Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Don't mention the 'C' word

I’m beginning to wonder whether I should be expecting the science police to come knocking on my door. After all, my latest book contains images of churches, saints, Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It discusses theology. And, goodness me, I have even taken part in a workshop organized by the Templeton Foundation. I am not sure that being an atheist will be a mitigating factor in my defence.

These dark thoughts are motivated by the fate of Michael Reiss, who has been forced to resign from his position as director of education at the Royal Society over his remarks about creationism in the classroom.

Now, Reiss isn’t blameless in all of this. Critics of his comments are right to say that the Royal Society needs to make it quite clear that creationism is not an alternative way to science of looking at the universe and evolutionism, but is plain wrong. Reiss didn’t appear to do this explicitly in his controversial talk at the British Association meeting. And his remark that “the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution” should be taken “seriously and respectfully” sounds perilously close to saying that those concerns should be given serious consideration, and that one should respect the creationist point of view even while disagreeing with it. The fact is that we should feel obliged to respect points of view that are respectable, such as religious belief per se. Creationism is not respectable, scientifically, intellectually or indeed theologically (will they tell the kids that in Religious Education?). And if you are going to title your talk “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?”, it is reasonable that questions should be asked if you aren’t clearly seen at some point to say “No.”

So, a substantial case for the prosecution, it might seem. But for a start, one might reasonably expect that scientists, who pride themselves on accurate observation, will read your words and not just blunder in with preconceptions. It is hard to see a case, in Reiss’s address, for suggesting that his views differ from those that the Royal Society has restated in conjunction with Reiss’s resignation: “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.”

This, to my mind, was the thrust of Reiss’s argument. He quoted from the Department for Children, Schools and Families Guidance on Creationism, published in 2007: “Any questions about creationism and intelligent design which arise in science lessons, for example as a result of media coverage, could provide the opportunity to explain or explore why they are not considered to be scientific theories and, in the right context, why evolution is considered to be a scientific theory.” The point here is that teachers should not be afraid to tackle the issue. They need not (indeed, I feel, should not) bring it up themselves, but if pupils do, they should not shy away by saying something like “We don’t discuss that in a science class.” And there is a good chance that such things will come up. I have heard stories of the genuine perplexity of schoolchildren who have received a creationist viewpoint from parents, whose views they respect, and a conflicting viewpoint from teachers who they also believe are intent on telling them the truth. Such pupils need and deserve guidance, not offhand dismissal. You can be respectful to individuals without having to ‘respect’ the views they hold, and this seems closest to what Reiss was saying.

And there’s nothing that disconcerts teachers more than their being told they must not discuss something. Indeed, that undermines their capacity to teach, just as the current proscription on physical contact with children undermines teachers’ ability to care for them in loco parentis. A fearful teacher is not a good one.

What perhaps irked some scientists more than anything else was Reiss’s remark that “Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism can be seen as inhabiting a non-scientific worldview, a very different way of seeing the world.” This is simplistic and incomplete as it stands (Gerald Holton has written about the way that a scientific viewpoint in some areas can coexist happily with irrationalism in others), but the basic point is valid. Despite (or perhaps because of) the recent decline in the popularity of the ‘deficit model’ of understanding science, some scientists still doggedly persist in the notion that everyone would be converted to a scientific way of thinking if we can just succeed in drumming enough facts into their heads. Reiss is pointing to the problem that the matter runs much deeper. Science education is essential, and the lack of it helps to pave the way for the kind of spread of ignorance that we can see in some parts of the developed world. But to imagine that this will undermine an entire culture and environment that inculcates some anti-scientific ideas is foolish and dangerous. I suspect that some scientists were angered by Reiss’s comments here because they imply that these scientists’ views of how to ‘convert’ people to a scientific worldview are naïve.

Most troubling of all, however, are the comments from some quarters which make it clear that the real source of outrage stems from the fact that Reiss is an ordained Church of England minister. The implication seems to be that, as a religious believer, he is probably sympathetic to creationism, as if one necessarily follows from the other. That creationism is an unorthodox, indeed a cranky form of Christianity (or of other kinds of fundamentalism – Islam and Judaism has its creationists too) seems here to be ignored or denied. It’s well known that Richard Dawkins sees fundamentalism as the centre of gravity of all religions, and that moderate, orthodox views are just the thin end of the wedge. But his remark that “a clergyman in charge of education for the country’s leading scientific organization” is like “a Monty Python sketch” itself has a whiff of fundamentalist intolerance. If we allow that it’s not obvious why a clergyman should have a significantly more profound belief than any other religious believer, this seems to imply that Dawkins would regard no Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew or so forth as fit for this job. Perhaps they should be excluded from the Royal Society altogether? Are we now to assume that no professed believer of any faith can be trusted to believe in and argue for a scientific view of the world? I do understand why some might regard these things as fundamentally incompatible, but I would slightly worry about the robustness of a mind that could not live with a little conflict and contradiction in its beliefs.

This situation has parallels to the way the Royal Society has been criticized for its involvement with the Templeton Foundation. I carry no torch for the Templeton, and indeed was on the wary lookout at the Varenna conference above for a hidden agenda. But I found none. It seems to me that the notion of exploring links between science and religion is harmless enough in itself, and it certainly has plenty of historical relevance, if nothing else. No doubt some flaky stuff comes of it, but the Templeton events that I have come across have been of high scientific quality. (I’m rather more concerned about suggestions that the Templeton has right-wing leanings, although that doesn’t seem obvious from their web site – and US rightwingers are usually quite happy to trumpet the fact.) But it seems sad that the RS’s connections with the Templeton have been lambasted not because anyone seems to have detected a dodgy agenda (I understand that the Templeton folks are explicitly unsympathetic to intelligent design, for example) but because they are a religious-based organization. Again, I thought that scientists were supposed to base their conclusions on actual evidence, not assumptions.

In regard to Reiss, I’m not going to start ranting about witch hunts (not least because that is the hallmark of the green-ink brigade). He was rather incautious, and needed to see how easily his words might be misinterpreted. But they have indeed been misinterpreted, and I don’t see that the Royal Society has done itself much of a service by ousting him, particularly as this seems to have been brought about by a knee-jerk response from scientists who are showing signs of ‘Reds (or in this case, Revs) under the bed’ paranoia.

The whole affair reminds me of the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about sharia law, where the problem was not that he said anything so terrible but that he failed to be especially cautious and explicit when using trigger words that send people foaming at the mouth. But I thought scientists considered themselves more objective than that.

4 comments:

Jack said...

One interesting aspect to this rather unsavoury debate is that nobody has mentioned Reiss's own expertise. Dawkins et al claim to want to have a rationalist discussion, but they attack Reiss for being a clergyman rather than a leading professor and expert in science education.

Skood said...

I still can't get over the irony of those that see it inappropriate for a clergyman to have a role in the Royal Society. Its founders didn't seem to have a problem with it. John Wilkins, Bishop of Chester, springs to mind…

uhfdf said...

歐美a免費線上看,熊貓貼圖區,ec成人,聊天室080,aaa片免費看短片,dodo豆豆聊天室,一對一電話視訊聊天,自拍圖片集,走光露點,123456免費電影,本土自拍,美女裸體寫真,影片轉檔程式,成人視訊聊天,貼圖俱樂部,辣妹自拍影片,自拍電影免費下載,電話辣妹視訊,情色自拍貼圖,卡通做愛影片下載,日本辣妹自拍全裸,美女裸體模特兒,showlive影音聊天網,日本美女寫真,色情網,台灣自拍貼圖,情色貼圖貼片,百分百成人圖片 ,情色網站,a片網站,ukiss聊天室,卡通成人網,3級女星寫真,080 苗栗人聊天室,成人情色小說,免費成人片觀賞,

傑克論壇,維納斯成人用品,免費漫畫,內衣廣告美女,免費成人影城,a漫,國中女孩寫真自拍照片,ut男同志聊天室,女優,網友自拍,aa片免費看影片,玩美女人短片試看片,草莓論壇,kiss911貼圖片區,免費電影,免費成人,歐美 性感 美女 桌布,視訊交友高雄網,工藤靜香寫真集,金瓶梅免費影片,成人圖片 ,女明星裸體寫真,台灣處女貼圖貼片區,成人小遊戲,布蘭妮貼圖片區,美女視訊聊天,免費情色卡通短片,免費av18禁影片,小高聊天室,小老鼠論壇,免費a長片線上看,真愛love777聊天室,聊天ukiss,情色自拍貼圖,寵物女孩自拍網,免費a片下載,日本情色寫真,美女內衣秀,色情網,

liwo said...

av自拍,臺灣18歲成人免費,avon,正妹強力牆,免費線上成人影片,免費遊戲,a片貼圖,正妹圖片,3d美女圖,杜蕾斯免費a片,蓬萊仙山寫真集,a片網站,哈拉網路成人區,sex女優王國,性感美女,自拍密錄館,18禁卡通,爽翻天成人網,go2av,網拍模特兒應徵,台灣18成人,制服美女,小老鼠成人,成人光碟,金瓶影片交流區,85cc免費影城,成人交友,蓬萊仙山寫真集,無碼,正妹強力牆,嘟嘟情色網,影片轉檔程式,免費成人片觀賞,拓網交友,松島楓免費影片,色美眉部落格,18成人avooo,美腿論壇,辣媽辣妹,露點寫真,哈雷聊天室,18禁影片,看a片,美女工廠,影音城論壇,美女影片,免費遊戲,免費算,小魔女貼影片,a片貼圖,美腿褲襪高跟鞋,av女優王國,觀月雛乃影片,性感美女,

女優王國,免費無碼a片,0800a片區,免費線上遊戲,無名正妹牆,成人圖片,寫真美女,av1688影音娛樂網,dodo豆豆聊天室,網拍模特兒,成人文學,免費試看a片,a片免費看,成人情色小說,美腿絲襪,影片下載,美女a片,人體寫真模特兒,熊貓成人貼,kiss情色,美女遊戲區,104 貼圖區,線上看,aaa片免費看影片,天堂情色,躺伯虎聊天室,洪爺情色網,kiss情色網,貼影區,雄貓貼圖,080苗栗人聊天室,都都成人站,尋夢園聊天室,a片線上觀看,無碼影片,情慾自拍,免費成人片,影音城論壇,情色成人,最新免費線上遊戲,a383影音城,美腿,色情寫真,xxx383成人視訊,視訊交友90739,av女優影片,