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.