Sunday, September 21, 2008

Creationism row missing the point

I've just noticed this story (hat tip Crooked Timber) about the Royal Society sacking its director of education over remarks about creationism that were misinterpreted by the press.

Was this fair? Most of the defences of Reiss get the wrong end of the stick by defending Reiss' views as a legitimate alternative viewpoint that shouldn't be shouted down by the voice of authority. This is bogus. As a spokesman for the Royal Society, he isn't entitled to "freedom of speech" or "a respectful hearing". If he can't stick to the Royal Society party line in public then he shouldn't take their money. He is free to discuss heterodox viewpoints in his day job as a professor of education, where he is (quite rightly) protected by academic freedom.

If Reiss' actual words - which do not endorse the teaching of creationism in schools - reflect the Royal Society's official position then of course he should not have been sacked for being misinterpreted. But even this isn't the real issue.

The reason why people not usually given to media hysteria like Sir John Sulston (Nobel prize for his work on genomics, successfully navigated the row with Craig Venter over leadership of the human genome project without losing his cool) have lost patience with Reiss is that the row has exposed a much larger division between working scientists and the education establishment over the purpose of science education.

Science is an inherently elitist activity - and unlike other elitists scientists typically feel no shame about this, because the scientific elite (like the medical profession) still enjoys a measure of public trust and respect in a way that political and financial elites do not. From the perspective of a working scientist, the purpose of scientific education is to find and train future scientists, doctors, engineers etc. and science education is therefore almost as much of an elitist pursuit as science itself. As scientists, the Royal Society fellows calling for Reiss to go are assuming that the Royal Society should endorse this view and expect its Director of Education to do likewise.

Reiss is a member of the educational establishment. His day job is as a Professor of Education. His professional academic website does not mention any experience as a scientist or science teacher. Unless his first degree (which he does not mention) is in a hard science subject he is not qualified to engage in science or science education. It is a case of those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, write about teaching.

The educational establishment is anti-elitist - it has to be, because the political and media elites it truckles to use anti-elitism (largely unsuccessfully) as a device for deflecting well-deserved public derision. Reiss' article only makes sense from the perspective of a professional "educator" who thinks that science lessons should be "relevant" to people who will never study any real science.

Reiss admits that
Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, 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, however well taught.
To most working scientists, this begs the question Why are we wasting valuable classroom time on these losers?. Creationists are skilled trolls, and dealing with a bright creationist kid respectfully without making it look to the rest of the class that they might have a point would require all biology teachers to have extra training in rebutting creationist talking points, as well as enough time on the curriculum to go into far more detail than we do at the moment on the evidence. To make the moment teachable for the rest of the class, it would be necessary to humilitate the creationist in a manner that would send his parents to their lawyer crying religious discrimination.

Almost all scientists are, or have been, professional teachers at undergraduate level. There are plenty of school science teachers who have research experience, either because they did a PhD before going into teaching or because they took part in a scheme to provide such experience. These people are qualified to represent the views of working scientists on the nature and purpose of science education - surely the purpose of the Royal Society's Director of Education. Reiss is not. He should never have been allowed anywhere near the job in the first place.


  • At 1:02 pm , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    And yet isn't what Reiss demands also vital, if we are to have an intelligent public debate on issues where science and public policy overlap, such as the embryology bill?

    I too groan at much of the "relevance" that is injected into science teaching. I saw a GCSE science paper recently which had a question about why we might object to a landfill opening next door to us. WTF?

    So I do take the view that if you are not interested in science, by all means go and study something else.

    But I wonder how well science can be taught if the student does not necessarily come away with a sense of the absurdity of creationism, flat earth, geocentrism, phlogiston, you name it.

    The "defence" that science is elitist, and about "training" sounds dangerously Kuhnian to a Popperian like me.


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