Matt Nisbet thinks that Francis Collins should be the next presidential science advisor. He does this after rejecting excellent popularizes of science, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and E.O. Wilson, on the following grounds:
Most science popularizers such as Wilson or Tyson don’t have the years of government experience to understand the machinations of Federal science policy. Moreover, they have a paper trail of strong opinions on issues that might make appointment politically tough.
I’m not sure what exactly those issues upon which they have strong opinions are. Is it that they’re both atheists? If so, they are amongst the least militant/evangelical/fundamentalist/new/[insert favorite pejorative] atheists amongst visible atheist scientists. Heck, Wilson wrote a book reaching out to evangelicals to help with conservation. And Tyson took what I would describe as a fairly moderate position at Beyond Belief in questioning Richard Dawkins’ approach in helping the public understand science.
I think it’s reasonable to question Wilson’s and Tyson’s experience in working on the policy side of science, however the science advisor makes no policy decisions. If you think he should have more of a policy role, then it’s appropriate to request someone with policy experience. But I don’t think the policy experience is as important as experience explaining science to the general public — Wilson and Tyson are two of the best at that, and there are other options.
Now, assume we say that the science advisor should have policy experience. Does this make Francis Collins a viable candidate? I argue NO. Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The importance of biology in the near future of science is undeniable, so a biologist would be a good choice (as would a chemist or physicist). He is also an Evangelical Christian who has made his beliefs well known in a book and various magazine articles. Nisbet argues that Collins’ religious faith would allow him to reach to a large portion of America (i.e., the religious nutjobs that currently takes anti-science positions).
I think Collins has no academic credibility. What I mean by that is that Collins is unqualified for the position he currently holds. This brings into question using his position as head of the NHGRI as support for appointing him to science advisor. The reason Collins is unqualified for his current position is his public displays of ignorance regarding evolutionary biology. This is important in respect to NHGRI because so much of genomics research relies heavily on evolutionary theory.
Here are a few examples of Collins displaying his ignorance:
- He thinks humans have stopped evolving. The linked post is from June 2006. In the year and half since that post even more evidence has been revealed that goes against Collins’ belief.
- He thinks that the entire human genome is functional, an absolutely absurd idea.
- He wrote heavily about what he calls “Moral Law” in his book. He believes that current research cannot explain human morality, therefore goddidit. This is a god of the gaps argument. However, in making his argument, he disregarded large swaths of research on the evolution of altruism, thereby artificially increasing the gaps. This is brought up in a review of Collins’ book and this Scientific American article (I quoted the relevant part here).
The first two bullets reveal that he does not understand the material covered within the Institute he directs. The third point indicates he’s willing to go outside his ken and, without proper research, misrepresent what is known about a particular aspect of biology.
Please note, I’m not arguing against Collins as science advisor because of his religious beliefs. Rather, I’m pointing out that (a) he shouldn’t have the position he currently has, and (b) he does not have the appropriate understanding of science expected of a science advisor. Collins allows his non-evidence-based belief system to determine what aspects of our scientific knowledge he is willing to accept (rather than the evidence, as science should be done). This goes beyond what Ken Miller does — additionally, Miller is a much better popularizer of science than Collins.
So, if you want a science advisor with policy experience, pick someone other than Francis Collins. And don’t choose the person because of their religious beliefs (either religious or atheist). Choose him or her because they are a well respected scientist with experience talking about science to non-scientists.