Framing Science

Over at Monkey Trials, Scott Hatfield suggests that in the next administration the new presidential science advisor should be a famous science popularizer such as EO Wilson or perhaps even better Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not only would these individuals have the breadth of knowledge to advise in multiple areas of science, but just as importantly, they could serve as leading public ambassadors for science.

Just one problem: 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.

Yet there is one person that scores high on all of these dimensions, plus one other major attribute. And that person is Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Project. Not only does Collins have top government experience but he is also a successful popularizer. And perhaps even more importantly, based on his background and writings, he would make a perfect science ambassador to religious America.

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    January 6, 2008

    What on earth has religion got to do with science?
    If pandering to the religious is your primary criteria then pardon Kent Hovind and give him the job.

  2. #2 mlf
    January 6, 2008

    Yes, this administration does have high regard for Collins because of his religious beliefs; he certainly would have an easier time getting that position than most other scientists. But you are also talking about the same person who believes in “theistic evolution” and considers ID a “thoughtful, well-argued perspective” Collins doesn’t check his superstitions at the door when he enters the lab, his superstitions influence his observations when he’s looking through the scope.

    TIME interview with Collins and Dawkins.

  3. #3 RPM
    January 6, 2008

    Francis Collins doesn’t understand evolutionary biology, and, therefore, doesn’t understand the current field of genomics — which makes him dangerously unqualified to be in charge of the NHGRI. I’m not sure if you’d find a lot of support amongst geneticists for the nomination of Francis Collins as science advisor — and it’s bad news if people in your own field wouldn’t want to see you obtain such a role.

  4. #4 J. J. Ramsey
    January 6, 2008

    RPM: “Francis Collins doesn’t understand evolutionary biology”

    I can think of a reason or two not to make him science advisor, since he has attempted to say that we still need God to explain morality, which could hamper research into physical and psychiatric bases of morality, but what reasons do you have for the claim that he doesn’t understand evolutionary biology?

  5. #5 Mark F.
    January 6, 2008

    Although I tend to agree with you on your points about not dismissing the opinions of theists outright in matters related to science policy, I have to disagree with the idea that Collins should be the next science advisory in an effort to throw religious people a bone. It smacks of appeasement. I would bet that the average person in America could care less whether or not the science adviser is religious or not. The religious far right would, but they are not the average American. What the average American (that even cares about such matters) would want in a science advisor is credibility, competence, knowledge and the ablility to present and explain science policy in an accessible manner.

  6. #6 caynazzo
    January 6, 2008

    Having met Collins, I’d say he’s personable, a champ of government sponsored science, and, never mind RPM, he knows his molecular biology. However, like a functioning alcoholic, a man that drunk on his own superstition will eventually embarrass the US in such a public position.
    If only Sagan were still around…

  7. #7 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2008

    Let’s see if Nisbet is censoring content or just tone. I’ll say again, nobody who would supposedly be appeased by this choice actually knows or cares anything about presidential science advisers. This is a non-solution to a non-problem.

  8. #8 Matthew C. Nisbet
    January 6, 2008

    Steve,
    As you can see, I reserve the right to apply the comment policy posted in the left hand side-bar.

    –Matt

  9. #9 Steve LaBonne
    January 6, 2008

    Bully for you.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 6, 2008

    Scott Hatfield’s clever “Endorsement for Francis Collins as Pres. Science Advisor” would play out differently under Democratic or Republican administrations, in my humble opinion.

    Several of the current Republican presidential candidates, most notably Iowa caucus winner Huckabee, have been openly rejecting Evolution for some months. Ron Paul recently joined that bandwagon.

    To the best of my knowledge, none of the current Democratic presidential candidates have been openly rejecting Evolution.

    Similarly, the endorsement would have hypothetically played out differently under pre- or post-Reagan administrations.

    Originally, since Truman or Eisenhower (de facto or de jure) the Science Advisor was a bottom-up communicator, gathering opinions and recommendations from the scientific and engineering communities and synthesizing them to communications to the White House.

    Then, disasterously, the Science Advisor was by imperial edict transmuted to a top-down communicator, gathering opinions and recommendations from the anti-Science White House, and relaying them to the scientific and engineering communities.

    I’ve seen Francis Collins do well on televised panel discussions, and I’ve read some of his writings.

    As evangelicals go, he is one of the foremost American scientists.

    The current President of ther American Astronomical Society is my endorsement. He works for the Vatican Observatory, but has proven both a first rate scientists, administrator, and book author.

    I speak with admiration of Brother Guy Consolmagno, Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory.

    But would Baptists or Pentacostal or Mormon evangelicals listen with sufficient respect, in either case, to a Catholic?

    The issue of Catholicism in the White House seems to me to have been definitively answered by JFK.

    Jimmy Carter was not a “nuclear physicist” as he claimed, but had taken Nuclear Engineering, had written a Command Thesis at Naval Postgraduate School, which had Fourier Transforms and/or Laplace Transforms, was a protege of Rickover (father of the nuclear Navy), and was very active as a Baptist.

    The issue of Mormonism in the White House has been rather side-stepped by Romney, and remains an open question.

    But Your Mileage May Vary.

  11. #11 SLC
    January 6, 2008

    How about Lawrence Krauss as science adviser in a Democratic administration. Although he is an astrophysicist, he is a strong supporter of the theory of evolution and its concomitant place in the high school classroom and has campaigned vigorously against the introduction of ID there. In pursuit of good science teaching, he has been extremely active in political campaigning in Ohio and, although an agnostic, is not antagonistic to religion (he is not in the Dawkins camp).

  12. #12 Sigmund
    January 6, 2008

    Does the advisor even need to be a US citizen?
    Good science is not nation specific after all. If you can have an Austrian as governor of California then why not a British scientist as Presidential science advisor?
    Lets think, an eminent British scientist, say for instance, a Professor at Oxford. Perhaps someone that has a number of years experience lobbying for the public understanding of science. Maybe someone who is a good writer and an international household name?
    Perhaps even someone who could also be the perfect ambassador to non-religious Americans.
    Come on Matthew, lobby for Richard, you know it makes sense!

  13. #13 lylebot
    January 6, 2008

    Why Francis Collins? Democrats should take any opportunity to wean people off this ridiculous idea that religion and science should be reconciled. Appoint a vocal atheist. If that’s too much controversy, appoint a non-vocal atheist. If you want to avoid controversy altogether, appoint someone who is a scientist and only a scientist, someone who won’t talk about religion at all. But appointing a deeply religious scientist is the worst possible option. It says we’re always going to be looking backwards, trying to hold on to those ultra-conservative religionists that both parties should’ve left behind long ago. It says those people will always have a say, when we should be striving for a completely secular society. Pandering to the religious is not going to help anyone.

  14. #14 RPM
    January 6, 2008

    Having met Collins, I’d say he’s personable, a champ of government sponsored science, and, never mind RPM, he knows his molecular biology.

    I never said he doesn’t understand molecular biology. He has a poor understanding of evolutionary biology. This particular comment supports my point:

    I can think of a reason or two not to make him science advisor, since he has attempted to say that we still need God to explain morality, which could hamper research into physical and psychiatric bases of morality, but what reasons do you have for the claim that he doesn’t understand evolutionary biology?

    He makes sweeping claims about, for example, altruism (or morality) that take a god of the gaps position. In fact, he misrepresents what we know about the evolution of altruism, artificially increasing the gap in our knowledge.

  15. #15 Shalini
    January 6, 2008

    I never knew that one of the functions of a science adviser is to appease the religious.

  16. #16 Laelaps
    January 6, 2008

    I don’t know if I’d call Collins a good popularizer; I think he comes off as a bit stiff and he’s never really been able to hold my attention in print or otherwise (your mileage may vary). I’m not so sure any one scientist could do the job of being a good science advisor, either, especially given that many important scientific issues involve a variety of scientific disciplines (i.e. Collins wouldn’t be on my list of people to advise the president about global climate change).

  17. #17 Moridin
    January 7, 2008

    I completely agree with the thesis of this post. He is especially useful since he is a prominent scientist and an evangelical Christian who accepts evolution and knows what science is about. He would be an excellent link between science and the public / the President.

    I’m a recent, eh, convert, if you like, to the framing science way of thinking.

  18. #18 Leni
    January 7, 2008

    What about Ken Miller?

  19. #19 Philboid
    January 7, 2008

    Collins, a Salon interview:

    After I had struggled with this for a couple of years, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.

    Collins might be able to talk to religious folk because he speaks their language, but what is going to do for the scientific community? Perhaps he should be appoiunted High Priest.

  20. #20 Richard
    January 7, 2008

    I guess I’m confused about the role of presidential science advisor. Is the job to advise the president on scientific issues, or is it to communicate science to scientifically illiterate Americans? If the job is to advise the president on science policy, what on earth does ones religious faith have to do with it? If the job were called Chief Science Popularizer, then I could understand the argument for choosing a believer, given the state of discourse in the U.S.

  21. #21 Deb
    January 7, 2008

    Have any of you people who are critical of Francis Collins actually read his book?!!!?
    If not, you should. then you would realize that he does believe in evolution and that his religious background will not influence any scientific decisions.
    It has been estimated that 30% of all Physicists are similarly religious.
    Have we seen any problems with that?
    Also, there are plenty of life scientists out there who have similar beliefs and do quality science.
    Don’t criticize unleses you know what you are talking about.

  22. #22 RPM
    January 7, 2008

    If not, you should. then you would realize that he does believe in evolution and that his religious background will not influence any scientific decisions.

    It’s not that he doesn’t believe in evolution — it’s that he doesn’t understand evolution. Besides, anyone who “believes” in evolution doesn’t really understand evolution. Collins’ public comments show that he doesn’t understand the research funded by the institute he directs. This is independent of his religious beliefs.

  23. #23 Andy
    January 7, 2008

    I strongly disagree that Francis Collins would make a good presidential scientific advisor and a ambassador for science. Rather, he is an ambassador for religion. I have not heard a peep from him in defense of evolution against the creationist nonsense.

    Collins goes further than neutral silence. Here is a quote from a 2005 New York Times article:

    “You will never understand what it means to be a human being through naturalistic observation. You won’t understand why you are here and what the meaning is. Science has no power to address these questions – and are they not the most important questions we ask ourselves?”

    I strongly disagree, and I would bet that the vast majority of biologists whose judgment is not clouded by unfounded myths would agree with me: thus far, evolution provides the only rational explanation for why we are here and what makes us human. Everything else consists of myths without any evidence.

  24. #24 Leni
    January 7, 2008

    Richard wrote:

    I guess I’m confused about the role of presidential science advisor. Is the job to advise the president on scientific issues, or is it to communicate science to scientifically illiterate Americans?

    Insofar as the President is a scientifically illiterate American, I’d say both ;)

    More seriously, why couldn’t it be? The Surgeon General’s position is very much both a public spokeperson and an advisor, isn’t it?

  25. #25 techne
    January 7, 2008

    Francis Collins? Doesn’t understand evolutionary biology?? Have you heard of the HapMap? Don’t judge a prominent scientist’s scientific acumen from a book tour interview/debate in Time. However woo-woo his book may be, he knows his shit and he knows how to frame it for any audience.

    From here (NIH intramural) it looked like he was angling for head of NIH. I guess we are sorta provincial.

  26. #26 Caledonian
    January 7, 2008

    Have you heard of the HapMap? Don’t judge a prominent scientist’s scientific acumen from a book tour interview/debate in Time.

    In what way did he actually contribute to the HG project? Don’t judge a scientist’s acumen by looking at his resume. Look at his work.

  27. #27 Shalini
    January 7, 2008

    Have any of you people who are critical of Francis Collins actually read his book?!!!?

    Yes, I suffered through it.

  28. #28 Joanne
    January 7, 2008

    This whole discussion appears moot…what makes anyone think that in the next administration that the religous right will need to be appeased? Or even if they are still somewhat relevant, whether anyone cares to appease them? After Iowa, where 2+X as many folks showed up for the Dem caucuses, it increasingly looks like there will be a Dem sweep. Given that the right never had any compulsions to “appease” the left when they had power, what makes anyone think the left will appease the right?

  29. #29 Dr. B
    January 7, 2008

    While I will agree that Collins has the government experience, I am not sure he is a qualified popularizer, and he certainly would not present opinions widely accepted by the genomics community. I would actually argue that his regilious beliefs should make him an undesirable candidate as a science advisor…

  30. #30 Grant M. Wood
    January 7, 2008

    The religious bigots are out in force again. You people have become the liberals new protected hate group. Every time I see closed-minded comments like these I will remind you of exactly what your philosphy is – Arrogance in Ignorance!

  31. #31 Peter
    January 7, 2008

    This post is mind-numbing. Collins made a name, not by popularizing genetics, biology, or evolution, but by playing the G-O-D card to make himself into a religiously acceptable scientist. What was important in the book:
    1. Jesus loves us.
    2. I was saved by Jesus.
    3. I had a conversion experience on the dewy grass in front of three waterfalls after years of hard work in medicine.
    4. The love of Jesus is found in DNA.

    Sorry. That’s shit and religious apologetics. No offense, if you want to appease people with a penchant for wingnut nonsense, just nominate Mike Behe and get it over with. No Francis Collins.

    I have two names:
    Neil de Grasse Tyson
    Lawrence Krauss

  32. #32 caynazzo
    January 7, 2008

    To counter Caledonian’s willful spread of disinformation, Francis Collins directs the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium and the National Human Genome Research Institute (a stated goal being the human HapMap), and helped complete–as in he logged hours at the bench–an open-access draft of the human genome just behind Venter.

  33. #33 mlf
    January 8, 2008

    Matthew,

    Thus far the vast majority of responses to your post have been against your proposition. Have you changed your mind at all now that you’ve read them, or how else would you defend Collins against the reasons that have been given so far to avoid him for this position?

  34. #34 Caledonian
    January 8, 2008

    To counter Caledonian’s willful spread of disinformation

    Disinformation? I asked a question, and made an assertion about how scientists should be evaluated.

    What disinformation?

  35. #35 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    January 8, 2008

    And perhaps even more importantly, based on his background and writings, he would make a perfect science ambassador to religious America.

    I guess maybe we should appoint someone who is sympathetic to the anti-vaxers and “HIV causes AIDs” deniers too? I see no reason that someone who is supposed to advise on what is going on with good science should have to pander to those who seek to destroy it.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2008

    mlf: “But you are also talking about the same person who believes in ‘theistic evolution’ and considers ID a ‘thoughtful, well-argued perspective'”

    Lovely quote mine you have there, mlf. Let’s take a closer look at what Collins actually said:

    Dr. COLLINS: Intelligent design, while a thoughtful, well-argued perspective, I do not think is taking us to the Promised Land. I think this will be an argument which ultimately will not do damage to science; it will do damage to faith. The problem is the examples that intelligent design puts forward we are learning a lot about. And the notion that those are examples of irreducible complexity is showing serious cracks.

  37. #37 kevin
    January 8, 2008

    mlf: “But you are also talking about the same person who believes in ‘theistic evolution’ and considers ID a ‘thoughtful, well-argued perspective'”

    J.J.: “Lovely quote mine you have there, mlf. Let’s take a closer look at what Collins actually said..”

    Looks to me like mlf got it about right. Collins says Intelligent design is “a thoughtful, well-argued perspective”. He goes on to explain that it won’t damage science, but will damage faith instead. And he seems to not think that this (the failure to damage science? or the damaging of faith?) is bad.

    J.J.’s full quote certainly makes Collins look like he’s on the creationists side…

  38. #38 Inoculated Mind
    January 8, 2008

    I wrote about this topic a while back. You know who I think knows plenty about science, and a lot about science policy? And might make the role of science advisor publicly prominent.

    http://www.inoculatedmind.com/2007/06/14/the-temptation/

    Ask most people who Francis Collins is and they’ll look at you funny.

  39. #39 mlf
    January 8, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    It isn’t a quote mine when I (1) link the source, and (2) do not paste the rest of the quote, because I agree with it. I agree with the second and third sentence that Collins wrote in that paragraph; though he should have gone farther in the third. It’s the words I quoted that should send up red flags. The masterminds of ID do not display a ‘thoughtful, well-argued perspective.” Maybe he get’s a pass at this pandering though because he didn’t include the words “appropriately educated” and “honest” beforehand…

  40. #40 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2008

    mlf: “It isn’t a quote mine when I (1) link the source, and (2) do not paste the rest of the quote, because I agree with it.”

    Sorry, but it’s still a quote mine since by leaving out what you did, you give the impression that Collins agrees with the IDers, when he clearly thinks that their arguments ultimately fail.

  41. #41 mlf
    January 8, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey,

    If I thought Collins agreed with ID’ers I would have said so (and provided evidence). But I don’t think so, so I didn’t. I think he’s pandering to those sympathetic of ID’ers when he uses the words I quoted above.

  42. #42 Ichthyic
    January 8, 2008

    this entire thread misses the point.

    in the off-hand chance that Huckleberry actually gains the presidency, it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference WHO he picks as science adviser.

    we will all be burned by a thousand degrees of stupid, no matter what.

    the entire premise of the OP is flawed, if we are going to measure the successful communication of science by who someone like Huckleberry would, or should, pick.

    btw, for those who question whether critics of Collins have read his book or not, all those I am familar with in this thread have not only read the relevant passages in his book, we BECAME critics directly BECAUSE of those passages in his book.

    the man is hugely ignorant of entire fields of scientific endeavor.

  43. #43 Ichthyic
    January 8, 2008

    Collins:

    The problem is the examples that intelligent design puts forward we are learning a lot about. And the notion that those are examples of irreducible complexity is showing serious cracks.

    IOW, Collins chides the IDiots for making an argumentum ad ignorantiam, but has no problem doing the exact same thing himself when he expounds on the evolution of behavior.

    oops.

  44. #44 DLM
    January 8, 2008

    A point that most have missed in this discussion is that Francis Collins has the capacity to bring the religious community from flat-earth orthodoxy to an understanding of evolution as a mechanism of creation rather than alternative to it.

  45. #45 J. J. Ramsey
    January 8, 2008

    Ichthyic: “in the off-hand chance that Huckleberry actually gains the presidency, it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference WHO he picks as science adviser.”

    What makes you think that Huckabee has anything to do with this discussion?

    mlf: “If I thought Collins agreed with ID’ers I would have said so (and provided evidence). But I don’t think so, so I didn’t.”

    Collins damned the IDers with not-so-faint praise. You presented a distorted picture by quoting the praise without the damning.

  46. #46 Ichthyic
    January 8, 2008

    Francis Collins has the capacity to bring the religious community from flat-earth orthodoxy to an understanding of evolution as a mechanism of creation rather than alternative to it

    no, he doesn’t. have you ever debated a real YEC?

    besides which, don’t we then have the ever present issue of defending a strategy of lying to the credulous just in order to make them less annoying?

    Is that what we will call “compromise”?

    I’m surprised to find so many that apparently feel quite comfortable with that, and not just here, btw:

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2008/01/noma-in-ohio-re.html

  47. #47 Scott Hatfield, OM
    January 8, 2008

    MATT: Whoa!

    I appreciate being mentioned on your blog, but if you check my original post, you will see that I was skeptical about the merits of science popularizers, as when I wrote:

    “Independent, thoughtful men and women who are career scientists or better-known for science popularization are probably not the best choice, because they will have already said or written things which are impolitic or easily misrepresented….what you need is someone who has achieved in science, but who switched to bureaucracy and who has some understanding of the weight lifting and making nice-nice that gets science funded in the first place.”

    I went on to mention Francis Collins, who definitely qualifies under the latter description. However, many of my skeptical friends don’t know Collins from his actual body of work in gummint, but as an evangelical Christian who makes poor arguments about evolutionary biology. Among such, he no doubt fits the description of someone how has ‘written something impolitic or easily misrepresented.’ Obviously, I don’t agree, Collins would make a reasonably good choice.

    But my post didn’t single Collins out as the best choice, necessarily, nor did I view his personal faith as especially qualifying him for service. It would be misleading to characterize my post as such, or to identify my views as the same as yours, Matt, and I want to make sure people know that. Thanks for the mention all the same.

    While I’m on the topic, I’d like to remark that the PSA’s main job should be to advise the President and defend the interests of the scientific community, not explain science to the general public or to advance a particular partisan agenda. I don’t know why so many commenting seem to think otherwise.

  48. #48 mlf
    January 9, 2008

    J. J. Ramsey,

    ID’ers are wrong BECAUSE (among other things) they do NOT have a “thoughtful, well-argued perspective.” My point is that Collins was simply trying very hard not to alienate those who may be sympathetic towards ID (namely, moderate Christians, i.e. most of America). Collins’ knows that Americans have an easier time forgiving those who turn out to be wrong if they were honest from the start, but not those who were dishonest from the start. Anyone who has followed the ID movement over the years and can still make them sound like honest people just trying to find the truth is either being willfully dishonest or hasn’t actually been paying attention.

  49. #49 J. J. Ramsey
    January 10, 2008

    mlf: “Collins’ knows that Americans have an easier time forgiving those who turn out to be wrong if they were honest from the start, but not those who were dishonest from the start.”

    I’m not so sure that the IDers were dishonest from the start, at least not about the science. Mistaken about the science, even to the point of incompetence, most certainly. Dishonesty seems to be more a byproduct of desperation as it became clearer that the IDers were on the wrong side of the argument. Now when it comes to the politics, I’d say that the IDers were less than honest from the get-go, since ID was intended to bypass the rulings barring creationism from schools and sneak religion into the classroom. However, at least American evangelicals would be more forgiving of that, since the IDers were working around legal barriers that evangelicals didn’t consider legitimate in the first place.

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