Creationism in the science classroom - 29% of science teachers say 'yes'

More than a quarter of science teachers polled by Ipsos MORI think creationism should be taught in the science classroom.

Submitted by Choccy on December 24, 2008

Ipsos MORI reports 'Teachers Dismiss Calls For Creationism To Be Taught In School Science Lessons'. The results however indicate that less than half of all teachers, and two-thirds of science teachers in the survey object to creationism being taught in science, and a majority (65%) favour 'discussing' it.

The poll of 923 primary and secondary teachers (across subjects) in England and Wales reveals that almost half (47%) would not teach creationism alongside evolution and the big-bang, and in the science teachers surveyed, this figure rose to 65%. These views are consistent with the government teaching directives on dealing with creationism in the science classroom. Of all teachers surveyed, 65% think creationism should be 'discussed', and interestingly this figure rises amongst the science teachers (73%).

A further question in the poll asked the extent to which respondents agreed with the statement:
"the only reason to mention creationism in schools is to enable teachers to demonstrate why the idea is scientific nonsense"
Only a quarter (26%) of all teachers agree with this blunt rejection of creationism, and the figure rises to almost half in science specialists (46%).

The Guardian's James Randerson also summarises the poll's findings, mentioning the position of Michael Reiss that creationism should be treated as a world-view rather than a misconception. Reiss is the professor in science education at the Institute of Education, who in September resigned his post as director of education at the Royal Society, over the controversy surrounding his comments made at the annual festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In fairness to Reiss, the immediate media response was to totally misrepresent his views. Take for example the Telegraph's headline (Sept 11, 2008) "Creationism should be taught in science classes, says expert" - now this isn't even close to Reiss' stated position.

What Reiss actually said was that science teachers should be prepared to deal with students who hold creationist views while making clear that such views are not science. Reiss himself holds a PhD in evolutionary biology but part of the controversy stems from his also being an ordained clergyman in the Church of England.

Reiss: I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.
...Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.

The initial reaction from within the Royal Society was a reiteration of their position on creationism as non-science and a clarification of Reiss' views as consistent with their position, but senior members drafted a letter effectively calling for Reiss' head, citing his clergy position as 'worrisome'.

It was only after Reiss resigned due to his position no longer being tenable in-light of the controversy over his statements that the newspapers that had initially misrepresented his views came to his defence, but by then he had vacated the post.

Reiss' position was again raised in Richard Dawkins' response to the result that 29% of science teachers surveyed would teach creationism alongside evolution and the Big Bang as a 'national disgrace'. Dawkins sees Reiss' position as defensible at least:

The 'Michael Reiss position' is defensible. Just as a chemistry teacher might discuss the phlogiston theory, or a physics teacher might discuss the Ptolemaic theory of the planets as history of science, so it is defensible to teach that there are people called creationists, and they believe what they believe.
But if teaching creationism 'alongside' evolution means what it seems to mean, it is no more defensible than teaching the stork theory alongside the sex theory of the where babies come from.
If 29% of science teachers really think creationism should be taught as a valid alternative to evolution, we have a national disgrace on our hands, calling for urgent remedial action in the education of science teachers. We are failing in our duty to children, if we staff our schools with teachers who are this ignorant – or this stupid.

While the nuanced opinion of Reiss certainly is defensible in principle, in practice it's a bit trickier. No matter how carefully phrased (or on the other hand, how bluntly it is stated that creationism is nonsense, as Reiss in fact did) any position that mentions discussion of creationism in the classroom is likely to be seen as a 'green light to nonsense' for creationists and intelligent design advocates. This is evidenced by the appalling commentary to basic science provided on the Truth in Science website, where any disagreement amongst scientists (which is normal, what with it not being dogmatic and not based on a central divine authority) is leapt upon with glee by creationists to assert that 'we R al5o do1n sc1ence!!1!!1!' or that 'PR0ff3SOr SAY Y@y to cR3at1on in tEH clAssRo0m !!1!!1!!'. This was the group that in September 2006 sent an intelligent design resource to every UK secondary school science department.

Of course there are flaws with the survey, as with many broad-scope public opinion polls:
- Many of the primary teachers involved, even those with a science specialism, are unlikely to be teaching evolutionary biology much (although primary 'the world around us' units do contain some aspects of classification/variation at KS2).
- The questions don't specify what sort of creationism is being discussed; young-earth, old-earth, day-age, gap, progressive creationism, intelligent design etc, nor does it distinguish between creationism and 'creation' - conceptually different and the mere 'creation' concept at least does not contradict evolutionary biology, rather it pushes God further into the gaps.

Following only two months on from James Williams (a science education lecturer) of Univ. of Sussex revealing that many prospective science teachers he works with lack the most basic understanding of 'what science is', it reflects pretty badly on the state of science education. Given that Williams found a quarter of his survey (23%) defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' and 34% say that a 'law' is a 'rule not to be broken' it's unsurprising that a figure similar to those assert that creationism should be taught in science.

An education in the nature of science and in the fundamental importance of evolution to the modern life sciences should be an intrinsic part of training for science teachers (including physics and chemistry teachers who in most schools are expected to teach at least some biology). Without an understanding of the philosophical foundations on which their discipline is built it's unlikely that science teachers can effectively differentiate between scientific and non-scientific theories, and if they can't do it for themselves, what hope have they of communicating this distinction to students?


-Richard Dawkins' and Steve Jones' responses

-The Guardian's Tim Radford also chips in and asserts that 'Darwin and creationism do not belong in the same classroom'

-Summary of Reiss' BA talk

-Reiss' latest book (with Leslie Jones), Teaching About Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism

-Survey results at Ipsos MORI site
Questions asked:

Q1.To what extent do you agree or disagree that, alongside the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, creationism should be TAUGHT in science lessons?

Q2.To what extent do you agree or disagree that, alongside the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, creationism should be DISCUSSED in science lessons?

Q3.To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: "Creationism is completely unsupportable as a theory, and the only reason to mention creationism in schools is to enable teachers to demonstrate why the idea is scientific nonsense and has no basis in evidence or rational thought"?



15 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Refused on December 27, 2008

I like the picture accompanying this article.


15 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Choccy on December 28, 2008

It's lovely.


15 years 5 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on December 28, 2008

This is good and detailed, cheers. Articles reporting statistics in the press generally are pretty shite, and it's impossible to tell what they are actually saying...


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Submitted by Enrico on December 28, 2008

Good extension of the stats and a welcome overview of the media hysteria and position. Good stuff. Although religion vs science is an obvious target for the whole creationism/rational debate let's not forget the bollocks that science has left us with. Global warming,nuclear science/ bombs and pesticides to name but a few. The relationship of science and its practitioners with the state has the same stink about it as the state's relationship with religion.Lots more debate needed on the meaning of science in schools (as the article suggests science teachers are as ignorant of issues as they are of reasoning; probably a result of them being wage slaves to state interests). For the moment "ni dieu, ni maitre" will do me , given the chance science would be our master too. E-X-T-E-R-M-I-N-A-T-E!

Submitted by Choccy on December 29, 2008


Lots more debate needed on the meaning of science in schools (as the article suggests science teachers are as ignorant of issues as they are of reasoning; probably a result of them being wage slaves to state interests).

Interestingly, Williams posits that much of the blame for the lack of understanding of the nature of science amongst science graduates lies with the fact that their undergraduate training is often a instrumental, utilitarian view of science, as simply 'doing science work' - the universities churning out the next generation of science workers. This is in contrast to science as a way of understanding the world, and basing that understanding on observation and evidence. So because science is seen as just another job, rather than a way of lookin at the world, 'scientists' can hold all sorts of wacky bizarre ideas in other spheres of their life, completely distinct from the science they do - medical doctors who think prayer works, chemists who think there's something in homeopathy etc

Turning science into just this work activity means it's easier to compartmentalise and not apply any sort of critical thinking to whole domains of social activity.