Friday, February 26, 2010

Mah Nishtanah? Is Israel another Iran?

The chief scientist of Israel's Ministry of Education, Dr. Gavriel Avital, questioned the validity of the theory of evolution, and the reality of climate change, and seemingly opened the door for Israeli high school students to be taught pseudoscientific nonsense instead of or alongside mainstream science. The story appeared in Ha'aretz and Ynet, and was picked up by the National Center for Science Education, a watchdog group defending the teaching of evolution of which I am a member. The Education Minister, Gideon Saar, said on taking office that he wants to reverse the decline in Israeli students' performance in science and math. But the "chief scientist" that he appointed is not even a scientist but an engineer from the Technion with no background in science education, and it shows. Engineers apply the findings of science to improve our lives; as a rule they are not involved in the creation or dissemination of new knowledge. Practicing physicians, as opposed to physicians engaged in research, are thus engineers more than scientists, and indeed many Orthodox physicians deny evolution, mostly out of ignorance. Dr. Avital would perpetuate that ignorance in Israeli schoolchildren as well.
Here in the United States there was a celebrated "Monkey Trial" in 1925 where a teacher was tried for teaching evolution in defiance of a Tennessee law prohibiting it. It seems that we retry that case every decade or so, the latest iteration occurring in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005. Israel does not need to import this dark side of American history. It does not need to throw itself back into the Dark Ages and to make itself a laughingstock throughout the world. It has enough bad press as it is, most of it undeserved, and the intellectual opinion leaders on American campuses are already biased against it. This imbecility will only make a bad situation worse. Why should America support Israel's struggle with the nuclear ambitions of Iran when both states are benighted theocratic cesspools, they will ask. What is the difference?
Thankfully, there is a difference. Israel is a democracy, and as seen in an editorial in Ha'aretz, there already is a grounswell of opposition in the scientific community and the Israeli secular public to Avital's policy. The editorial, in fact, calls for Saar to let him go. I hope he does. Free speech and a free press are the bulwarks of an enlightened society against just this sort of obscurantism.
I wish this whole affair was a premature Purim shpiel, but unfortunately it is not. We don't know how the story will play out, but we can keep following it and make our opinions known. Israel will NOT turn into a theocratic cesspool as long as I have anything to do with it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some belief Israel is becoming a "rogue state" causing a rise in Muslim extremism:,1

Thu Mar 25, 05:16:00 PM EDT  

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