they had misunderstood him, they have had ample time to realise their mistake and he ought to be reinstated by now. No, they disagreed profoundly with Reiss' position and they wanted him out. This bigotry matches the vitriol documented against ID advocates in the film Expelled. Antagonism towards anyone who does not conform to the secularist view of science is intense.
The Editors of Nature try to associate Reiss' counsel with that of Eugenie Scott in California:
"Those who argue that allowing discussion of creationism in a science class gives it legitimacy, and that students who ask about it should be firmly directed to take their questions elsewhere, are misguided.
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, [. . .] points out that in the real world, any such shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere response from the teacher will inevitably be perceived by the student (and his or her classmates) as a humiliating personal put-down. It will obstruct rather than encourage enquiry and understanding. It will also invite complaints from outraged parents.
What is more, it will squander what experienced educators like to call 'a teachable moment'. All too often, that moment is the one opportunity that a school has to engage resistant students and introduce them to what science has to say."
However, Eugenie Scott does not capture the heart of Reiss' message - which is not based at all on pragmatism. Reiss identifies creationism as a worldview. He identifies ID as a worldview. Within these alternative worldviews, data takes on different meanings. Observed evidences of variation in nature do not count as evidence for macroevolution; homology carries a design message and does not necessarily point to common ancestry; creation-based biology or design-based biology is regarded as testable. To say these approaches to the evidence are "scientifically nonsensical creationist beliefs" goes contrary to the point Reiss has been making. Trying to equate his principled thinking to the pragmatism of Eugenie Scott suggests confusion about these issues. For more on this, go here.
The Michael Reiss incident is a good example of a "teachable moment". There are lessons for science journalists, Royal Society Fellows, and the Editors of Nature. Will this moment be squandered by fudging the issues that have stirred this debate?
Creation and classrooms
Nature 455, 431-432 (25 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455431b
Abstract: Better to confront superstition with science than to disregard the superstitious.
First para: The headlines were damning. "Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools," proclaimed Britain's The Times newspaper on 12 September, echoing the headlines appearing that day in numerous other British media. The stories asserted that Michael Reiss, a biologist and educational researcher, an ordained Anglican minister and (at the time) the education director of the Royal Society, had explicitly advocated that state-school biology classes teach creationism.
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