Professor steps down over creationism row

Britain’s national academy of science parted company with its director of education on Tuesday after a furore over the teaching of creationism in schools.

Michael Reiss, a professor of education at the Institute of Education in London and an ordained Church of England clergyman, agreed to step down from his position at the Royal Society, which claimed he had unintentionally caused damage to the organisation’s reputation.

Reiss was widely reported to be in favour of teaching creationism in school science lessons after a speech he gave in Liverpool last week, but the following day he issued a clarification arguing his comments had been misinterpreted.

The Royal Society announced Reiss’s resignation in a statement on Tuesday.

It said: “Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s director of education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society’s reputation.
As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately as director of education.”

In his speech, Reiss said that while creationism had no scientific basis, science teachers risked alienating pupils who believed in the idea by dismissing it out of hand. “They should take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis,” he said.

Reiss’s resignation met with a mixed response on Tuesday. Phil Willis, chairperson of the Commons innovation, universities, science and skills committee, said: “It’s the right decision and it’s clearly one the Royal Society needed to come to itself. You cannot have a senior educational figure in the world’s most prestigious scientific society giving credence to creationism alongside Darwinism in the school curriculum.”

But Barry Sheerman, chairperson of the Commons education committee, said he felt Reiss had been treated harshly. “It seems to me that Michael Reiss said what he did with the best intentions, that science teachers should engage with pupils who have creationist views, and I agreed with that,” he said.

The fertility specialist Lord Winston said: “This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science—something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

Reiss’s views on the issue have been known for some time. In a book last year called Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism, he said teachers should expect to encounter more children with creationist views and urged them to be prepared to discuss it.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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