Deep thought

There are a number of people who, even when they are right, get things very wrong.

To whit, Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter, reacting to Francis Collins’s nomination as NIH director (h/t Joel). He notes that Collins is well-qualified, and that it’s odd how a few people are agitated that Collins is forthrightly religious. He makes the odd claim that this speaks to the state of evangelical Christianity, when it doesn’t really. If Francis Collins were typical of evangelicals, it would be great, but he’s a pro-evolution, pro-stem cell, egghead scientist. Not a lot of evangelicals fit that description, or indeed want anything to do with it. See our earlier discussion of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll. But Gerson follows that with a reasonable point:

Criticisms of evolution, rooted in 19th-century controversies, have done little more than set up religious young people for entirely unnecessary crises of faith as they encounter scientific knowledge. In the running conflict of modern biology and evangelicalism, Collins is a peacemaker.

Collins is a peacemaker. In the Texas standards fight, pro-evolution board member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller cited Collins’s book as a reason why she felt comfortable standing up for evolution. And as it says in Nature:

“We would count him as an ally,” adds Joshua Rosenau, a policy analyst at the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization in Oakland, California, that defends the teaching of evolution in schools. “It is helpful to have scientists like Francis Collins speaking out about how they personally reconcile science and religion.”

So I guess Gerson and I see eye-to-eye on this, but he can’t leave it alone:

And Collins’s appointment says something good about the maturity of President Obama. This move has invited criticism from the secular left. It is unlikely to appease religious conservatives who assume cynicism from Obama. But this seems to be a case where the president simply picked the best person for the job. In the process, Obama has affirmed something important: that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of science.

This isn’t a political matter, a test of President Obama’s mettle. As my friend Joel Mathis points out:

the culture war implications of Collins? appointment are being mostly mulled ? and maybe even applauded ? by folks on the right. But is it really a clash in the culture wars if only one side is showing up for battle?

There are people criticizing the selection, but not on political reasons. There’s concern that Collins has said some things which suggests he doesn’t understand the ways that altruism can evolve, and that he’s overly willing to invoke religious explanations for the structure of the universe. And there are people engaged in heated combat over the relationship of science to religion, who have axes to grind for reasons obscure to me, who see this nomination as a chance to elevate internecine squabbles to national prominence.

But this isn’t the culture wars. Collins favors stem cell research and evolution. He’s won’t be pushing for research on intercessory prayer or other religious hokum masquerading as science. He’s a good scientist, a good administrator, and a good politician. He’ll work hard to keep NIH funding flowing smoothly, and he won’t let his personal beliefs interfere with his agency’s work. If Gerson thinks he’ll have an ally at NIH, he’ll be disappointed. As a corollary, if he thinks the decision to name the leader of the Human Genome Project as head of NIH is some sort of courageous political move, he’s just delusional.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 16, 2009

    In the process, Obama has affirmed something important: that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of science.

    Bullshit. Obama has affirmed that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of *governmental science administration*. At the highest levels of *science* (actually, at *any* level of science), anti-supernaturalism is a non-negotiable requirement. You simply cannot function as a scientist without embracing anti-supernaturalism in relation to the substantive scientific issues you address.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    July 16, 2009

    “You simply cannot function as a scientist without embracing anti-supernaturalism in relation to the substantive scientific issues you address.”

    True. But that doesn’t mean one has to be anti-supernatural in other arenas.