20 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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UK: Monty Python and the clergyman

Hackles were raised among the elite scientific fraternity last week when the education director of the illustrious Royal Society appeared to call for the teaching of creationism in science lessons. At the annual BA Science Festival, held in the European Capital of Culture in Liverpool, evolutionary biologist Dr Michael Reiss, also an Anglican priest, said there was much to be said for allowing students to raise their doubts about evolution and having a genuine discussion about it. However, two Nobel prize-winners took exception to his views and called for him to be sacked, and within two days Reiss stepped down.

Sir Harry Kroto, who won the prize for chemistry in 1996, told The Observer: "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."

Sir Richard Roberts, 1993 prize-winner for medicine, added: "I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting 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."

Richard Dawkins, a zoologist, Fellow of the Royal Society and avowed atheist, said putting a clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation was "a Monty Python sketch".

In Liverpool, Reiss was repeating ideas aired in a book he published last year with Leslie Jones, a science educator at Valdosta State University in the US. Reiss said teachers couldn't ignore the growing numbers of Muslim and Christian children in the UK who now held creationist beliefs.

On the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) website, Reiss posted this statement: "Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis.

"However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a 'world view'; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility."

Shortly afterwards the BA announced: "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 - a part-time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education."

Meanwhile, the Society remains committed to the teaching of evolution as the best explanation for the history of life on earth.

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