Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Another One Bites the Dust

Michael Reiss, the center of much recent controversy, has resigned his position as the Royal Society's Director of Education. The Royal Society has issued a press release:

Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

The Royal Society's position is that 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.

The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss's efforts in furthering the Society's work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.

Richard Dawkins has been moderately conciliatory and moderately apologetic for his own statement about the matter:

[W]hat [Reiss] actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take. ...

Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. 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. Nevertheless -- it's regrettable but true -- the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he!" If the Royal Society wanted to attack creationism with all fists flying, as I would wish, an ordained priest might make a politically effective spokesman, however much we might deplore his inconsistency. This is the role that Kenneth Miller, not a priest but a devout Christian, plays in America, where he is arguably creationism's most formidable critic. But if the Society really wants to promote the accommodationist line, a clergyman is the very last advocate they should choose. Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.

Strangely, Larry Moran, the very last person I would think of as an accommodationist, seems to think Reiss was on the right track.

One shot that Dawkins and PZ Myers send Reiss' way seems to me somewhat unfair. They suggest that "rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders." PZ thinks that would be similar to what he sees as calls that they give up their atheism in favor of promoting science. But is there an equivalency? PZ admits that he and Dawkins "feel strongly that the only way to achieve a lasting investment in understanding science is by reducing the pernicious influence of religion." But did Reiss raise his religion or his position in the clergy as justification for his position? It was, as far as I can see, other people who made much of Reiss' Orders. Is anyone really suggesting that PZ and Dawkins give up their association with or leadership in atheist organizations on pain of being denied offices related to education in science organizations? If so, I'd protest strongly.

Why do I get the feeling that this whole thing is a horrible waste?

John Wilkins, rightly I think, takes Dawkins on for the non-conciliatory, unapologetic part of his statement.

It does seem to be an unfortunate end to the affair -- I can't see where Reiss said anything really wrong. However, there seems to be a British tradition of falling on one's sword if one's words cause embarassment -- even if it's not the speaker's fault.
It is unjust. In both the legal and the scientific arenas the presumption is that it is for the claimant to provide evidence to support a claim, that is, if he or she wants to persuade others of its truth. There is nothing in what Reiss has said or written to justify the attacks made on him and it is sad, to say the least, that those of whom we would have expected better should have fallen below the high standards we are entitled to require of them.
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