|Reiss on Origins and Education|
Michael Reiss has been much in the news since his infamous talk at a science festival in Liverpool in September 2008. On that occasion, he re-iterated his long-standing view that good science teaching is about respecting the students' views and that science teachers should take seriously the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution. Reiss is an evolutionist and has no desire to promote either creationism or intelligent design (ID). His remarks were merely in line with what is almost universally agreed to be good practice in education. Yet the fact that he is also an ordained Anglican priest was sufficient for pressure to be put on the Royal Society to sack him as its Director of Education. To its great shame the Royal Society succumbed to the pressure (see earlier blog items).
Since that incident, two papers by Reiss have appeared (in print or online). He states his own position unambiguously:
To an evolutionist, such as myself, although someone who is also a priest in the Church of England, the Earth is some 4600-million-year old and all organisms share a common ancestor. Indeed if you go back far enough, life had its ancestry in inorganic molecules. Furthermore, an evolutionary understanding of the world is fundamental to biology and many other aspects of science. For an evolutionist, understanding of ourselves, the other organisms and the world about us requires an evolutionary perspective. (2009:1938)He acknowledges that,
For reasons that delight some, appal others, and bemuse many, belief in creationism persists while acceptance of intelligent design is growing in extent and influence in a number of countries. (2009:1938)But having distinguished ID from creationism and described them more accurately than in most of the critical literature, he then presents his analysis of the issues purely in terms of creationism versus evolution, and thus, like most other critics, fails to address the scientific challenge of ID.What is very different about Reiss’ approach is that he recognises, indeed insists, that creationism is much more than “a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct”:
A student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, which is a very different way of seeing the world. One rarely changes one’s worldview as a result of formal teaching, however well one is taught. (2009:1940)Thus Reiss’ hope for education is
… simply to enable students to understand the scientific worldview with respect to origins, not necessarily to accept it. (2009:1940)
What is disappointing is that Reiss, in common with most evolutionists (whether secular or theistic) regards science as something separate from religion. He constantly contrasts ‘religious worldviews’ with ‘the scientific worldview’ as if science is a faith-free zone. However, the last half-century or so of work in the history and philosophy of science has abundantly shown that in each and every discipline of science, the facts are seen in terms of a theory, against the frame of reference of a paradigm (research programme), within a philosophical view of reality, and from a religious stance (see, e.g., Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality, 2005).
Both of Reiss’ papers suggest that “creationism isn’t really a science in that its ultimate authority is scriptural and theological rather than the evidence obtained from the natural world” (2008:167; 2009:1939). This is ironic because, firstly, ID is conveniently ignored and, secondly, because evolution in its origins and development was not motivated by scientific observations, but by religious commitments (of many sources here, one of the best is Cornelius Hunter, Science’s Blind Spot, 2007). Indeed, both historically and today, evolutionists rely on theological arguments for evolution (e.g. arguments of the sort that “A creator wouldn’t make it like this …”).
The irony is compounded when Reiss writes that he has “no doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who believe in creationism (and intelligent design theory) do so because of their religious beliefs” (2008:177). We do not understand how theists like Reiss can ignore so glibly the religious origins of evolution and the religious (or anti-religious) commitments of many, if not most of its proponents. Whatever one’s conclusions on these matters the debates are as much about the critical analysis of worldviews as about the evaluation of scientific evidence.Reiss, Michael J., ‘Should science educators deal with the science/religion Issue?’, Studies in Science Education, 44 (2), 2008, pages 157-186.
Reiss, Michael J., The relationship between evolutionary biology and religion, Evolution, 63 (7), 2009, pages 1934-1941.
It is wrong that any debate, especially on so momentous a subject as the origin of species, and the human race above all, should be arbitrarily declared to be closed.
Paul Johnson (The Spectator, 27 August 2005)