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Teachers should tackle creationism, says science education expert

Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, says excluding discussion of creationism and intelligent design from science lessons could put some children off science completely

James Randerson, science correspondent guardian.co.uk, Thursday September 11 2008 15:47 BST Article history

Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.

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.

He said that around one in 10 children comes from a family with creationist beliefs. "My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science," he said.

"I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved'."

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.

Reiss, who is an ordained Church of England minister, told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool that science teachers should not see creationism as a "misconception" but as an alternative "world view". He added that he was not advocating devoting the same time to teaching creationism or intelligent design as to evolution.

Reiss's comments have provoked fury from some parts of the scientific community. "Creationism is based on faith and has nothing to do with science, and it should not be taught in science classes," said Prof Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist at University College London. "There is no evidence for a creator, and creationism explains nothing."

He said creationism should be taught in religious studies lessons.

"Science lessons are not the appropriate place to discuss creationism, which is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence," said Dr John Fry, a physicist at the University of Liverpool.

He said challenging evolution scientifically was appropriate in school science classes. But he added: "Creationism doesn't challenge science, it denies it."

Reiss agreed that creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories, but he said that did not automatically exclude them from science lessons. "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from the science lesson … 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."

He added that good teaching meant respecting students' views. "I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution while still introducing them to it," he said.

Prof John Bryant, professor emeritus of cell and molecular biology at the University of Exeter, agreed that alternative viewpoints should be discussed in science classes. "If the class is mature enough and time permits, one might have a discussion on the alternative viewpoints. However, I think we should not present creationism (or intelligent design) as having the same status as evolution."

Reiss also criticised Prof Richard Dawkins' argument that labelling children as belonging to a particular religion amounted to child abuse. Dawkins has written that, "To slap a label on a child at birth – to announce, in advance … an infant's opinions on the cosmos and creation, on life and afterlives, on sexual ethics, abortion and euthanasia – is a form of mental child abuse."

Reiss said he understood Dawkins' point, but said: "This is an inappropriate and insulting use of the phrase child abuse as anybody who has ever worked – as incidentally I have over many years with children who have been either sexually or physically abused – knows."
Vote: Should Creationism and intelligent design be taught in science lessons?

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Members Comments

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estivboy 16-Oct-2009 13:59
To Estivboy – You mean that the AIDS virus has become more resistant? This does not prove the notion of biological evolution of species.
JefferyMarshal has provided the answer from his own statement.
Try adding the word "evolved" into the sentence as in. "You mean that the AIDS virus has [EVOLVED to] become more resistant? This does not prove the notion of biological evolution of species".
Then all of a sudden there is your real world proof. If a virus started as one form and, over time because it has been attacked, it will then EVOLVE (mutate if you like) to a more resistant form. Due to the pressure of the prevailing environmental conditions. Does he understand the basic concepts of evolution?
To reiterate Evolution is not a myth. If you believe it to be so you have not read or understood one of the greatest concepts in scientific thought
Andromeda 18-May-2009 19:48
Creationism is an unhelpful Christian doctrine based on myth and dogged arrogance and ignorance. Jim B Warrior should apprise himself of the Koranic view of Creation, which is in agreement with orthodox scientific theories.

JimBWarrior 18-May-2009 17:45
Blocking Creationism from the learning path of anybody is closing GOD from their lives.
Pericles 25-Mar-2009 12:51
I voted yes because I think Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught as an alternative to Evolution. I in no way believe in Christian Creationism nor do I think it should be taught in a science class but ID should.
dignitas 17-Oct-2008 21:15
the answer lies in the question, ie 'science' lessons. science is the principle of understanding the universe through observation
and empirical facts, facts that can be backed up in a debate with evidence and the conclusions of which can be predicted and repeated. Creationism does not fall into that category it falls into Religion. I am not saying it should not be taught, thats not the argument, however i am saying that there is no reason to teach creationism in a science class.
AnotherView 3-Oct-2008 23:43
I think the key thing here is the word "science". Simply put, science and only science should be taught in science lessons. Creationism and Intelligent Design have nothing to do with science and by definition should obviously be exlcuded from a science lesson. Surely, there is nothing else left to say on this matter.
Andromeda 2-Oct-2008 16:34
I have no desire to invent new creation myths! My view is very simple, ie that we do not know and must accept that we do not know.

We must also stop ourselves from being seduced by the certainty that religion gives us because it pretends to know.

Creationism is a manifestation of our existential uncertainty, because it allows us to pretend we know or that we know someone who does, ie God.

While understandable, it is of course anti-reason and anti-knowledge, because thinking we know will not give us that knowledge, merely make us reject other theories because we have become fond of the one that appeals to us most.

Creationism has become a badge of Christianity because of Islamophobia caused by 9/11 and in turn its causes, as well as the West's precipitate actions that have worsened the situation.

Why is it so hard to admit that we do not really know and do not even know someone who does?

Creation myths are for children only. Isn’t it time we all grew up?
jeffreymarshall 28-Sep-2008 1:55
To Estivboy – You mean that the AIDS virus has become more resistant? This does not prove the notion of biological evolution of species. There is no proof whatsoever that humans evolved from other species. It is as much a myth as the creation myth from the Bible. ‘The combined might of science’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) cannot answer these questions about our origins.

We go to our deaths as ignorant as any ‘bunch of ignorant ancients’ about both where we came from & where we are headed.

Andromeda grasps the point that since there is no proof we might just as well select the theories and beliefs that elevate us the most. Adam and Eve is not a particularly potent myth for the modern world. Let’s choose another.

What we decide to believe about ourselves determines who we are – for better or worse. So let’s decide to believe in something good – which elevates us to the status of modern gods, rather than something idiotic, such as creationism tales from the Bible – I believe is her point.
estivboy 22-Sep-2008 5:54
In Response to Jeffery Marshall who wrote "How would you ‘test’ the theory of evolution by experiment? I mean, you cannot ‘evolve’ something in the laboratory, can you?"

Well the answer to that is that you can. To give you an example try bacterial resistance and the evolution of the AIDs virus. I went to a very interesting lecture given by the Genetisist Steve Jones in which he answered the very same question. The AIDs virus has evolved in response to the attacks made on over the years. MRSA anybody? The misconceptions of Darwinism are such that people misquote 'Survival of the fittest' all the time. They then apply those misconceptions to society, economics and politics. For some further reading on the subject please go to http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/dn13620-evolution-24-myths-and-misconceptions.html

As was stated by Recylotron "Scientists do not "believe" in evolution, they recognise that the evidence for it is overwhelming."

The evidence for creationism? I'll leave that to one of my favorite quotes from Gore Vidal when he describes the bible as "The sacred texts of a bronze age tribe of Nomads." Who would you rather believe. A bunch of ignorant ancients with no understanding of the world or the combined might of science.

While we're at it why can't we teach the beliefs of the Egyptians. After all, the cult of Ra lasted for 2500 years, longer than Christianity and at least they were correct in believing that the Sun was a life giver. Surely longevity has to count for something?
Recyclotron 21-Sep-2008 12:25
Jeffreymarshall said "To Recyclotron – how would you ‘test’ the theory of evolution by experiment? I mean, you cannot ‘evolve’ something in the laboratory, can you? And although we might have been persuaded by fossils & other types of evidence, an attachment to Darwin’s theory is, nevertheless, only another form of belief." This is a common misunderstanding which generally divides the scientific and religious communities. Scientists do not "believe" in evolution, they recognise that the evidence for it is overwhelming. This is not the place to reprise such arguments - there are many books which can fully detail the evidence (Dan Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea is as good as any).
If you would like to further understand the difficulty of rational debate between scientists and believers then I'd recommend the Beyond Belief lectures see http://thesciencenetwork.org/BeyondBelief/. The whole point is that science does not require or entertain belief. This is a difficult concept for religious folk to grasp and, I think, explains so many of these misunderstandings.
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