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Michael Reiss: Creationist


Following last weeks entry about the media and MMR I have another post brewing which goes into more detail about the central message of Ben Goldacre’s excellent book. That central message is that you usually can’t trust science and health stories in the press because they are usually written by people who don’t understand the story that they are writing. Most journalists seem to have only the shakiest of understanding of anything other than the most basic of scientific principles.

Another good example is the case of Michael Reiss. He gave a largely sensible speech saying that science teachers should be more willing and better prepared to discuss (and counter) creationism in the classroom. In journalists’ heads this became “Royal Society Bigwig Supports Teaching Creationism” and before you know it, he’s been hounded out of his job.

I thought that the Reiss story had run its course, but journalists were determined to have one last attempt to prove exactly how little they understood. And I’m embarassed to admit that it comes from the Observer – a paper I’d like to credit with higher than average intelligence.

The picture about comes from the web site version of this article by Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel prizewinner. The article itself is eminently sensible. It talks about how there really is a huge philosophical difference between religion and science and how people of a religious nature must, by definition, believe things on faith alone which would, on the surface, seem to make it difficult for them to flourish in a scientifc career.

But the most brilliant piece of journalism is in the standfirst – that little piece of text underneath the title which is intended to draw the reader into the article. As you’ll see from the image above (which I’ve taken because I fully expect it to change when someone realises how stupid they look), it says:

Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don’t have the intellectual integrity to teach science

“Creationists such as the Rev Reiss”! Michael Reiss may have many faults. He may not have been the best choice as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. He may believe a few crazy things (he’s an ordained minister – that’s part of the job). But he is not a creationist.

He was campaigning for science teachers to be given better training in order to counter creationist claims in the classroom. And now, three weeks later, a national newspaper is calling him a creationist.

I hope the person who wrote that standfirst is suitably embarrassed.

Update: In the discussion on this article, the nonsensical standfirst has been mentioned. Some people have tried to defend it by pointing out that, as a theist, Reiss must believe that god created the universe even if he followed scientific processes rather than the fairy stories in Genesis. And that therefore, at some level, it’s reasonable to describe him as a creationist.

I say that if you’re allowed to redefine common words like that, then there’s no point at all in holding a conversation.