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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Michael Reiss - Creationism in the Classroom?

Michael Reiss was at the University of Oslo wednesday 06.05.09, giving a talk on the question: "Should Creationism Be a Part of the Science Curriculum?"

From the description, and the note in Norwegian that he was fired over arguing the affirmative and also that he is a priest, made a lot of people think we were going to see a real-live flesh-and-blood creationist. We have a few here in Norway, but I've never seen them.

So, everyone was riled up with their pitchforks and burning sticks, and we were all surprised when he turned out to be a very moderate, well-spoken and most of all rational man.

A summary of his lecture:
He started out by talking about the rise of creationism. He knew that it was not much of an issue here in Norway (the few we have are considered loonies by the general public), but also bringing up that fact that it is not only an issue in the US any more; it's popping up in the UK, and he cited a study showing that 10% of medical students in Glasgow were creationists.

He brought up two main reasons for its rise in the UK,
- more muslims (and thereby less scriptural criticism)
- religion losing influence, which leads to polarization and more fundamentalism.

This last point is particularly interesting. I once took a course called Religion and Modernity, and the point was basically the same; most people feel confused by relativism and their fragmented reality, and this leads to superimposing a black-and-white picture on the world, joining strict churches that tell you exactly what to do, and voting for strong leaders like Bush.

I find it interesting too that in Norway, most people are members of the state church. Imagine that, we have an official state religion! Most people do not even consider the fact that they are registered (about 80% are, even though most of these only attend church at Christmas, or never). We do have religious freedom though, and kids with other religions were allowed to skip the class called "Christianity" that we had in school up to the mid-nineties. (It´s now replaced by a more general course called Religion).

One might think that religion's prominent place in Norwegian society would lead to a more religious population, but in fact, this is not so. I think the fact that everyone automatically gets a religion at birth makes it a bit more unimportant. Also, the fact that it is the state religion (Lutheran) means that the state democratically removes any crazy rules or prohibitions from the church. We have a very liberal church, and I think this is mostly due to the state's role.

Some churches and denominations have removed themselves from this practice and are way more restrictive and conservative in their teachings. I think it it telling that people here are mostly fine with the state church, but that there is also room for joining more conservative denominations. However, most of my friends think you must be a Jesus-freak(derogatory term) to join one of those denominations. And most people are fine with saying they believe in God, but not fanatically. But in the US for example, to have a religion, you need to actively seek it, and this probably leads many more people to join weird churches. And since all churches are separate from governing bodies, many of them are likely to be even more nutty.

It reminds me of an example from Freakonomics (the book, not the blog):
They write about a law passed somewhere that you had to have car insurance for your car. They compared two different places where one place provided an ok default package, and the other didn´t have a default. Most people in the first place chose the default. Where there wasn´t a default position, most people ended up overpaying and getting more insurance than they needed. They claimed that this is due to the fact that most people just don't want to deal with all kinds of decisions throughout every day, and if there's an allright option set up, they'll take it. If not, they won't be able to orient themselves quickly enough and end up with some weird choice.
This is sort of like religion to me: make the default position ok, and provide other choices. Most people will stick with the default. But if there is no default position, people will scurry all over the place, taking all sorts of options even though they are not ideal.

Anyway, back to Reiss' talk.
He talked a bit about the different possible relationships between science and religion, focusing on Ian Barbours four models:
- conflict (represented by Richard Dawkins)
- independence (Steven Jay Gould, Non-Overlapping Magisteria-NOMA)
- dialogue (for example the antropic principle, physicists asking metaphysical questions
- integration (combining math and aesthetics )

He then described quickly the different understandings of biodiversity as presented by science and religion, and mentioned that the creationist view of evolution implies a collapse of their moral world and the afterlife if evolution is true.

He then moved on to the specifics of the British school-system. He explained how origin myths are discussed in religion class, and this is also where teaching ethics and controversial issues is done. In these classes students are also introduced to creationist and "evolutionist" views (his word!).

The science classes should not bring up creationism, as it has no scientific validity, he said. But, he said, IF a student should happen to bring it up while in science class, the teacher should not ignore the question. Rather, he claims it could be a useful tool and a foil for examining the evidence for evolution, the nature of science and how science works.

Which I think we can all agree is not a horrible standpoint.

He also mentioned that creationism is a very sensitive issue for many students, and that it has not been decided in science how to deal with this kind of issue. And even though I don't think creationism has anything to do with science, I agree to his point that we should recognize the fact that science totally messes up their world view and it is therefore reasonable not to ignore them when they bring it up. But he was quite specific that it should not be discussed unless a student brought it up seriously first.

During the Q and A, it seemed that quite a few people were "dissapointed" in his moderate stand, and someone finally asked why he had been fired over his position on this issue.

Reiss explained that in his opinion, it was all a gross misunderstanding, and a huge debacle had followed. There had been a debate where he was arguing AGAINST including creationism in the science classroom. A few journalists had been present, and some newspapers included a brief report on the debate the next day. However, The Times, which is a rather large and respected paper, had picked up the story without confirming their facts, and had mixed up who was on which side. A storm of letters followed, demanding he resign from his position in the Royal Society, and he was finally called in to the Royal Society to discuss the matter, even though it seemed to be a waning issue. The Royal Society were quite fed up with the issue, and even though they admitted he had done nothing wrong to his face, they said they would still like him to leave, to appease the furious public. He had accepted, as he also holds a good position at a University.

I thought this sounded like a sad story, and even though his viewpoints were valid and wellgrounded, I was disappointed that he didn't take the battle. Also, this illustrates how the public mind and the media works. No matter if The Times had printed a retraction, and if he specified that "I've spent more time debating the opposite position than anyone I've ever met.. literally", people will remember him as that creationist-guy.


  1. I was surprised as well of Reiss being so moderate :p
    I went along to see hiim speak as I was hoping I could finally see a flesh and blood creationist. He seemed more of an ID'er to me, but...

    I have also taken the Religion and Modernity class, haha. Looks like we think alike ;)

  2. Oh, I so enjoy beeing agreed with!