Opinion- 18 September 2008

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Nobel Laureates Force Royal Society Knee-Jerk "Sacking"    


pdf file-available from Australasian Science

Michael Reiss was director of education at Britain's Royal Society of which astronomer Martin Rees is the current president.


Michael Reiss is also a professor at London's Institute of Education and an ordained minister in the Church of England. And he was so when the Royal Society appointed him as their director of education -- and that's a matter of consequence.


Yesterday, following media reports of comments made by Professor Reiss at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual "Festival of Science" on September 11 with regard to the teaching of creationism, he stepped down from his post as director of education. According to NatureNews this was in response to a letter to Martin Rees from three Nobel-prize winning fellows, Richard Roberts, Harold Kroto and John Sulston, who were "greatly concerned" by remarks Professor Reiss was reported to have made.


The reports to which the three laureates referred, stated that Reiss had advocated teaching creationism in science classes. The Guardian's coverage began "Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education." In the Times it was reported that "Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government."


However, NatureNews reports: "According to a former editor at Nature who was in the audience at the talk, 'Reiss very clearly said that creationism should not be covered in the science curriculum, and that a passing 'recognition' of this world view should occur only when it has been raised by a pupil. Nobody really reacted too strongly to this in the meeting'."


It's also noteworthy that Dr Roberts told NatureNews "When he [Reiss] was appointed there were concerns that he would push a religious agenda", and the letter sent to Martin Rees said: "Professor Reiss is a clergyman ... in itself is very worrisome." And while he was not at the meeting Dr Roberts said: "I don't think his comments were misrepresented by the media."


Now if anyone is a bona fide, card-carrying member of the "there is no God" squad it's the holder of Oxford's Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins. He wrote on his website that although Reiss's holy orders undermined him as a spokesman for the society's position,: to call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prizewinning fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.


I'm also reminded of an account by Richard Feynman of a short exchange he had with his superior in the physics department at Cornell University, Robert Wilson, not long after Feynman, still in his twenties, had been appointed.


Bob Wilson, who was head of the laboratory there at Cornell, called me in to see him. He said, in a serious tone, "Feynman, you're teaching your classes well; you're doing a good job, and we're very satisfied. Any other expectations we might have [such as research productivity] are a matter of luck. When we hire a professor, we're taking all the risks. If it comes out good, all right. If it doesn't, too bad. But you shouldn't worry about what you're doing or not doing.


When Michael Reis was appointed director of education by the Royal Society, it was fully aware of his Church of England affiliation. The president Martin Rees receives a letter based only on reports in the popular press. A first hand account calls into question the accuracy of those reports.


If the Royal Society has additional evidence (data) as to what Professor Reiss told his audience, it ought to produce it now -- otherwise it looks as though it's regressing to the approach of the Star Chamber under Charles I.


[Added September 25, 2008

The journal Nature in an editorial in its September 25, 2008 issue wrote in part: The [press] reports were wrong. Speaking at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual Festival of Science on 11 September, Reiss had articulated as he had many times before a view consistent with the Royal Society's official position: when students from a creationist background raise the issue in class, the teacher should explain why creationism is not science and why evolution is.


The misreporting surrounding Reiss has provided a propaganda gift to creationists everywhere... But scientists and science teachers must also grapple with the central challenge that Reiss was addressing: how to respond to students who have been steeped in, or confused by, scientifically nonsensical creationist beliefs when they ask about those beliefs in science classes?


Nature [was not] 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.]



Alex Reisner

The Funneled web

September 18, 2008