Professor Michael Reiss is Director of the Institute of Education, University of London. He gained notoriety last year for being sacked by the Royal Society for failing to say the 'right' things about creationism and ID in the context of school science education. Previous blogs have covered this story: here and here.
A new paper in the journal Evolution provides an opportunity to restate or retract. Reiss is unrepentant - he restates his case! His critics are almost all advocates of the "conflict" view of the relationship between science and religion. Ian Barbour is quoted approvingly: "In scientific materialism, science swallows religion. In biblical literalism, religion swallows science." There are strengths and weaknesses in Reiss' paper and this blog seeks to provide some constructive discussion of relevant issues.
In his discussion of the nature of science, Reiss draws attention to the work of Robert Merton and Karl Popper. Whilst there is much of value here, he writes, "most historians and philosophers of science would argue that there is more to the nature of science". He considers the "seminal contributions" of Thomas Kuhn and the concept of scientific paradigms, plus the related analysis of research programs by Lakatos. More recently, science has become "more influenced by politics; it is more industrialized; and it is more bureaucratic." Then comes the conclusion:
"The effect of these changes is to make the boundaries around the city of science a bit fuzzier. [. . .] Of course, if one accepts the contributions of the social study of science one finds these boundaries fuzzier still."
Whilst all this is helpful, it is not clear to me how this affects the subsequent argument of the paper. The paradigms affecting evolutionary biology are not analysed; nor the research programs of scientists involved with origins research. The fuzzy boundaries are not mentioned again. Reiss could have taken the opportunity to show the defenders of "scientific materialism" where they fit into the analysis - thereby constricting their comfort zone - but he does not. Later, he says that creationism "is not really a science in that its ultimate authority is scriptural and theological rather than the evidence obtained from the natural world". Creationists, of course, do not see any incompatibility between their ultimate authority and working with evidences from the natural world - but that is another discussion. If ultimate authority is an issue, what can be said of the many advocates of "scientific materialism"? What shall we make of Richard Lewontin's oft-quoted maxim: "Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."? Does this statement imply that Lewontinism 'is not really a science in that its ultimate authority is philosophical materialism rather than the evidence obtained from the natural world'?
Let us move on to the worldview issue. Reiss draws on the work of others to provide a working definition: "A worldview constitutes an overall perspective on life that sums up what we know about the world, how we evaluate it emotionally, and how we respond to it volitionally." He applies this to student convictions about creationism or intelligent design, recognising that these students are not just confused about the details.
"A value of the worldview perspective is that it indicates the extent to which a belief in creationism or intelligent design for many students is not just a simple misconception to be remedied by some straightforward science teaching, as a belief that most of the mass of a plant comes from material extracted from soil might be, but rather a whole way of understanding the world - a "world view"."
The implications for science teaching are far reaching. It means that conflict strategies are counter-productive because students find them threatening and this is not a good learning environment. Teachers need to realise that they are there to teach, not to indulge in personal crusades against what they perceive as nonsense and ignorance.
"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. Although it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it - and to learn more science."
There is wisdom in this approach. The problem comes if teachers (or the scientific community) think that they do not need to think about their own worldviews and their effect on scientific work. So often, teachers and science leaders retreat into a positivist stronghold and embark on a discourse to emphasis their objectivity. They completely forget Reiss' earlier discussion of the nature of science. Unfortunately, Reiss also appears to overlook the wider relevance of these issues. This point is picked in a blog on the Truth in Science web site:
"What is disappointing is that Reiss, in common with most evolutionists (whether secular or theistic) regards science as something separate from religion. He constantly contrasts 'religious worldviews' with 'the scientific worldview' as if science is a faith-free zone. However, the last half-century or so of work in the history and philosophy of science has abundantly shown that in each and every discipline of science, the facts are seen in terms of a theory, against the frame of reference of a paradigm (research programme), within a philosophical view of reality, and from a religious stance."
To conclude, it is worth looking at the application of Reiss' approach to school science teaching. The issue has become alive this week because the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance in the UK has set a GCSE biology exam paper with a question exploring the students' understanding of different theories of origins. The essence of the question was reported by The Daily Telegraph:
Pupils were presented with four "theories of how new species of plants and animals have developed". These included creationism, which is commonly known as the belief that the Earth and its species were created suddenly by God within the last 10,000 years, and intelligent design, its more recent off-shoot. Pupils were also presented with Darwinism and Lamarckism, the theory of organic evolution advanced by the French naturalist Lamarck.
They were then asked to match each theory with a sentence.
Pupils were supposed to place creationism with the observation that "fossils of all the different kinds of animals appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors".
They should also have identified intelligent design as theory based on the "complicated way in which cells work".
Reaction has been rapid, and the AQA says it has withdrawn the question. The scientific materialists insist that only Darwinism and Lamarckism are entitled to be called scientific and that there is no case for putting creationism and ID at the level of "theory". ID scientist, Dr Steve Meyer, is quoted as saying: "The exam board should be commended, not attacked, for exposing students to competing ideas about the origin and development of life."
My interest is in whether the exam question was informed by the stance taken by Michael Reiss or whether it is a further example of muddled thinking. If worldview thinking is to be taken seriously, then the same evidence is likely to be handled differently by the science that emerges from each worldview. For example, whereas an evolutionist considers classification to be a matter of tracing ancestor-descendant relationships, a design theorist is open to the idea that some of the pattern may be better explained by design. We have the same data - but different interpretations. However, in the examination question, matching a theory with a sentence suggests that data brings its own interpretation. Data then is perceived as "magic bullets" to prove or disprove a particular theory. But this is not good science and it is not informed by worldview thinking. What might be more appropriate is to match different interpretations of the same data to theories springing from different worldviews.
Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done in developing a better understanding of the philosophy of science, and how philosophical materialism, theistic materialism, creationism and ID can relate meaningfully to science. Reiss is to be commended for proposing an approach that keeps the opportunity to dialogue open.
The Relationship Between Evolutionary Biology And Religion
Michael J. Reiss
Evolution, 63(7), July 2009, 1934-1941 | doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00714.x
ABSTRACT: Belief in creationism and intelligent design is widespread and gaining significance in a number of countries. This article examines the characteristics of science and of religions and the possible relationship between science and religion. I argue that creationism is sometimes best seen not as a misconception but as a worldview. In such instances, the most to which a science educator (whether in school, college or university) can normally aspire is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, the scientific worldview is unlikely to supplant a creationist one for students who are firm creationists. We can help students to find their evolutionary biology courses interesting and intellectually challenging without their being threatening. Effective teaching in this area can help students not only learn about the theory of evolution but better appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science, and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.
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