Saturday, May 05, 2007

David Cameron gaff "Creationism could be taught in Science lessons"

Science and fiction

David Cameron's ambiguity about creationism provides yet another example of politicians taking the benefits of science without defending its principles.

May 4, 2007 9:30 AM | Printable version

David Cameron found himself in very hot water this week with leading scientists following comments he made on Friday hinting that schools could be given more flexibility to teach creationism in science lessons. The comments themselves were meant to be a clarification of Tory policy (is there such a thing?) in the face of an embarrassing gaff by the Conservative Welsh assembly candidate for Clwyd West, Darren Millar. He reportedly told a hustings in Ruthin that homosexuality was a sin - comments he later denied. But there was more on creationism. A party spokesperson later clarified his contribution thus:

"Darren said that teachers in faith schools should be given flexibility to include the teaching of creationism in science lessons alongside Darwinism."

That is the sort of stuff that makes most scientists' blood boil, but Mr Cameron did not appear to appreciate that fully. When asked about the issue he said on Friday: "Personally I don't support the teaching of creationism," but he added, "I'm a great believer that we need to trust schools and governors of schools to get these things right and I think that's the right approach." He said he advocated a "more devolved system" for deciding what schools were allowed to teach.

The reaction from scientists has been predictably brutal. Steve Jones, the evolutionary biologist at University College London and distinguished popular science author said:

"They need to devolve some management to schools. I think most people would agree with that. But you can't devolve the truth. Something is either true or it's not and creationism is not.

"If somebody demanded the right to teach in mathematics lessons that 2 and 2 are 5 on faith grounds they would be laughed out of court ... by having this taught in science lessons they are damaging science it's as simple as that."

The developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert, also at UCL said:

"I am shocked that Cameron agrees that creationism can be taught in science lessons. Creationism is not science and is purely religious faith. There is zero evidence for it. We must oppose this. Next the students will be taught that the world was created in six days."

In the face of this barrage, Mr Cameron's office "clarified" again. Would the Tories allow faith schools to teach creationism in science lessons? "No, I don't think we would. Basically, we think creationism has got its place as part of a religious curriculum, but not as part of a science curriculum."

Reassuring perhaps, but Cameron's ambiguity is yet more evidence of politicians wanting to take the benefits of science without defending its principles. Despite talk in November of his Damascene conversion to science, Tony Blair and his government have been guilty of using science when it suits them, but abandoning it when it doesn't. One extraordinary decision was the move by the government agency that licenses new medicines to allow homeopathic remedies to be licensed without clinical trial data - thus putting magic water on a par with traditional evidence-based medicine.

And in November, the parliamentary science and technology committee produced a highly critical report on government use of science in policy-making. It said there was too much cherry-picking of data to validate policy rather than an honest discussion of the evidence. It called for a "re-engineering" of the government's approach to science.

Mr Blair also displayed the same unconcerned attitude to the threat to science posed by teaching creationism. In an interview with New Scientist magazine in November he said he thought the threat was "hugely exaggerated". He added, "If I notice creationism becoming the mainstream of the education system in this country then that's the time to start worrying." Most scientists would rightly be horrified if the debate reached that stage before the prime minister decided to take notice.

If Mr Cameron and the next occupant of No 10 Downing Street want to demonstrate that they really understand this issue they must make clear their unequivocal opposition to any religious interference in the school science curriculum. They should also take steps to restrict, rather than increase, the flexibility that religious schools have over the curriculum they teach. The benefits from science will only come in future if politicians defend it now. That means saying what is science and what is not.

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