Scientists irate after top education official questions evolution
Education Ministry chief scientist's dismissive remarks on fundamental tenets of science spark calls for his ouster.
The Education Ministry's chief scientist sparked a furor among environmental activists and scholars Saturday with remarks questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming theory. The comments from Dr. Gavriel Avital, the latest in a series of written and oral statements casting doubts on the fundamental tenets of modern science, led several environmentalists to call for his dismissal.
"If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct," Avital said yesterday.
"There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula," he said. "If they keep writing in textbooks that the Earth is growing warmer because of carbon dioxide emissions, I'll insist that isn't the case."
Prof. Hava Yablonka of Tel Aviv University said Avital's statements are tantamount "to saying that space should be given in textbooks to the view that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. It's astonishing that the chief scientist of a government ministry can say such bizarre things."
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) appointed Avital the ministry's chief scientist three months ago. Avital, who received bachelor's and advanced degrees from Haifa's Technion Institute of Technology, previously directed the aeromechanical arm of electronic-systems manufacturer Elbit.
Avital is the ministry's first chief scientist to be drawn from outside the community of education scholars. A 20-year Likud member, he represented the party in an unsuccessful 2006 Knesset run.
In a November 2009 article in the journal B'sheva (published by the national-religious media network Arutz Sheva), Avital wrote, "A 'green crusade' has taken place around the world over the past few years, part of a broader phenomenon that could indeed be called 'green religion.'
"Why are environmental organizations pressuring the government over alternative energy that is both unattainable and probably very costly? These questions cannot be avoided," Avital wrote. "The answers to them are likely to surprise and possibly disappoint. But the moment science is enlisted for political ends - that is, in the name of ideology - questions arise as to the scientific basis of environmental organizations."
Prior to his appointment, Avital said in a video interview with Machon Meir, a religious-Zionist Jewish studies institute, "Another scientific field that is problematic is biology, or life and environmental sciences. When your doctrine is based on Darwin's theory of evolution and its implications, you are standing on unreliable foundations - that is, there is no God, there was only something primeval, and then there are certain random developments which led to the apex of all creation, the human being.
"Today I am pleased that more and more scientists engaged in pure science, rather than being employed in the name of an ideology, are reaching the conclusion that the world must have a master. Nothing is given to chance," he said. "These are my opinions and I won't deny them just because I was appointed to an Education Ministry position."
In an article published last year in the newspaper Israel Hayom and other media outlets, Avital wrote, "There is no scientific proof that the rise in carbon dioxide leads to a rise in temperatures - I would recommend to scientists not to join this intimidation campaign, which is entirely predicated on the basis of dubious science."
A large portion of Avital's early statements appeared on an Israeli Web log dedicated to covering climate changes associated with global warming. The blog editor, Eyal Morag, wrote to the education minister this week that Avital "doesn't understand what science is, and should therefore be removed from any position related to it."
"Avital must resign from his position," said Dr. Lia Ettinger, academic supervisor of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv. The chief scientist's remarks, she said, "are similar to the Health Ministry's chief scientist declaring that all the research linking cigarettes with cancer are nonsense. It's clear that given the nature of science, there is never complete consensus, and that disputes bring us closer to the truth. But this has nothing to do with the things Avital said. If these are his positions, he cannot promote the kind of education necessary for the environment and sustainable ecology. Avital has removed himself from the consensus," she said.
Dr. Shahar Dolev of the Israel Energy Forum added, "Scientists are always finding additional proof for the global warming theory. It is good that there are scientists raising questions and counterarguments - it's healthy for scientific debate. But if people in positions of authority, such as the Education Ministry's chief scientist, adopt and then promulgate the scientific community's minority view, it causes tremendous damage, and confuses both decision makers and the public."