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Creationism: why we need open debate

The Royal Society’s cowardly decision to force out its education director shows its inability to defend science.

David Perks

Topics Science & Tech

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Apparently, there are some views scientists can’t countenance. That education can play an important role in dealing with contentious issues, such as convincing children of the importance of the theory of evolution to the modern scientific understanding of nature, seems to be one of them.

The departure of Professor Michael Reiss from his post as education director of the Royal Society – the national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth – amounts to an attempt to slam the lid on debates around evolution and creationism. Reiss was dismissed after taking part in a discussion at the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool earlier this week.

During the debate, Reiss said: ‘An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species. What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn. I think a better way forward is to say to them “look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved”.’

Reiss was dismissed not for what he said, but the impression he might have given. As the Royal Society press release put it: ‘Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments on the issue of creationism were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society’s reputation.’ This is a case of cowardly image management on behalf of the prestigious scientific institution.

So where does this leave the debate on creationism in the science classroom? According to the Royal Society, ‘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.’

This is all very well, but creationism is not a scientific belief, it is a religious belief at best. More importantly, it is a rejection of science. What Reiss correctly recognised is that just banging on about evolution does nothing to convince students who reject evolution as an idea that they are wrong. It just puts them in the other camp.

But then, that is where the Royal Society has misunderstood the problem of creationism. Young people who adopt a creationist viewpoint are doing so because they reject the authority of the Western scientific community. This is not, as evolution theorist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins would have us believe, a problem of ‘child abuse’. Children are not being brainwashed by their parents into accepting irrational beliefs about God and religion. Rather, young people are making a conscious decision to choose a non-scientific set of values – even if this brings them into conflict with the very society within which they live. It is a rejection of the authority of science to dictate what values they should adopt that provides the foundation upon which creationist views find a purchase.

For ‘New Atheists’ such as Dawkins, the battle to be waged is against the US-style creationists who seem to have such a hold on the popular imagination and seem set on bringing their ideas across the Atlantic. But the fear of creationism in the British scientific community just reflects the waning power of their own ideas in society. The scientific institutions have taken a battering over recent years and no longer represent the solid foundation upon which our society is based. Whether it is the controversies over the MMR vaccine or debates around nuclear power, the level of trust in the scientific community is inversely proportional to the extent to which they tie themselves to government.

Listening to Dawkins bang on about creationism is like listening to someone shouting in the wind. It has no impact but to reveal the impotence of the argument. This is the lesson Reiss was trying to put across in his intervention in the debate about creationism in schools – and the scientific community would do well to take heed of his warning.

To engage in a debate about how to rebuild trust in the scientific endeavour is one of the most important tasks facing scientists. We would be foolish to walk away from, yet the removal of Reiss from his post at the Royal Society suggests that the leaders of the Royal Society have done just that.

David Perks is a physics teacher in a south London school, and the author of What is Science Education For?. He is speaking in the session The Battle for Intelligence at the Battle of Ideas festival on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

David Perks argued that even though James Watson was wrong, scientific views should not be censored and described creationism as the scientific establishment’s ‘phantom enemy’. Sandy Starr suggested Britain’s new science curriculum would increase suspicion of science. Brendan O’Neill criticised the modern witch-hunting of heretics. Or read more at spiked issues Science and technology.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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