Effect Measure

In the view of New Scientist journalist Amanda Gefter, The Discovery Institute, high priests of Creationism as an allegedly rational enterprise, aren’t really worried about Richard Dawkins. Presumably he’s just a great fund raising device for them. The one who really scares the BeJesus out of them is biologist Francis Collins, the evangelical Christian rumored to be Obama’s choice as next Director of NIH:

The Discovery Institute – the Seattle-based headquarters of the intelligent design movement – has just launched a new website, Faith and Evolution, which asks, can one be a Christian and accept evolution? The answer, as far as the Discovery Institute is concerned, is a resounding: No.

The new website appears to be a response to the recent launch of the BioLogos Foundation, the brainchild of geneticist Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and rumoured Obama appointee-to-be for head of the National Institutes of Health. Along with “a team of scientists who believe in God” and some cash from the Templeton Foundation, Collins, an evangelical Christian who is also a staunch proponent of evolution, is on a crusade to convince believers that faith and science need not be at odds. He is promoting “theistic evolution” – the belief that God (the prayer-listening, proactive, personal God of Christianity) chose to create life by way of evolution. (Amanda Gefter, New Scientist)

Gefter believes the Collins alternative has forced The Discovery Institute to admit their real motive is religious, not scientific. And she may be right. She’s followed this closely for some time and interviewed many of the main figures, including last year’s winner of The Templeton Prize, given for “Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.” In a review of a book debunking the kind of “quantum spirituality” espoused by Collins she showed herself appropriately skeptical and her take on The Discovery Institute’s new tack is not a defense of Collin’s brand of fuzzy thinking. She almost sounds amused:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

Still, Gefter makes it clear she is as concerned as the creationists about the siren chant of the Collins crowd. And the idea that Francis Collins is likely the next head of NIH sends chills down the spine of some science bloggers. But I’m not one of them. The subject came up a few nights ago during a dinner with some colleagues. These were highly accomplished senior scientists, all successful in competing for millions of dollars of NIH grants over many years (which is how we found ourselves at dinner together). Between us we knew most of the recent NIH Directors and many individual Institute directors. I doubt there was a Believer in the bunch. Yet most of us weren’t deeply worried about the possibility of a Collins regime at NIH. We’ve all watched him for a long time and it hasn’t seemed to any of us his religious views were anything but a personal peccadillo, like an enthusiasm for caving or bicycling. That’s not to say we thought his religious views were benign. Promoting superstition is not something any of us thought was a virtue. But judging from past performance, what he does or promotes in his off hours isn’t likely to affect NIH policy, which is a separate issue. To the extent his status as NIH Director lends credence to his religious views, this is an issue for science. But it is likely to be an even bigger issue for creationists.

Which is why, I suppose, The Discovery Institute is having a spiritual hernia.


  1. #1 Otto
    May 31, 2009

    “Promoting superstition is not something any of us thought was a virtue.”

    Purely as a rhetorical question, why the perjorative “superstition” rather than the happily neutral “supernaturalism”? It’s not as though an epiphenomal theory of mind really gets monist materialism off the hook in the first place.

  2. #2 Otto
    May 31, 2009

    “Epiphenomenal,” sorry.

  3. #3 Orac
    May 31, 2009

    I’m with you on this one, revere. The reaction to the news that Francis Collins is likely to be the nominee for NIH Director has been ridiculously overblown around certain parts of the science blogosphere, to the point where I was just left shaking my head, especially since, as you point out, his appointment is likely to be more of a headache for creationists trying to claim that religion and evolution are completely incompatible. Of course, he’s also a headache for atheists who also claim that religion and science are incompatible.

  4. #4 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 31, 2009

    If he can manage to keep his absurd religious wackaloonery out of the office, then I don’t see this as that big a problem. It is tempting to argue–as some have done–that this is just a continuation of the Bush regime penchant for putting untrained deranged religious fuckwits in charge of administrative agencies that actually have to accomplish real shit in the real world and then watching them flame out in explosions of gross dereliction of duty. However, Collins has already proven that he somehow manages to be an extremely effective scientific administrator even though he apparently lives in a world of bizarre fantasy.

  5. #5 Russell
    May 31, 2009

    “Superstition” is accurate, where “supernatural” is poorly defined. The problem with religion, from a rational perspective, is its method, not its content.

  6. #6 Otto
    May 31, 2009

    Neither superstition nor supernaturalism excludes the scientific method per se.

  7. #7 Leah Daziens
    May 31, 2009

    Whenever Creationism and Evolution come up, I am instantly reminded of a very pivotal moment in December 1981, which can be summed up thus: the devil & the dinosaur bones. I was in junior high at North Little Rock Jr. High School, and my best friend was attending the Arkansas Creationism trial ,as research for her big project on Creationism vs. Evolution. We were at a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) Lock-In, and I guess the adult leader(s) brought up the trial and were expressing their belief in Creationism. Anyway, my friend asked, “Well, what about all of the fossils?” Without missing a beat, we got the answer, “The devil planted them dinosaur bones”. My friend & I just looked at each other in speechless disbelief. I had always assumed that these people were uniquely ignorant and insane; however, this belief must be fairly widespread as there is a T-Shirt . I presume that these are all in jest. However, the recent revelation that conservative Ohio State undergrads “were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said” , makes me wonder how many creationists are marching around proudly in these T-shirts.

    Personally, I don’t think that spirituality and science are incompatible, and it’s sad when individuals &/or religions are too rigid and inflexible to embrace the known, the unknown, and intellectual curiosity.

  8. #8 Mike the Mad Biologist
    May 31, 2009


    I agree. Collins has demonstrated an ability in the past to get NIH program officers to take risks. NIH desperately needs that, because right now, they are so risk-averse, it’s hurting the uality of the science that gets funded.

  9. #9 Sigmund
    June 1, 2009

    Its amazing how some sciencebloggers seem completely unable to separate the scientific aspects of Collins from his personal religious beliefs. I’ve argued against this frankly bigoted viewpoint on several threads over the past week. Bloggers who claim to be champions of rationality react with disgust when asked to show evidence that Collins’ religiosity has affected his day to day management abilities in the past.
    It doesn’t, however, stop me from joking about his supernatural views –
    – but when talking seriously about his abilities there is no getting around the fact that he is a suitable candidate for the job.