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Updated The Royal Society has backed the discussion of creationism in school science classes, kicking off what promises to be a spectacular row amongst the country’s top boffins.

The boffinry talking-shop’s director of education told the British Association’s festival of science in Liverpool that creationism should be examined in school science classes as a legitimate point of view.

Michael Reiss, who is both a professor of biology and a Church of England clergyman, took the position that with ten per cent of UK school children coming from families with creationist leanings, teachers should convey a message of “respect” for those beliefs while continuing to teach evolution.

Ultimately, Reiss said, such children were unlikely to change their minds, but at least could be encouraged to view evolution as one way of understanding the universe.

Even more controversially, perhaps, The Royal Society told the Times that Reiss’ position reflected that of the society, on the basis that “teachers need to be in a position to be able to discuss science theories and explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism isn’t”.

Sadly, Reiss’ plea for understanding is more likely to spark an almighty punch-up – if not in classrooms then certainly in the scientific and educational community.

For a start, creationism is firmly off the national curriculum. More importantly, his fellow scientists rushed to rubbish the prospect of creationism being debated over the nation’s Bunsen burners and metre rules.

The Times wheeled out a parade of Reiss’ colleagues who said creationism shouldn’t be allowed to creep out of RE classes. Prof Lewis Wolpert of University College Medical School said “Creationism is based on faith and nothing to do with science.” John Fry, a University of Liverpool physicist said “Creationism doesn’t challenge science, it denies it.”

If the Royal Society sticks to its guns, the UK faces the bizarre prospect of creationism cropping up in the mainstream education sector, except perhaps in the nation’s Roman Catholic state schools. Back in 2005, the then Vatican chief astronomer, Fr George Coyne, lambasted intelligent design – creationism with a veneer of scientism to most - as unscientific.

Coyne is not longer the head of the observatory though, and was speaking before Pope Benedict took charge of the faithful.

Still, Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, told Reuters in the wake of a Vatican meeting on evolution and creationism in 2006 that the conclusion that God created the world is not a scientific position, but a philosophical one.

"There's a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy,” Fessio said. “Evangelicals and creationists generally lack it and Catholics have it.” ®

Update

We called the Royal Society this morning, but unsurprisingly they were all in a meeting.

However, the august body has since issued a clarification of Prof Reiss' remarks and reiterated that, "The Royal Society is opposed to creationism being taught as science."

The statement quotes Reiss saying, "Creationism has no scientific basis."

He goes on to say, "However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.

"I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview'," he goes on to say, "this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility."

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