Reverend scientist chopped

In the end, everything is political even science. And as politicians, scientists are often, well, very good scientists. My spirited defence was in vain. Rev Professor Michael Reiss’s remarks in favour of answering questions about creationism if asked about them in science class had been “open to misinterpretation”. This had damaged the Royal 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.” And then having fired him the Royal Society went on to back the position Reiss had expressed in the first place.

“If a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.” It added that the society “greatly appreciated the efforts of Prof Reiss..”

In the small branch of science known as rational thought, this ranks as sheer hypocrisy. If the Royal Society had said that any scientist who has any truck with even rebutting creationism in class should be censured, then they might have been justified. Harsh, an over-reaction maybe, even a restriction of speech, but justified intellectually, even though I believe it’s the wrong approach. All they have done is given status to creationists. It’s my fundamental belief that if you wish to refute a position, you should widen the public space for doing so, not narrow it to the point of confrontation. The case is strong enough on it own, force is not required. In politics, so in science or religion.

When I first picked up on this story I thought it was an interesting curio. Now I think it’s about personal injustice and intellectual panic. It shows that if we didn’t know it before, even Nobel prize winners can be prize fools. I’m glad Robert Winston agrees with me.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London