Francis Collins and Bill Maher

Bill Maher, anti-vaxxer and Germ Theory denier, got an award named for Richard Dawkins from an atheist group. The award specifies, among other things, that the recipient should be an atheist and should “advocate[] increased scientific knowledge.” Orac notes that Maher is not an atheist and that his anti-vaccine work and his arguments against the germ theory advocate against scientific knowledge, calling that work “anti-science.” Jason Rosenhouse disagrees, and Orac replies (with Jason defending himself in the comments).

I happen to think Orac has the better of the argument. But that’s not what I find interesting. I think the way Jason defends Maher is intriguing, because it parallels the arguments over Francis Collins’s nomination as NIH director.

Collins is uncontroversial in many ways. He’s an accomplished biomedical researcher and a rightly-lauded administrator. Some have quibbled with his enthusiasm for genomics as a field, a debate well-worth having, but not one which should disqualify him from running NIH.

The point of contention has been his evangelical faith. Nature, reporting his nomination, notes:

There are also concerns about whether Collins’s very public expressions of his evangelical Christian faith will affect his job. He laid out his beliefs in a 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and last year founded the BioLogos Foundation, which aims to help Christians integrate their faith with contemporary science.

Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, says he has “serious misgivings” about the nomination. “Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the NIH and his efforts on behalf of the scientific enterprise.”

Several scientists close to Collins say that his faith will not affect his NIH duties. …

“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.”

That last bit got me in a little hot water with folks in the “New Atheist” camp, but it’s true. Consider the benefit Tincy Miller got from citing Collins during the Texas science standards fight. In the end, Miller couldn’t hold together a majority again creationist compromises, but citing Collins held that majority together a little longer, and staved off groups trying to portray her stand for good standards as an attack on religion.

In any event, Steven Pinker says Collins advocates for “anti-science beliefs,” just as Orac says Maher is anti-science. What is the Rosenhouse defense?

I’m really tired of people being described as “anti-science” when what is meant is that they do not accept the scientific consensus on some issue. … Being wrong about a scientific question doesn’t make you anti-science. It might make you ignorant or misinformed or confused or various other bad things, but not anti-science.

In some sense, I agree with Jason. Rejecting some scientific consensus is not inherently anti-science. But there are scientific ways to challenge the consensus, and unscientific ways. Maher does the latter.

Collins is criticized mainly for two sets of claims about science and religion. The first, that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of human life, the second is that the “Moral Law” cannot be explained scientifically. There is a consensus that the universe’s physical constants cannot be much different than they are for life to exist, but no consensus why the universe has those values. Some people think there are a lot of universes and it is inevitable that one would have the combination of values we see in ours. Others seek physical laws which limit the range of variation in universal constants. Nothing Collins says attacks any consensus, and he has made clear that he has no aversion to scientific explanations for this phenomenon. As for the second point, there is no consensus about the origin of morality. There’s good scientific evidence for the origins of altruistic behavior, but Collins seems to be aiming at a broader metaphysical meaning for “Moral Law,” and has walked back comments suggesting that altruism was scientifically inexplicable.

Again, no denial of scientific consensus. He was wrong about a scientific claim (which Jason notes is not inherently anti-science), but corrected himself when he learned new information. That’s how scientists work. By contrast, Maher has been challenged and corrected on his anti-vaccine and anti-germ-theory claims, but has not modified or abandoned those claims in the light of new evidence. That is decidedly contrary not just to scientific knowledge, but to the scientific process.

Knowing Rosenhouse to be quite critical of theologies like that Francis Collins advances, I was curious whether he applied the same standards to Collins that he does to Maher (though I quibble over whether he applies them fairly to Maher). And it appears he does?:

I haven’t commented on Collins to this point mostly because I was having trouble figuring out what exactly was bothering me about it. His CV is certainly very impressive. I don’t care for his religious views, but that would only be an issue if there was some reason to think his religion would compromise his objectivity in doing his job. I haven’t seen any convincing reason to think that it will, though there are some legitimate questions. It is annoying that now the position of NIH head will be used as a platform for promoting evangelical Christianity, but that too is hardly a disqualification. We all use such platforms as we have for promoting the things in which we believe.
What’s disturbing about this actually has nothing to do with Collins at all, but rather with the process that led to his nomination. There is simply no question that Collins’ outspoken religious views were considered a big resume enhancer, and that an identical person outspoken about atheism would not even be considered for the job. I have seen people get very indiginant with folks like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and Steven Pinker for raisingf objections to Collins. “They’re placing a religious test for public office!” they huff. Nonsense. The religious test already exists.

I would add that none of Collins’ major critics have said he should be disquallified for his religion. They have instead pointed to specific statements Collins has made that call his objectivity into question in ways that are directly relevant to the job. But that’s a different post.

This is a perfectly fair argument, though it hardly speaks to Collins himself. Whether Collins’s Christianity was a deciding factor in his favor is less clear to me, as I suspect anyone who brought a major enterprise like the Human Genome Project in under budget and ahead of schedule would have been in contention for NIH director, and it cheapens the good work Collins has unquestionably done to suggest he was just hired for his religious beliefs. But is it true that “none of Collins’ major critics have said he should be disqualified for his religion”?

In a point-counterpoint with Francisco Ayala in the LA Times, Michael Shermer lists this his two reasons for opposing Collins:

One, the very nature of being an evangelical Christian — which Collins self-identifies as — means that you should evangelize for the Lord. … In the evangelical worldview, there really is no separation of church and state. … So I worry that Collins’ evangelical enthusiasm may blur the lines separating the profane and the sacred, church and state, Caesar and God.

He offers no evidence that Collins ever did such a thing, despite fairly high-profile service in the government. His second line of argument relates to the particular arguments discussed above from The Language of God.

Shermer is unquestionably high profile. It was published the same day as Jason’s post denying any such arguments had been made, so he may have missed it. But the line of argument didn’t originate with Shermer. In his op-ed attacking the Collins nomination, Sam Harris states that it is the very sincerity of Collins’s beliefs that worry him. Readers including Ken Miller and Jack Haught defend Collins and criticize Harris, but it is hard to argue that Harris was not advocating some sort of religious test for NIH director.

Reviewing the implication that Collins might let his faith dominate over the science, Science reporter Jocelyn Kaiser notes that “There seems to be little evidence for such worries, but they persist.” She notes criticism of Collins from PZ Myers, and adds:

But others have pointed out that Collins’s record as director of the genome institute doesn’t support such fears. And some scientists active in the anticreationist movement approve of his attempts to reach out to the faithful. Evolutionary geneticist Wyatt Anderson of the University of Georgia in Athens says he read Collins’s book, and “I get the picture of a very rational scientist.” Josh Rosenau, public information project director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says: “It’s very useful to have scientists out there like Francis Collins to talk about their beliefs and why they don’t see them as in conflict with science.”

PZ has been careful to distinguish his criticism from a religious litmus test, but he repeats Shermer’s claim that Collins’s religious views will oblige him to promote religion in office. The most he can point to in support of that claim is Collins’s use of religious imagery in announcing the completion of the human genome sequence.

But that isn’t advocacy for religion, it’s just good speechwriting. I doubt Clinton needed much of a push to use religious language there. This kerfuffle strikes me as silly and petty.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob Carlson
    July 31, 2009

    Collins’ words: “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.”

    Does this seem rational to you? It doesn’t to me.

    Bob Carlson

  2. #2 carlsonjok
    July 31, 2009

    Sometimes I have to wonder just how much of Shermer and Myer’s opinion of evangelicals is colored solely by what they read in their inboxes. As an agnostic living in Oklahoma, I am surrounded by evangelicals. Heck, I am even married to one. And the overwhelming majority of them have never attempted to evangelize me. Not even my spouse, who probably frets greatly about the standing of my immortal soul. In fact, I cannot even remember the last time a person attempted to evangelize me. The idea that his faith compels Collins to use his position to evangelize is, in my opinion, poorly grounded.

  3. #3 Bob Carlson
    July 31, 2009

    But Shermer was once an evangelical. See, for example:

    http://www.wolfmanproductions.com/shermer.html

  4. #4 rap
    July 31, 2009

    Thanks for this post. My friend living near the Eiffel Tower may need to look into this. However, I am skeptical at drug companies and their promises. I wonder if this will be another one of those “lifetime treatments” or cures

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    July 31, 2009

    Bob, I wouldn’t say that’s rational, but I don’t think faith is meant to be rational. Faith is, after all, “assurance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” So long as Collins does not confuse faith with science, there’s no problem, though. He has not confused the two in his work thus far, so why think he’ll start now?

  6. #6 hithesh
    July 31, 2009

    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.”

    Is it “rational” for someone gazing at the supposed beauty of the stars and cosmos, to decide that instance that he wants to be a scientist?

    (As a side note, Collins conversion experience began when he encountered a dying man reading the bible, and ended here among the dewey grass. The waterfall wasn’t some argument that won him over to christianity, it was a symbolic accumulation of the events that preceded it)

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    August 1, 2009

    Jerry Coyne’s critique of Collins’s de facto “denial of scientific consensus” shows that the NIH Director-nominee does indeed have some serious difficulties with concepts like “evidence.”

  8. #8 Norwegian Shooter
    August 4, 2009

    In the end, (which is the time that is important), Christian evolutionists on the Texas SBOE got zero benefit from citing Collins. But what was the cost? Here is the text from The Language of God that Tincy Miller quotes on the link provided:

    “God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts.

    Most remarkable, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

    This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world … the theistic evolution perspective cannot, of course, prove that God is real, as no logical argument can fully achieve that. Belief in God will always require a leap of faith … this perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believer to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshiping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation”.

    Does that really promote naturalistic evolution? Collins states that God created evolution. (In other places, he states that God intervened in the evolution of humans at some point to insert his Moral Law.) That is different in degree, but not type from the standard creationists. God is still in the gaps.

    Miller quotes another scientist elsewhere in the link, who says that the “central issue [is] religion in the biology classroom.” Collins clearly allows God in the biology classroom. Why would you want him as an ally?

    Citing Collins is at best accommodationist, at worst justifying the means with the ends.

  9. #9 Norwegian Shooter
    August 4, 2009

    Point #2: Collins is a scientist, but he is not 100% pro-science. (Easier to work with than anti-science or a-science) You say that Collins claims “that the ‘Moral Law’ cannot be explained scientifically.” First, a 100% pro-scientist would say that it hasn’t been explained scientifically yet. But it’s worse than that. From Harris’ article, Collins’ slide 3 claims “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” That’s positing an explanation, and it’s not scientific. Finally, what 100% pro-scientist would “be aiming at a broader metaphysical meaning for ‘Moral Law'” (God, these scare quotes are annoying)

    Point #3: Do you really think an outspoken atheist with Collins’ credentials would have been appointed? There are plenty of other qualified people, by the way. The leader of a big under-budget and ahead-of-schedule project doesn’t automatically get the job. BTW, why was the genome project under and ahead? Not rhetorical, I really don’t know.

    Point #4: As far as evangelize, won’t every public function involving the most public scientist in the country include at least reference to, if not outright promotion of, The Language of God? Do you consider this a scientific book?

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    August 4, 2009

    You haven’t actually shown that Collins “allows God in the biology classroom.” He clearly does allow God into his conception of the universe and of life. But you haven’t shown evidence of him advocating that theistic evolution be taught in science classes. He wants evolution taught in science classes. That’s what I want. He’s an ally.

    We disagree on other stuff, but who cares? I want him as an ally because the more allies, the better.

    You claim that “the time that is important” is the final vote, and that citing Collins yielded “zero benefit.” I think that the benefit is more likely to be seen at the polls, where people in conservative districts will be riled up to vote against anyone who voted for evolution. The seven conservatives on the board were never going to change their mind. Everyone knew that. The wild card wasn’t them, but Rick Agosto, a Democrat from San Antonio who strikes many observers as less interested in science standards or details of how schools are run than in administering the Board’s Permanent School Fund. He isn’t interested in God or science, and Tincy’s pitch wasn’t aimed at him. It was aimed at voters, at staving off a challenge from conservatives in the next election. And I expect it’ll help her there.

    You write: “a 100% pro-scientist would say that [the Moral Law] hasn’t been explained scientifically yet.” I’m not sure that’s right. Science has limits, and a science advocate would and should acknowledge and accept that. What Collins seems to mean by “Moral Law” is not something of a scientific nature, but a metaphysical concept. Science cannot address metaphysics, and it’s fair for him to say that science will not explain the origin of this metaphysical entity called “Moral Law.” It explains the evolution of altruism (which Collins acknowledges).

    We all posit nonscientific things in our lives, and that’s not anti-science. I think the Cubs are the greatest team in baseball. I can’t prove it, it’s not a scientific claim, but I hold it as true. Others hold the novels of Charles Dickens up as a great works. I disagree, and there’s no scientific basis for distinguishing those claims. But if “pro-science” is to mean anything, it cannot be a requirement that one never adopt a position that is not supported by scientific testing. That’d be absurd. And no, I don’t think The Language of God is meant as a science book. It’s a memoir about science and religion.

    You ask “what 100% pro-scientist would ‘be aiming at a broader metaphysical meaning for ‘Moral Law’?” I don’t see a conflict there, so the question doesn’t make sense.

    You claim Collins is now “the most public scientist in the country.” What about Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu? NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco? Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren? Eric Lander and Harold Varmus, who run the Presidential Council of Advisers on Science and Technology? To my knowledge, none of them are outspokenly religious, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them are non-theists. That doesn’t seem to have hindered their nominations. I never claimed Collins was the only qualified candidate, but there’s no doubt that he is _a_ qualified candidate and he’s the one the president chose. If he used every public appearance to shill for his book, that’d be problematic, but I see no reason to think he’ll do that. Certainly no reason to assume he will.

  11. #11 Norwegian Shooter
    August 4, 2009

    Agreed, “God in the biology classroom” is a specific and concrete claim, and Collins’ arguments for Christianity are more subtle than that. I agree that he supports teaching evolution scientifically and would not want HS kids to hear the word “God” in any science classroom. This is obviously your main concern so I understand why you overlook the other stuff.

    Obviously I care about it though. And you never answered my first question – are his religious views consistent with naturalistic evolution?

    My main point is not the school board debates in a couple of states. Your work is appreciated and the long term prospects of that fight are good. You are certainly entitled to accept his help in those debates, but please acknowledge that his help undermines scientific reasoning in general. He is the Director of the NIH, so his influence goes well beyond the HS classroom.

    I’m sure you know science=physical and religion=metaphysical. And we agree that to discuss metaphysics, it is necessary to step outside of science. The problem is not that Collins discusses metaphysical arguments. But that he inserts these metaphysical arguments within scientific ones so that it appears they all blend together. That is anti-science. Jerry Coyne makes this point quite well in the link from previous comment #6.

    Coyne also has good take on the does-he-get-the-job scenario. A little hyperbole doesn’t invalidate my argument. And it is a calculated guess that he will promote his book and his foundation in every non-obnoxious way he can. Human nature and all.

  12. #12 Norwegian Shooter
    August 6, 2009

    Maybe the 3rd time will be the charm:

    Are Collins’ religious views consistent with naturalistic evolution?

  13. #13 popper999
    August 12, 2009

    Bob Carlson: “Does this seem rational to you?”

    Does “I love my wife” seem rational to you?

    Everyone has irrational beliefs. If he keeps it out of his science, and there’s every indication he will, it’s none of your business.

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