[asa] Nature editorial on Reiss affair

From: Keith Miller <kbmill@ksu.edu>
Date: Sat Sep 27 2008 - 13:14:21 EDT

The editorial below is relevant to the earlier discussion of the
forced departure of Reiss as education director at the Royal
Society. I think this reflects the comments made by several on this




Nature 455, 431-432 (25 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455431b;
Published online 24 September 2008

Creation and classrooms

Top of page
Better to confront superstition with science than to disregard the

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

The 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.
Nevertheless, on 16 September the society announced Reiss's
departure, arguing that the media's misinterpretation had "led to
damage to the society's reputation" (see page 441).

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. 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.

The misreporting surrounding Reiss has provided a propaganda gift to
creationists everywhere. So in the face of such confusion, it is
encouraging to hear the unequivocal stance of one of the US
presidential candidates, Barack Obama, on the issue (see page 448 and
'America's fresh start'): creationism and intelligent design should
not be included in a science curriculum. 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?

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, and a long-time advocate for the
teaching of evolution, 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.

At such a moment, a much more effective approach is for the teacher
to follow the route Reiss advocated: deal with the question without
ridicule, but make it clear that in science, theories must be
testable to be valid. 'You ask if Earth is 6,000 years old, and why
the descendents of Adam and Eve have no relation to the lower
animals? So how can we test those hypotheses, and what does the
evidence say?'

This is a difficult and minefield-laden path for teachers to follow.
For an example of just how delicate, see a 23 August report in the
New York Times of how a teacher in Florida tackled such challenges
(see http://tinyurl.com/48374f). In particular, it requires that the
teachers have a confident knowledge and understanding of evolution,
so that they can seize on those teachable moments competently. The
sad news, according to surveys, is that too few biology teachers have
such an understanding: evolution is not always taught well at the
universities and colleges where teachers learn their biology. And
that's in the developed world; in poor and developing countries,
teachers often receive no training in evolution at all.

Biology graduates who have not encountered up-to-date evidence of
evolution in action in fossils, in microbes, in genomes have been
ill-served by their training. Higher education in general, and
biology departments in particular, are at the front line of the
battle between creation and evolution too.

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Received on Sat Sep 27 13:16:20 2008

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