Saturday, September 20, 2008
On Attention Spans
I believe that he has been the victim of our sound-bite culture, in which a phrase is plucked from a considered speech and, out of context, is made to seem as if something quite contrary to the speaker's actual intention was being said. In a letter to The Times a week ago, Reiss sought to put the record straight. His first sentence unequivocally stated that "creationism has no scientific validity" and a little later he said that "evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth, and for the diversity of species". He also made the reasonable remark that "If a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation". I know Michael Reiss to have a sensible and sensitive concern for educational matters relating to science and religion, and I very much regret that misrepresentation of his views has led to his resignation.
The irony of this notion of creationism is that it not only involves many scientific errors, but is also the result of a bad theological mistake. When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love "is like a red, red rose", we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose, through the eight-times reiterated phrase "And God said, 'Let there be . . .", is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.
If this story had been first reported by one of the Discovery Institute's flunkeys, no one would have taken much notice. It would have been discounted because of its source. The fact that it was carried by more respectable news outlets lent it a credibility that has since proven to be unwarranted.
I can understand even a Nobel Prize winner making an off-the-cuff comment to a journalist who had given only a misleading summary of Reiss's words and asked for a response. What I don't understand is how, when the storm broke, professional scientists did not investigate further to find out what was actually said and written because, if they had, they could not have persisted with demands for Reiss's resignation.
Obviously it is a mistake to expect better of scientists than you would of other people. They are only human like the rest of us, after all, even though they lay justifiable claim to a better knowledge of the world and to a method of finding that knowledge that is superior to any rivals. It's just a shame they didn't give Reiss the benefit of that methodology.
Even so, it is embarrassing to see them resort to the sort of shifty evasions you might expect from a second-hand car salesman rather than simply admitting they were wrong in this case, which would have avoided their surrendering the moral high ground to Polkinghorne.