Francis Collins, doofus for the Lord

I just watched the Francis Collins/Charlie Rose interview (it starts at about 35 minutes on that clip), and although I struggled manfully to appreciate the fellow’s accomplishments and status in science, I failed. All I could see is that he was illogical, irrational, and downright goofy—all the symptoms of a severe affliction with a bad case of religion. That video ought to be a warning to scientists: even a prestigious scientist can suffer Christian mind-rot.

He started by telling us about his godless youth, when atheism meant he “wasn’t responsible to anyone but me.” Barely a few minutes into the interview, and he’d already said something stupid: no, that’s not what atheism means. Atheists are responsible members of their community, and care just as much for others as the most devout believers. He might have been shallow and selfish, but that does not mean that all atheists are.

Then we got his conversion story. He was doing medical work in the South, and he experienced first-hand that “good North Carolina people were afflicted with terrible diseases that they’d done nothing to bring down upon themselves,” and they were dying, and they were all religious, and these good people faced death with serenity and courage. Meanwhile, all the dying atheists were running around in circles, screaming for their mommies, crapping their pants and making embarrassments of themselves.

Oh, wait…that last bit? He didn’t say it. He must have been thinking it, though, because otherwise why would the calm acceptance of dying Christians impress him at all? I suspect that dying atheists are just as dignified as dying Christians, myself—finding strength in the face of despair is something people do, not just members of specific cults, so Collins drew an invalid conclusion by associating that strength with their religion. Since they were all North Carolinians, he might just as legitimately have concluded that South Carolinians, Canadians, and Australians must all also lack that special spark that coming from that particular state confers.

From that flawed emotional argument, he then claims to have considered faith rationally, from the perspective of a scientist, and evaluated the evidence, and come to the conclusion that there is a god. What evidence, you might ask? He doesn’t give any. He says he read Mere Christianity, that glib and extraordinarily shallow bit of hokum from C.S. Lewis. He does this several times in the interview, telling us that science and evidence led him to his faith, but when push comes to shove, he just dangles some pathetic bit of irrelevant nonsense in front of us and runs away from any evidence.

For instance, another of his rationales is that evolution doesn’t explain where “moral law” comes from, which he claims is universal. He seems to think it requires some supernatural agent to infuse us with altruism, because otherwise there is no explanation for why we would be kind to strangers. I think, though, that that kindness to strangers is not universal at all, but more a function of a general prosperity that allows us to be generous, and a generalized empathy and social sense of reciprocity. For all of his defense of evolution, when he claims that complex behaviors with indirect or accidental properties cannot arise from it, he is perpetuating a simple-minded creationist caricature of how evolution works.

His arguments do not get any better as the interview goes on. They get worse.

He claims that “faith is the most rational of all choices,” and gives a peculiar demonstration that I’ll paraphrase. Imagine a table top represents the sum of all human knowledge. Now mark off the part that represents what you know—it would be a tiny circle. Now ask, where is the knowledge of the existence of god. Isn’t it irrational to assume that it falls within your tiny circle, when there is so much you don’t know?

This isn’t just an argument from ignorance, it’s an argument for ignorance. You can argue for anything with that excuse: Bigfoot, UFOs, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Jesus, green bug-eyed Martians, that PZ Myers has a completely different genome from what Francis Collins sequenced. What he is doing is playing a disingenuous game, pushing his god question off into the gaps in what we know, and at the same time implying that this all-powerful cosmic being that created and maintains the universe does not in any way impinge on our teeny-tiny circle of knowledge. If it’s not dishonest, it’s stupid.

Then, in his next breath, he completely undercuts his own argument. He claims that within our circle of knowledge is evidence of the existence of some supernatural being. So, he wants to argue away the atheists by saying they can’t know, and the evidence is out there somewhere…just not in our circle. At the same time, though, he says that that knowledge is here in our circle, and that’s why he believes. Again, though, he doesn’t say what this evidence is. He’s a scientist, trust him.

Rose gently hammered on him a little bit, showing a clip of a prior interview with Richard Dawkins in which he protests that faith is a false shortcut that teaches people, and especially children, to suspend their facilities for critical thinking and believe without evidence. Once again, Collins does his patented two-faced double back-flip. He agrees with Dawkins that we should teach people to seek the evidence, explains vaguely that his faith is supported by the evidence, and then turns around and argues that science is incomplete and only finds evidence of natural phenomena, but cannot detect the supernatural. In other words, evidence is great, and he has evidence, only he can’t show it to us, and it’s not scientific evidence—it’s not the same kind of thing Dawkins was talking about at all.

I always wonder, what kind of evidence is not scientific? There’s nothing magical about the word “scientific”—it just means testable, weighable, observable evidence that has some empirical and logical weight, you know. By saying his evidence isn’t scientific, he’s really admitting that he’s got no evidence at all.

The subtitle for his new book is “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” Truth in advertising ought to compel him to admit that his definition of “evidence” is something peculiar and non-standard, and that since he is saying it is removed from scientific evaluation, his credentials as a scientist are utterly meaningless in this context.

I’m going to have to read that awful book sometime, and I’m not looking forward to it. It sounds like it’s going to be equivalent to Ann Coulter’s crap, with the hate stripped out but the same vacuous airheaded twaddle inside.


  1. #1 Sastra
    July 27, 2006

    squeaky wrote:

    Working with scientists who could present Evolution to Christians as something beautiful to be accepted and cherished is a proactive step that you refuse to even consider.

    windy replied:

    Then they should write books about how “A believer presents evidence for science”, not the other way around.

    Windy hits it straight on. Francis Collins’ book is not “How Christians Can Figure Out How to Accept Evolution Just Fine.” If that were all it were, PZ wouldn’t be so ticked (though even then it’s perfectly legitimate to critique bad arguments.)

    Collins’ book appears to be apologetics masquerading as science, but pulling out and getting coy as soon as any REAL scientific argument would normally be called for. If he is approaching God as if it were a science theory, then he has to do better than handing out trite religious bromides about how having faith makes you nicer or morals come from God or the infamous “anything is possible.”

    No, since he’s trading on being a scientist, he ought to do some science on the subject. If he’s not doing science on the subject, stop the big song and dance about being a *scientist.* A book with the subtitle “A Chemist Presents Evidence for Homeopathy” ought to damn well have some chemistry in it. It shouldn’t say “well, I’m a chemist and can’t pretend to try to explain it, but all I know is that it works for me.” Blech.

  2. #2 Alyson
    January 7, 2009

    Non-belief in God means one is beholden to nothing and no one?

    Wow, I never realized that before! It’s either the Abrahamic God, or nothing at all rescuing you from total narcissism! Amazing!

    I mean, what good are friends, really, to encourage you to act like a decent human being, if you don’t have God there to threaten you with eternal damnation? What good are your parents to inculcate you with a sense of right and wrong, if they don’t use the Skydaddy to scare you straight? What can a partner do to keep you honest, if God isn’t watching? How dare your children try to bring out the generous, caring, responsible part of you?! Only God can do that! What in the name of Jebus gives anyone’s employer the right to fire you for being dishonest and unreliable?! And what on Earth gave us as a society the right to create social norms and train law enforcement to deter people from behaving like dangerous douchebags?! Dagnabbit, if I want to drive drunk and dump my household refuse in the middle of a playground, only God can stand in my way! My family’s love, my community’s acceptance, and my own feelings of empathy and guilt have nothing to do with it. Right?

    Eff that noise. I’d much rather put my trust in people who are beholden to that which is visible and tangible here on Earth. Keep your reasoning where I can see it.

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