Scientists shouldn’t shirk the creationist debate

AS A REGULAR critic of creationists, I find myself feeling unexpected sympathy for Professor Michael Reiss, who has resigned as The Royal Society’s director of education.

It seems to me that he didn’t suggest that creationism should be taught as science. He was, rather, talking of the difficulties of communicating science to pupils who already, for whatever reason, believed in the creationist myth. This is what he actually said:

My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science.

I realised that simply banging on about evolution and natural selection didn’t lead some pupils to change their ind at all. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me sufficient reason to omit it from the science lesson… There is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have – hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching – and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion.

If a pupil were to raise the issue of creationism in science class, surely far better to meet that head-on, to face down such nonsense with scientific analysis and process?

I recently met a class of primary school pupils from my constituency at the Glasgow Science Centre’s planetarium and agreed to answer questions from them. Most were really interested in astronomy and science, but one asked “Did men really land on the moon?”

By answering the question in full, by taking it as a serious query and giving reasons why the conspiracy theories are all rubbish, was I indulging such theories? I don’t think so. And I see nothing wrong in respecting students’ beliefs on creationism while exposing them in a positive way as anti-scientific. What better place to do so than in a classroom?



Filed under Church, Science

25 responses to “Scientists shouldn’t shirk the creationist debate

  1. Right, that’s it. I’ve threatened you with them before and now I am definitely going to post those DVDs to your constituency office at QPFC.

    You really should try and watch them – each DVD lasts about as long as an episode of Dr Who – because anyone who claims to be a Christian and calls the Almighty’s act of making the universe as “creationist myth,” needs help in understanding not only His ways, but science.

    Why you mention the Moon landings and say that you were “giving reasons why the conspiracy theories are all rubbish” sounds like a straw man device to try and bundle the Creation as a ‘conspiracy’.

    T.H. – “And I see nothing wrong in respecting students’ beliefs on creationism while exposing them in a positive way as anti-scientific.”

    The problem is that the science of Creationism is VERY scientific, as you’ll see if you watch the DVDs. Many people automatically adopt a sneering attitude to Creationism rather than seek the truth for themselves.

    There are elements in the EU who are so afraid of the effect that Creationism might have on their equality and diversity programme, that they want it banned from schools.

    After all, when man’s order is increasingly at odds with God’s order, something must be done! And shutting the mouths of Christians is the obvious solution to some.

  2. Stuart – If you send stuff to my House of Commons office, it is properly security scanned before being forwarded to my constituency office. Any package sent to my constituency office directly will be immediately binned without being opened.

    Mind you, even if you send these DVDs to my Commons office, I’ll still bin them. Or maybe use them as coasters.

  3. If anyone’s interested in geology and/or the fascinating history of our world, I recommend Prof Aubrey Manning’s “Earth Story” first broadcast by the BBC in 1998.

    The programmes are much better presented imho than the more recent BBC ones that were full of too much sound and fury for me. They demonstrate, amongst lots of other fascinating things, that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that our planet is about four and a bit billion years old.

    Available on 2 DVDs with a running time of 389 mins approx (sic), the 8 programmes are also sometimes shown on UKTV History. Just right for those long winter evenings ahead…

  4. Johnny Norfolk

    I think this country is now less tolerant than it has been in my life time. I think your piece goes towards proving it. I think it has become worse since Labour came to power with the way ordinary people are now persicuited by the state. With threats about all sorts of thing that we never used to have. Bins, Motoring,NHS. Spy cameras. That TV advert about we know who has not got a TV licence comes over to me as sinister. The list goes on and on. There is just no room for other points of view that I have always tried to respect,.I know you do Tom, but your party does not.

  5. Angelin

    Tom, I was thinking of sending you a bottle of the finest malt whisky in appreciation of your fine blog.
    But I’m not going to bother now I know it will probably end up binned. 🙂

  6. No, no, no no… Read the small print – it says “Bottles of finest malt whisky excepted.”

  7. richard

    Any solution that involves shutting the mouths of Christians can’t possibly be a bad thing.

  8. Dear Richard…

    “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;

    And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;

    And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;

    And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

    (Pastor Martin Niemöller)

  9. Oh good, debates in Science classes. I tried to prompt one once and got very little response.

    Can we also have a debate about global warming/ climate change in these lessons and the benefits of doing things even if nothing’s happening? Being told the Earth is overheating while shivering in a classroom with the rain beating down outside is not very convincing. As a global warming sceptic I can understand where these children are coming from.

    Science, religion and of course politics have always been subjects for debate. Of course, it does have to be accepted that occasionally the debate may produce the wrong answer and the teacher will then find it much harder to teach the official answer.

    (Tom does of course have the risk that carrying “we must debate even the truth so that all will be convinced” into politics leads to a suggestion of “we must debate why Gordon Brown should remain Prime Minister so that all will be convinced” rather than just carrying on. But that is a subject for the Labour Conference rather than here, so it may be best if he cuts this last bit.)

  10. psiloiordinary

    Well yes – Reiss can feel a little hard done to.

    Then again he did also say this;

    “Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson.”

    Perhaps most of know the quote-mining ways of creationists.

    Such sloppy language is what did the RS harm, and eventually made his position untenable.

    Of course science teachers should debunk creationism if it arises, just as they should with Astrology, alchemy and the stork theory of human reproduction.

    As it is, the official scientific and religious bodies in the UK have done very little to counter the creationist threat to our children’s education. (The C of E at least had a stab at it this week.)

    It seems to have been left to members of the public with personal experience of creationist activities to do what they can to counter it.

    I am part of the BCSE and suggest all who oppose creationism being taught in science classes join us to lend a hand.

    We are currently dealing with an active outbreak in NI, a school in the Midlands giving books to kids which explicitly state that “Darwin was a liar” and a creationist being invited into a prestigious grammar school with the science department being left to debunk things afterwards.

    BCSE is here;



  11. richard

    Stewart, the simple fact is that you and your fellow creationists want to have taught in school, a religious doctrine that bears no relation to established scientific fact and is universally derided by all major scientific bodies.

    Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a significant number of people choose to believe that the Earth is cube-shaped. Should they teach that in science classes just because a volume of people choose to believe it in spite of the evidence presented to them?

  12. So, you’re saying… that, that… the stork isn’t… true?

  13. psiloiordinary

    Sorry Tom, there is no evidence to support your “worldview” that you were delivered by a stork.

    The so called “Intelligent Flapping Theory” is rejected by scientists as not being falsifiable. Has never had any scientific papers published in support of it, and the one mathematical paper that was published has been widely criticised as having basic errors in it – the author has never responded to any of these criticisms.

    Claims that the scientific world is involved in some kind of conspiracy theory of abirdists is also not supported by the facts with Bill Oddie’s fruity comments on Spring Watch being a well known example of a Bird Watcher who accepts the mountain of evidence for the rumpy pumpy theory of human reproduction.

    I hope that you will agree that this direct and polite rebuttal of your “worldview” in this science lesson does confirm with the government guidelines – now lets get back to the lesson.


  14. Does Stewart Cowan know about this?

  15. psiloiordinary

    Oh – I almost forgot – the storkists nurture a persecution complex which could only perhaps be matched by the staff of Mothercare, if and when King Herrod was appointed as their managing director.

  16. Richard said, “Stewart, the simple fact is that you and your fellow creationists want to have taught in school, a religious doctrine that bears no relation to established scientific fact and is universally derided by all major scientific bodies.”

    Yes, I do want it taught in schools because I believe Creationism offers the answers that the Theory of Evolution doesn’t.

    It is Creationism that has answers while evolution theory “bears no relation to established scientific fact”.

    How do you know the world is 4,500,000,000 years old? Because teachers told you and the telly told you and so you grew up believing it to be true, as I did.

    I came to a point in 2001 when I started questioning things. There is no evidence at all of a very old earth. There is no dating method that can be relied upon because there are many variables which cannot be known, e.g. if you don’t know what the initial amount of radioactive material was in a specimen, how can you possibly date it accurately? You can’t.

    It was a Scottish doctor and geologist, James Hutton, who suggested in 1785 that the world is not thousands of years old, but much older. He reckoned that everything we see on earth today is the result of the same processes we see happening on earth today, e.g. slow, gradual erosion. In other words, he dismissed any idea of catastrophic events in earth’s history and said there was, “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”.

    Darwin and many others took “comfort” in this atheistic worldview and based an ideology on it.

    Today still, scientists either make the facts somehow fit the theory or reject the facts if they do not fit.

    At the same time as accepting Hutton’s old earth theory, they contradict it by suggesting that catastrophes did happen (like the various theories about mass dinosaur extinction) and that there was a beginning and will be an end.

    The global Flood explains a great many things, like the rapid deposition of plant matter that formed the world’s coal seams. Coal and oil form rapidly under the right conditions.

    If you want to mock, carry on. I used to out of sheer ignorance. If you want to find out the truth, it is most rewarding.

    Secular ‘scientists’ on the other hand expect us to believe that the universe started out as nothing which exploded to form everything.

    The only way this could have happened is by divine power, otherwise this philosophy (because it isn’t science) really is as stupid as it sounds. I don’t know how anyone can accept it without question.

    If anyone wants a DVD, please email me:

  17. richard

    Young Earth Creationism is even more daft than Intelligent Design as it relies not only on a belief in God but also an abject denial of almost all scientific discoveries across a vast array of fields; Geology, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Radiology, Biology, etc.

  18. Richard, you have to appreciate scripture AND science.

    You just come out with general one-sentence replies, suggesting you know little about either.

    Why should people like yourself deprive others of their right to a whole spectrum of knowledge and not be allowed to come to their own conclusions?

    Are you not ashamed of your intolerance and bullying?

    Richard, you could start to exhibit your understanding by writing – using your own words – about why Creationists deny the geological record, how that record came to be accepted as fact and the flawed reasoning that sustains it.

  19. richard

    Fair enough, I’ve got a little time on my hands to try to enlighten you.

    Let’s start with a few of the fields I mentioned above;

    1) Geology – Sedimentation rates can be calculated by depth to show progression over time. High sedimentation (e.g. flooding) produces a characteristic uniform pattern whereas slow sedimentation produces the lined pattern we find in bedrock. These patterns conform worldwide and correlate with known events such as the K2 boundary that are several hundred millions of years old.

    2) Astronomy – Light moves at a constant speed in space and Doppler shift allows us to gain a very accurate measurement of distance. When you look at stars with the naked eye you are seeing objects that are at least 150-200 years old. With a £5 telescope you can see objects that are over a million years old.

    3) Physics – Plants fix atmospheric carbon during photosynthesis, so the level of Carbon-14 in plants and animals when they die equals the level of C-14 in the atmosphere at that time. When plants die they stop absorbing atmospheric carbon and you can work out the decay rates on a slide-rule.
    Some C-14 samples have been dated back as far as 45,000 years of age (e.g before homo sapiens evolved) and can be compared with fossil tree ring analysis to confirm.

    4) Biology – Many species (snakes, beetles, fish) have blind counterparts that are found in caves and tunnels. Genetic tests show that they are the same species as their non-blind relatives but evolution has altered them over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

    Only a buffon would try and argue that the earth is less than years old. Even the vatican hasn’t defended that position for at least 500 years…

  20. Tom, I agree with you that Martin Reiss got a particularly rough deal from the media and unfortunately from other scientists who obviously didn’t read what he said but simply assumed that he had taken a particular position because he’s also a CofE minister. You probably know the feeling.

    I am a geologist and a Christian. I can’t see any scientific evidence for a young-earth creationist (or indeed Intelligent Design) position in the geological record. However the worlds of science and scripture can be reconciled if you don’t treat Genesis as a scientific textbook – it wasn’t written as one!

  21. psiloiordinary

    cf my earlier claims (in sarcasm mode) about creationist and then Stewarts subsequent list of empty claims, insults (to both the scientific and the religious) and innuendo;


  22. Thank you Richard.

    1) “K2 boundary … several hundred millions of years old.”

    According to one philosophy.

    Believe it or not—the earth is young! – lots of examples of dating gone wrong.

    “Scientists cannot measure the age of the earth directly but base their estimate on how they imagine the world formed.”

    2) “With a £5 telescope you can see objects that are over a million years old.”

    No, you can see objects which appear to be a million light years away.

    Again, you are making assumptions on how the universe formed.

    3) Carbon-14 dating – explained in everyday terms – explains the limitations and assumptions made with this method of dating.

    4) Genuine evolution (within species) can happen very rapidly.

    For example these lizards underwent rapid evolution after being transported to a new island – after just 36 years.

    I don’t know why you hurl words like ‘buffoon’ around when evolutionary science is not nearly as straightforward as you have been led to believe.

    (P.S. What the Roman Church does or says is none of my doing.)

  23. John: “However the worlds of science and scripture can be reconciled if you don’t treat Genesis as a scientific textbook – it wasn’t written as one!”

    It was written in a narrative style, i.e. based on fact and not as an allegory for example.

    Christ often used parables to make a point, but he referred to Genesis as fact, such as regards marriage between a man and woman (Genesis ch 2).

    The first words in the Bible:

    “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”

    First chapter of John’s gospel:

    1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    2The same was in the beginning with God.

    3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

    4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

    5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

    John, the Theory of Evolution is totally incompatible with scripture. The idea that the Almighty made a Big Bang which randomly blasted out its material and which cooled and formed random galaxies and the sun was formed and eventually, after billions of years, the earth was cool enough for life to begin, again randomly via the almost impossible odds of the right chemicals coming together and not breaking down again and somehow managing to replicate (before DNA appeared!).

    Then, more billions of years later, due to incredibly fortuitous mutations and billions of them, man came about.

    The Bible says man is made in the image of God. I can’t see why He would have taken the chance of the conventional Big Bang theory to do it.

    And you are saying the Saviour is descended from apes, which is blasphemous.

  24. What about the rest of the Old Testament, Stewart? Is Leviticus to be taken literally? Not according to you, when you wrote, on August 14: “When people bring up Leviticus, I tell them that I’m not Jewish. I do suspect that you know that Christ fulfilled the law.”

    So, parts of the Old Testament (the bits you like) are to be taken literally, and the bits you don’t like (but probably agree with anyway) are part of the Jewish Bible, so not to be taken literally. How awfully convenient for you!

  25. Tom, I’m impressed you are on the ball this time on a Friday. You obviously haven’t received that bottle of malt yet.

    Leviticus was to be taken literally by the Jews of the time for reasons of hygiene, sacrifice, etc.

    I also quoted from the Sermon on the Mount:

    “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

    Believers in the risen Saviour no longer need to practice these old rituals. We don’t perform sacrifices because Christ is our sacrifice.

    It is very clear.

    What do you think about the lizards that evolved in 36 years, not “hundreds of thousands of years” (Richard)?

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