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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Michael Reiss: "A Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God": Synopsis of a Play in Three Acts

If we go by the recent Michael Reiss drama, Brit Darwin fans seem to be going round the bend on hockey skates ...

Act One: Well-meaning Brit clergyman wants kids to know "Darwin loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life ... "

On September 11, 2008 Michael Reiss, a biologist, ordained minister in the Church of England, professor of science education at the Institute for Education, and director of science education employed by the Royal Society, wass quoted in an article in the Guardian by James Randerson as telling attendees at the British Association Festival of Science that,

Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, ...

The Rev Prof Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, said that excluding alternatives to scientific explanations for the origin of life and the universe from science lessons was counterproductive and would alienate some children from science altogether.

[ ... ]

Reiss said he used to be an "evangelist" for evolution in the classroom, but that the approach had backfired. "I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn't lead some pupils to change their minds at all. Now I would be more content simply for them to understand it as one way of understanding the universe," he said.
(Here's the audio.)

So Reiss was definitely thumping the tub for Darwin. Let no one doubt this. In fact, he made tiresomely clear that he is totally sold on "evolution", and anyone who doubts has "worldview" problems:
Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion. The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

[ ... ]

Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.
So Reiss had apparently decided, from experience, that it is better to listen first, and encourage people to talk before offering a solution. That, of course, is standard modern practice in any kind of evangelism, whether for Darwin, drugs, Christianity, jihadism, or animal rights terrorism. For whatever reason, most people, offered a choice of

1. Think my way,


2. Go to hell,

- provided that no firearms are pointed directly at them - tend to respond, "Excuse me while I go check the weather news on the temperature down in hell. Back soon, ... uh, honest!"

So, as Reiss made clear, he was earnest about looking for a way to convert the non-materialist sinners to random, purposeless Darwinian evolution.

Ah, but in the most faithful hearts, a seed of doubt may be nourished ...

Act Two: The clergyman is himself accused of ... sin!

"Creationism call divides Royal Society," advised Robin McKie, science editor for the Guardian (Sunday September 14 2008). Indeed, Richard Roberts (British, Nobel 1993) and Harry Kroto (British, Nobel, 1996) were enraged ,and Roberts demanded that the Royal Society fire Reiss.

Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on gene-splicing, was equally angry. 'I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.'

'I warned the president of the Royal Society that his [Reiss] was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be,' said Kroto, a Royal Society fellow, and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Robin McKie reminds us that
The row over Reiss's remarks is the second recent controversy over the society's stance on religion. Fellows, including cancer expert and Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, complained about the financial links that had been established between the society and the Templeton Foundation, a conservative US organisation that seeks to establish links between science and religion. The latter funded a lecture course at the society.
Anyone who thought that the Templeton people were about to tolerate any sort of intelligent design (let alone creationism) obviously doesn't know them - but that would include about 100 percent of McKie's readers, so it probably doesn't matter.

On September 15, sinner Reiss claimed, haplessly, in a letter to the Guardian, to have been misquoted.

He once again raised his tribe's war yell, that creationism has "no scientific validity."

Indeed, it is a yell he has practised to perfection. As The Great Beyond blog advises, he had said much the same thing in a 2006 Guardian interview with Zoe Corbyn ("Michael Reiss: How to convert a generation: The collective voice of scientists on the best way to teach their subjects is also a priest"):
But in the spring of 2007, he will launch a book with an American academic, Sandy Jones, on teaching science to students who come from creationist homes. "I am really interested in how you teach in a way that is true to science, but doesn't put many capable, sensitive young people off science for life, nor denigrate them," says Reiss. His answer is not to be overly defensive, but to encourage an analysis of the evidence. "I am not expecting every young person to change their mind just because of five or 10 hours of science teaching ... I love having intelligent 15-year-olds who will cheerfully argue their corner," he says.

But, following the Royal Society's line, Reiss stresses his opposition to the teaching of creationism in science classes (though teachers should be able to deal with it if it comes up in discussion). "There is a role for science teachers. Religious education teachers can't be expected to know about the evidence for and against evolution," he explains.
Yes, first and last, Rev. Reiss had been determined that the Good News of random and purposeless Darwinian evolution should be made available to children from creationist homes - and one of the ways to do that was to allow them to talk about what they in fact believed about the nature of life first.

But would that defense avail? Shooting the wounded is a religious duty, after all.

Act Three: The sinner meets Darwin's God!

No, that defense did not avail. Proper religious justice was promptly meted out to the wayward Reiss. As the BBC inimitably put it, "Creationism" biologist steps down.
He was criticised by other scientists - though misquoted as saying creationism should be "taught" in science classes.

The society said some of his comments had been "open to misinterpretation".

This had damaged its reputation.
But some offered to bury the ashes of Reiss's career decently:
Lord Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said: "I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself.

"This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists.
Richard Dawkins offered the moral of the play:
The official line of the US National Academy, the American equivalent of the Royal Society, is shamelessly accommodationist. They repeatedly plug the mantra that there is 'no conflict' between evolution and religion. Michael Reiss could argue that he is simply following the standard accommodationist line, and therefore doesn't deserve the censure now being heaped upon him.

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-prize-winning 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!"
Epilogue: And so now?

So the community sinner and scapegoat has been properly punished.

Meanwhile, brief thoughts:

1. Richard Dawkins has every right to be unhappy about this incident. For one thing, as he must realize, the clear winners are intelligent design and creationism. Kroto, Roberts, and their fans (with an earlier assist from Dawkins himself, incidentally) have now created a situation where students cannot learn about any weaknesses associated with intelligent design (or creationism). It is hard to see how that will help materialist atheists like him.

2. On the whole, I doubt that Reiss's suggestion was a good idea. Given the current commitment of the system to defending just about every swirl of hogwash advanced in Darwin's name, the big problem is that large numbers of intelligent students will respectfully dissent - and get away with it.

So the tribal elders had to act at once, of course.

(Heck, where can I find a reliable anthropologist to document these priceless dramas from primitive human groups before they ultimately disappear?)

See also:

- At Index on Censorship Warwick U sociologist calls the case "a source of grave concern to those interested in the future of academic freedom." Here's a podcast of his views.

- David Tyler, "Another call to counter the Forces of Ignorance":
It seems that every organisation connected with science has leaders who feel the need to make statements opposing intelligent design and creationism. Whilst most of these get no further than the press release, one has made it to the pages of Genome Biology. The author is Gregory Petsko, President of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB ). The first paragraph sets the tone: "the Discovery Institute, that bastion of ignorance, right-wing political ideology, and pseudo-scientific claptrap, the creationist movement has mounted yet another assault on science." The "assault on science" is considered to be partly propaganda and partly legislative. Leaders like Petsko appear to be afflicted with a form of schizophrenia: when writing as scientists, they are rational and moderate; but when confronted by ID or creationism, they erupt in a frenzy of wild assertions.
Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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Intelligent design and high culture: Philosopher says teaching students about intelligent design should be okay

Okay with some qualifications, that is.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University is probably best known publicly for his 1974 essay, "What is it like to be a bat?" (He was writing against reductionism in thinking about animal minds.)

Now, in "Public Education and Intelligent Design" in Philosophy & Public Affairs (pp. 187-2005), Nagel, an atheist, stirs the pot again:
The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory.
You'd think Nagel was referring to the Michael Reiss affair, but he can't be, because the essay came out before Brit Reiss was forced to resign.

It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.
Actually, if the Reiss affair in Britain or similar incidents in North America are any guide, teaching evolutionary theory" in an intellectually responsible way" is not in fact an education establishment goal. He reflects on the odd situation that arguments against design are considered quite legitimate but not arguments for it. Why is that?:

The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim.
This, he says, creates a dilemma:

The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.

Critics take issue with the claims made by defenders of ID about what standard evolutionary mechanisms can accomplish, and argue that they depend on faulty assumptions. Whatever the merits, however, that is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else. ... It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the two sides are in symmetrical positions. If one scientist is a theist and another an atheist, this is either a scientific or a nonscientific disagreement between them. If it is scientific (supposing this is possible), then their disagreement is scientific all the way down. If it is not a scientific disagreement, and if this difference in their nonscientific beliefs about the antecedent possibilities affects their rational interpretation of the same empirical evidence, I do not see how we can say that one is engaged in science and the other is not. Either both conclusions are rendered nonscientific by the influence of their nonscientific assumptions, or both are scientific in spite of those assumptions.

In the latter case, they have a scientific disagreement that cannot be settled by scientific reasoning alone. ...
So then with respect to discussing intelligent design in a classroom, he asks,

What would a biology course teach if it wanted to remain neutral on the question whether divine intervention in the process of life’s development was a possibility, while acknowledging that people disagree about whether it should be regarded as a possibility at all, or what probability should be assigned to it, and that there is at present no way to settle that disagreement scientifically? So far as I can see, the only way to make no assumptions of a religious nature would be to admit that the empirical evidence may suggest different conclusions depending on what religious belief one starts with, and that the evidence does not by itself settle which of those beliefs is correct, even though there are other religious beliefs, such as the literal truth of Genesis, that are easily refuted by the evidence. I do not see much hope that such an approach could be adopted, but it would combine intellectual responsibility with respect for the Establishment Clause.
This sounds a lot like "teach the controversy" to me.

Nagel makes clear at various points* that he thinks that the Darwin fans have oversold their theory. Which they have. All around me, "icons of evolution" are tumbling (another one just came down the other day) ....

Basically, in order to keep serious discussion of evidence for design from surfacing, the fans must imply to the public that vastly more evidence exists for the standard Darwinian view of the history of life than actually does exist - and all discussion of the quality of evidence must be suppressed. And for the very good reason that once we get rid of the bad or questionable evidence, there is only a little good evidence. Not enough to justify Expelling scientists who doubt.

Here is the article behind a paywall, but you may be able to read it through a library subscription. Here is lawyer Ed Sisson's view.

*For example, he writes,

My own situation is that of an atheist who, in spite of being an avid consumer of popular science, has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life. ... Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.
Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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