Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Suppression of Scientific Dissent?

This week, the Israeli Education Ministry's chief scientist, Dr. Gavriel Avital, was fired, for challenging evolution and global warming. I was amused to see that some people saw this as the "suppression of dissent from the scientific orthodoxy." In other words, "here's a scientist who presented a scientific case against evolution, but he was suppressed for political reasons!"

Of course, the facts are entirely different. Dr. Avital is an aeronautical engineer, not a biologist. And he did not present any evidence against evolution. Rather, he revealed himself to be a religiously motivated person who is unfamiliar with the situation (or distorts it). Dr. Avital is quoted as saying the following:

"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."


Yes, there indeed many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct. However, that is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether there are scientists in the relevant fields who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct. And there aren't. Even those few scientists aligned with the Intelligent Design movement who argue against the neo-Darwinian explanations of evolutionary mechanisms fully agree that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of common ancestry - i.e. that people and monkeys share common origins. You might find one or two scientists in the relevant fields who even deny common ancestry, but they will be obvious Christian fundamentalists who also insist that the evidence shows Jesus to be the son of God.

Dr. Avital continued:

"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."


Yes, there are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. However, that is not how evolution came to be accepted in the scientific community. (I myself originally denied evolution, and it wasn't religious beliefs that led me to change my mind!) More to the point, people such as Avital who challenge evolution clearly do so because of their own religious beliefs. They are fully entitled to those beliefs, but they are entirely unsuitable to have a position as chief scientist in the Education Ministry. The great Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rav Kook and Rav Herzog, would have been more suited to this role! They didn't have any problems with evolution.

45 comments:

  1. The argument presented by the quotes is that the man was fired because of what he said in an interview with some media organization. And he was not fired for any work he did or did not do. Thus he was fired for purely political reasons.

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  2. Let's pretend that Dr. Avital would have written the following:

    "If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' brains, intellect, spirituality, etc 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."

    Would you have any beef with that, and why or why not?

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  3. The origins of our brains and intellect are certainly with animals. Spirituality is disputable. But I don't know of any evolution textbooks which make such a claim. In general I don't like "what if" games. What if science said there was no God? What if science said that we are all in the Matrix? Etc., etc. I deal with reality, not hypothetical scenarios.

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  4. The argument presented by the quotes is that the man was fired because of what he said in an interview with some media organization. And he was not fired for any work he did or did not do.

    That's silly. This man is in charge of science education for the country! What he said in the interviews reflects on his goals in his job.

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  5. "To postulate that the development and survival of the fittest is entirely a consequence of chance mutations seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts. These classical evolutionary theories are a gross over-simplification of an immensely complex and intricate mass of facts, and it amazes me that they are swallowed so uncritically and readily, and for such a long time, by so many scientists without murmur of protest." (Sir Ernest Chain, Nobel Prize winner) - a biochemist, Nobel laureate, non-religious-fundamentalist person.

    ???

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  6. Gregory, you apparently did not read the post.

    Even those few scientists aligned with the Intelligent Design movement who argue against the neo-Darwinian explanations of evolutionary mechanisms fully agree that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of common ancestry - i.e. that people and monkeys share common origins.

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  7. In the first paragraph you mention that in addition to evolution, he challenged global warming.
    But you never mentioned global warming again.
    Is evolution a red herring? Is his anti-global warming stance the main problem here? Because we know how fanatic the global warming crowd can get.

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  8. I think it's both. Evolution may be the bigger deal, due to it's significance as a religious/scientific issue and Avital's stand being very clearly motivated by religion rather than science.

    Incidentally, the anti-global warming crowd can be just as fanatical.

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  9. R. Natan,
    According to the Ministry website (http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Dovrut/actualya/madaanrashilemisradhahinuch.htm), the Chief Scientist's jobs are to manage research done by the ministry and use science to further the ministries' policies. Thus, he is not in charge of science education. That, I assume, as in other subjects, is the responsibility of the "Mafmarim" in charge of the different sciences (see list at http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Mazkirut_Pedagogit/Portal/AtareyHmafmarim/).

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  10. I would have fired him, too. His comments indicate that he does not accept the basic precepts of scientific investigation. It would be like hiring a Reform Rabbi as a Rosh Yeshiva at an Orthodox rabbinical school, or a holocaust denier as the head of an academic history department.

    The belief that all views are worthy of being aired is postmodernist nonsense.

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  11. The second link was cut off in my last post. The list may be found here:
    http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Mazkirut_Pedagogit/Portal/AtareyHmafmarim/

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  12. Perhaps a better question is how an aeronautical engineer with, apparently, little appreciation for the scientific enterprise, living in a country with so many qualified individuals, got appointed to such a position in the first place.

    That all said, I too have bones to pick with the scientific orthodoxy. I have long been troubled by the mathematics underlying mutation. As for global warming, not everybody counted as a skeptic should be numbered amongst the yahoos – unless your idea of a fundamentalist and scientifically illiterate yahoo includes such as Freeman Dyson.

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  13. "Incidentally, the anti-global warming crowd can be just as fanatical."

    I don't know if I would say *just* as fanatical. Consider the following ad from 10:10, called "No Pressure":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE3g0i2rz4w

    btw, I put up a post you might like, about Rav Yonasan Eibeshitz's rocket ship.

    kol tuv,
    josh

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  14. As someone who was greatly disillusioned by "facts" taught to him by haredi Jews about religion when he was younger, I try to be very careful about stating "facts."

    Since evolution cannot be tested in the laboratory in the same way that most other biological facts can, would it be so terrible for a science book to *not* state evolution as a fact but rather state something along the following lines:

    "The best explanation based on all the available evidence is that humans evolved from apes."

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  15. Mendy,

    There are legitimate arguments regarding the causes of global warming. That the earth has warmed, however, is a fact. Dyson himself says that some of it is probably caused by man. He is not one of the yahoos who deny empirical facts.

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  16. Pliny, you wrote: ""If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' brains, intellect, spirituality, etc are to be found with monkeys, "



    Um, monkeys do have brains but they are not human brains. And since evolutionary account does NOT claim that monkeys have human brains, a textbook would never say that, and if it did, it wouldn't be grounds to reject evolutionary account, but rather it would be grounds to correcting the typo in the textbook.

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  17. Charlie-
    the earth's climate is certainly, and has always, been changing. and while i am not as confident as you of its current direction, much more contributory to my current heartburn is the confident assertion that its cause is human activity, or its corollary that other human activity might actually change it "back". as i mentioned in a somewhat longer explanatory note to the blogmeister (which i'd be happy to copy you if you provided an email address), some of the prominent climate modelers used to work for me. of them it can be said "frequently wrong, but never in doubt". not much seems to have changed.

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  18. LAWFENCE KAPLAN SAYS:

    When he says he plans to review textbooks for what they say about evolution, then we are in trouble and he deserves to get fired.

    Mechy's quesiton as to how he got appointed to such a position in the first place is a good one, but I think we --alas -- all know the answer.

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  19. "The belief that all views are worthy of being aired is postmodernist nonsense."

    No, it is called Academic Freedom...

    " What he said in the interviews reflects on his goals in his job."

    What he said in the interview reflects what he said in the interview.
    What he does during the day reflects on his job.

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  20. ""The best explanation based on all the available evidence is that humans evolved from apes.""

    That is not accurate. What that should say is: "The best explanation based on all available evidence is that humans evolved differently than apes based on the same original species."


    If the ministry had not fired Dr. Avital, then they could have used that interview as a bargaining chip with charedi schools to authorize standardized text books across all schools in the country. However now, the Charedi institutions will just be more unwilling to cooperate with the ministry.

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  21. > The best explanation based on all the available evidence…

    Doesn’t that go without saying? The best explanation based on all the available evidence for what I’m experiencing right now is that I’m sitting in front of my computer, but if you asked me what I’m doing, I’d just say that I’m using the computer. I don’t need to explain that I’m assuming I’m not hallucinating and that it’s possible I’ll reevaluate my experience in light of new evidence.

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  22. Since evolution cannot be tested in the laboratory...

    Should history textbooks say "The best explanation based on all the available evidence is that George Washington was the first president of the United States"? You can't test that in a laboratory either.

    The only reason anyone could question common descent is a religious conviction that says otherwise. I could sympathize with such a conviction but I don't expect a science textbook to.

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  23. Rafi,

    That George Washington was the first president of the United States is a fact unless one posits that all contemporary newspapers, diaries etc. lied -- which everyone would agree is patently absurd.

    Most scientific facts (like how a plant grows) are likewise only controvertible if one posits crazy explanations -- halucinations, evil demons etc.

    Evolution, however, is different than most other facts found in a science book textbook. It simply is not true to say that it's a fact the same way the nature of a how a plant grows is a fact.

    (By the way, since you brought up history, I should mention that I have in recent months been troubled by how historical facts become so. But, be that as it may, I believe science has always been -- and should be -- stricter than history in requiring proof before something becomes a fact.)

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  24. The inclusion of "Global Warming" in the mix is a red herring. The only significant similarity between evolutionary theory and anthropogenic global warming theory is that they are both heavily political. But while only minor aspects of evolutionary theory are subject to serious scientific debate ( exact origins of life, exact genetic mechanism of evolution ) virtually every aspect of AGW theory is disputed by significant numbers of credible scientists and by common sense.

    There was a brilliant speech given by Michael Crichton, MD, PhD at the California Institute of Technology called, "Aliens Cause Global Warming" which examines the poisonous interaction ( to science ) between politics and science.

    A short version was published as an Op-Ed by the Wall Street Journal, but I would recommend reading the full version here.

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  25. For what it's worth (especially to StudentV), I must explain what I meant when I wrote: "If textbooks state explicitly that the origins* of human beings' brains, intellect, spirituality, etc are to be found with monkeys",

    (Note, I added the words "the origins of" in a correction, but R' Slifkin forgot to post it.)

    By "brains", I didn't mean the physical structure. I meant it in the same way you'd say about Einstein, "wow, that man has brains!"

    How one can say for sure that the origins of our intellect are certainly with animals, but not necessarily sure about our sense of spirituality is a curiosity to me. It's a fascinating differentiation, one I'd like to explore.

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  26. A previous commenter wrote: "Since evolution cannot be tested in the laboratory in the same way that most other biological facts can..."

    It absolutely CAN be demonstrated in the lab, but the experiments are long unless you use an organism with a short generation time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment

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  27. "It absolutely CAN be demonstrated in the lab, but the experiments are long unless you use an organism with a short generation time.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment"

    Does anybody believe that the E. coli in that experiment will evolve into an insect of some sort?

    That is what he means by not possible in a lab.
    Common ancestry is what would need to be proven in the lab.. i.e. one species evolving into another completely different species.

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  28. Jordan:
    The long term ecoli experiment actually raises some questions regarding human evolution.

    It is said that protohumans arose 2.5 million years ago, and Humans as we are today 200,000 years ago.

    Assuming 20 years per generation, 50,000 generations of mutations would be 1 million years.

    Do you think the changes exhibited by the ecoli reflects accurately the type of changes made in humanity between now and 1 million years ago?

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  29. Please let's not mix up common ancestry with evolutionary mechanisms!

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  30. "Please let's not mix up common ancestry with evolutionary mechanisms!"

    Rabbi Slifkin, please elaborate on this comment so that people are clear on the distinction you are making. Thanks.

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  31. Common ancestry means that all creatures (and humans) are related. This is accepted scientific fact and is what Dr. Avital was challenging. This discussion about the evolution of a single organism in a lab is not relevant. History is never proven in a lab.

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  32. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I think you might have just hit on the key point. If the truth of evolution is a historical fact (you yourself just called it history), then a good argument can be made that it either should be excluded from science textbooks or at least should be qualified.

    Science generally should -- and does -- require a higher a level of proof than history.

    Most of biology can be tested in a laboratory. Evolution is different. It's more in the nature of a historical fact (or theory). My contention is that in a science textbook, there should be a distinction in language in how the biological facts of how a plant grows is described and how the human species came to be is described.

    (In truth, I wish even historians would be more circumspect in their language, but that's a different story.)

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  33. R' Slifkin wrote: "The great Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rav Kook and Rav Herzog, would have been more suited to this role (of Israeli Education Ministry's chief scientist)! They didn't have any problems with evolution."

    Isn't there a big difference between denying evolution altogether and "having problems" with it? (Your first paragraph says Dr. Avital was fired for 'challenging' evolution, but later on you wrote that he 'denies' it.)

    How do we know that Ravs Kook and Herzog had no problems with evolution? Maybe they simply had much fewer problems (probably theological only anyway) with it than the rest of the leading rabbis. Yet vocalizing those problems might still have been enough to fire them from the job, too!

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  34. Amateur wrote: "Common ancestry is what would need to be proven in the lab.. i.e. one species evolving into another completely different species."

    How do you define "species", then?

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  35. Amateur writes: "It is said that protohumans arose 2.5 million years ago, and Humans as we are today 200,000 years ago."

    The Australopithecines date from about 4M years ago.

    "Assuming 20 years per generation, 50,000 generations of mutations would be 1 million years."

    20 yrs per generation is overly generous I think, if you consider the age of sexual maturity of modern humans and of other hominids.

    "Do you think the changes exhibited by the ecoli reflects accurately the type of changes made in humanity between now and 1 million years ago?"

    No, because the E. coli experiment is confined to a single and absolutely unchanging environment, with basically no selection pressure.

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  36. How do you define "species", then?

    The definition of different species as far as I understand it is that if they mate their offspring are either non-viable or sterile. Like mules for instance.

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  37. It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that.

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  38. "No, because the E. coli experiment is confined to a single and absolutely unchanging environment, with basically no selection pressure."

    If they were in an absolutely unchanging environment, then how did some of them evolve to feed off of a new food source that was introduced to only some of the specimen? Sounds like a changing environment to me.


    "It's actually quite a bit more complicated than that."

    Which really begs the question as to why that definition changed.
    It was certainly the definition of a species when I was in college.

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  39. "...then how did some of them evolve to feed off of a new food source that was introduced to only some of the specimen? Sounds like a changing environment to me..."

    I don't know how you conclude that the citrate was only introduced to some of the specimens. The citrate was in the growth medium of all the samples from the very beginning of the experiment.

    The researchers concluded based on genetic analysis that one of the colonies had undergone spontaneous mutations that enabled some cells to use citrate as a food source.

    Because citrate was present in the growth medium, proliferation of these citrate-eating cells was favoured and they came to dominate that colony. Selection at work.

    I am not a microbiologist, but apparently citrate uptake across the cell membrane is how Salmonella cultures are distinguished from E. coli. Salmonella is able to take up citrate, E. coli (normally) is not. So the appearance of this phenotype in E. coli was unusual to say the least. Almost as if a certain sub-group of humans became able to metabolize cellulose into glucose -- they would get a lot more energy out of any food consumed (especially plant matter).

    It took about 33,000 generations for this phenotype to appear. In the Lenski experiment that seems to have been about 18 years. In human terms that'd be about 500,000 years (assuming 16 years to child-bearing maturity).

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  40. Would anyone like to address my comment from October 8, 2010 11:02 AM? At least it's much more relevant to the topic of Dr. Avital's firing than where this discussion is currently digressing. I especially invite R' Slifkin to comment, for I was directly challenging him -- respectfully, of course.

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  41. R' Slifkin, I'm disappointed that you made an accusation against Dr. Avital, were challenged on it, and didn't back up your accusation.

    You called Avital an evolution-denier, yet he was fired for "challenging" evolution. When I asked which one was he, all you said (in the wisdom-of-rav-hirsch post comments section) is that you'd "wager that most evolution-challengers are really evolution-deniers who wish to appear more sophisticated." Was that the answer to the question?

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  42. You're right. I changed it to "challenge."

    But I still this it overwhelmingly likely that he privately denies it. People who challenge it are doing so because they regard the Bible - understood literally - as a competing claim. And of course God trumps scientists. So they wouldn't have doubts that God is correct!

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  43. I appreciate your reviewing that wording. And I tend to agree with the rest of your comment. Now, how about my October 8, 2010 11:02 AM comment about Ravs Kook and Herzog having no problems with evolution? I'm very interested in your opinion.

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  44. Of interest, Cross-Currents has an essay about Dr. Avital and dissent:

    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2010/10/31/academic-freedom-in-action/

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  45. "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."

    It appears that this sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Norman Lamm, in Faith and Doubt, p. 120:

    "In addition, the entire process of spontaneous generation envisaged is based solidly upon evolutionary theory. It is true that the overwhelming majority of scientists accept it. Yet--may the guardian angel of Science forgive my heresy!--not all questions have been answered. Not all the facts fit neatly into the evolutionary scheme. Some scientists do tend to accept creationism and catastrophism. Such a literature, skeptical of the official dogma, is spread about here and there. True, only a specialist may evaluate it properly. Yet it deserves to be mentioned and thought of in considering the chain of arguments necessary to conclude that extraterrestrial life does indeed exist."

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