Published online 17 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1116

News

Creationism stir fries Reiss

Royal Society's director of education stands down.

Michael ReissProfessor Michael ReissInstitute of Education

The director of education at the one of the world's premier scientific bodies has been forced from his job in a row over approaches to creationism in the classroom.

Michael Reiss, a professor at London's Institute of Education and an ordained minister in the Church of England, yesterday stepped down from his post as director of education at Britain's Royal Society. The move, which appears to have been forced, follows a letter to the president of the Society, Martin Rees, from three Nobel-prize winning fellows "greatly concerned" by remarks Reiss was reported to have made at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual "Festival of Science" on 11 September.

Reiss's remarks on the need to engage in dialogue with the creationist views some children express in science classes resurrected claims that, as a priest, Reiss should not have been appointed in the first place. "When he was appointed there were concerns that he would push a religious agenda," says Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England BioLabs in Massachusetts, a fellow of the society who in 1993 won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The fact that "Professor Reiss is a clergyman ... in itself is very worrisome," said the letter that Roberts sent on behalf of himself, Harold Kroto, of Florida State University in Tallahassee, and John Sulston, of the University of Manchester, UK.

“Creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a world view.”

Michael Reiss
Institute of Education

However, Reiss has been staunchly defended by many professional colleagues. "I am shocked about what happened with the Royal Society," says Leslie Jones, a professor of biology at Valdosta State University in Georgia and co-editor with Reiss of the book Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism. "Michael has a rare blend of transdisciplinary credentials that give him critical insight into the social controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution. He has never advocated the teaching of creationism."

Ken Mannion, director of the Centre for Science Education at Britain's Sheffield Hallam University, says that "all Michael's work [on the topic] has been impeccable. He was the right appointment in the first place. I think we've got the aftermath of the original appointment coming through." Mary Ratcliffe, who heads the school of education at the University of Southampton, UK, says, "I've not seen his direct statement but I don't think he is out of step with the science education community."

“To call for his resignation ... comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste.”

Richard Dawkins
University of Oxford

Nor was Reiss clearly out of step with the Royal Society. The Society initially insisted that Reiss had been misrepresented and that his views do not differ from the society's position that "creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum". On this basis, if a child raises the topic teachers should explain why evolution is a scientific theory and creationism is not.

This supportive stance then changed. After the letter of complaint and with the reported statements continuing to receive press coverage, including hostile opinion pieces, the society announced Reiss's departure on 16 September. In a statement it said that "some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments ... were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society's reputation."

A turbulent priest?

Reiss has a long history of working on the tricky subject of creationism in science classes. In an outline of the British Association speech published online he noted, "My central argument of (sic) this article is that creationism is best seen by a science teacher not as a misconception but as a world view."

ADVERTISEMENT

According to a former editor at Nature who was in the audience at the talk, "Reiss very clearly said that creationism should not be covered in the science curriculum, and that a passing 'recognition' of this world view should occur only when it has been raised by a pupil. Nobody really reacted too strongly to this in the meeting."

Reports of the speech, however, claimed that Reiss had advocated teaching creationism in science classes. The Guardian 's coverage began "Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education." In the Times it was reported that "Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government."

Roberts, who was not at the meeting, says "I don't think his comments were misrepresented by the media."

“Michael has never advocated the teaching of creationism.”

Leslie Jones
Valdosta State University

Kroto said in a statement that Reiss's remarks "seemed fairly reasonable — if uttered by a freethinker for whom evidence-based philosophy is pre-eminent." It was the fact that they were said by a cleric working for the Royal Society that he objected to. As he told Nature, "These are important issues and they will become more and more important as time goes on. I don't think someone who has a personal religious world view can properly represent the view of the scientific community on these issues. That doesn't mean they aren't necessarily good scientists."

Paul Nurse of Rockefeller University in New York, a Nobel-prize winning fellow of the Society who did not sign the letter, says he doesn't think that Reiss's religion should enter into the matter. But he does question his performance: "It does not matter what someone's religious beliefs are as long as he does the job properly. The issue for me here is his competency in the job. I only saw the media coverage of his speech, but it does not look as though he handled it well. Because creationism in the classroom is such a sensitive subject, you have to be very careful and very clear about what you say."

Other critics did not go as far as the letter from Roberts, Kroto and Sulston in calling for Reiss to step down. Richard Dawkins, of the University of Oxford, wrote on his website that although Reiss's holy orders undermined him as a spokesman for the society's position, "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."

When contacted by Nature, both the Royal Society and Reiss declined to comment on the situation. When asked about claims that the director of education should not be a priest, the society said, "The Royal Society has no view on the personal religious beliefs of fellows or staff." 

Additional reporting by Natasha Gilbert

Commenting is now closed.