The truth matters

Commenter SLC tricked me into violating my moratorium on reading anti-accommodationist blogs, curse him. The discussion, such as it is, focuses on an essay written by Francis Collins introducing a book of essays on religious belief. Naturally, this has various people up in arms, clamoring for Collins to resign from the NIH because he repeated his long-held and oft-stated belief that science and religious faith are compatible (for him, at least).

I’m not really interested in engaging the substance of Collins’ claims, nor the counter-arguments by the anti-accommodationists. It’s boring, no one changes their mind, it generates needless squabbling and namecalling and armchair psychoanalysis. More annoyingly, it isn’t clear that the anti-accommodationists know what they’re talking about. Consider Jerry Coyne’s argument that Collins should resign over this essay. At the end of a long dissection of the essay’s claims, Coyne builds toward his demand that Collins resign as NIH director by stating:

He’s the chief government scientist…

and therefore oughtn’t to be espousing any particular religious argument. Which is a reasonable point, I suppose, one which can be discussed in parts. But it is badly undermined by the fact that Collins is in no sense the chief government scientist.

Collins is Director of NIH. As such, he is a member of the Department of Health and Human Services, answering to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Consulting the HHS organizational chart, we find that he has the same rank as an Assistant Secretary, parallel to the director of the CDC (an MD/MPH), the head of FDA (an MD, neuroscientist, neurophysiologist, and HIV researcher), etc. This would also give him equal rank with Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist (like Coyne) who was chosen to run the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and therefore serves as an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Interior. Neither ranks as highly as Stephen Chu, a physicist and biologist who serves as Secretary of Energy, or John Holdren, a physicist who has worked on climate change, nuclear proliferation, plasma physics, and aeronautics and who now serves as the President’s science advisor and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (a cabinet-rank post, as I understand it). We might also mention the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST): Holdren, Harold Varmus (Nobel-winning biomedical researcher and former NIH director) and Eric Lander (computer scientist instrumental to the Human Genome Project).

One could name a chief government scientist by several criteria. The most obvious criterion is how highly ranked someone is; Collins is outranked by Holdren and Chu, at bare minimum. Chu also controls the nation’s nuclear stockpile and possesses a Nobel Prize, which ought to count for something.

Someone concerned with DC realpolitik could point out that Collins controls the largest science research budget in the government; I would retort that his science funding ambit is not nearly as wide as the NSF director’s (himself a scientist having taught and researched in nuclear engineering), and is almost entirely allocated through peer-review panels, and cannot be directly controlled by Collins. Collins’ narrow ambit also applies to science policy, where OSTP has a broader portfolio, as does PCAST. Indeed, if anyone else had written that the NIH director was the nation’s chief scientist or intimated that he spoke for science in general (and not just for some fraction of the biomedical research community), I would hope Coyne would join my outrage at all of science being reduced to biomedical research. There’s a lot more to science, as Coyne well knows.

This is, admittedly, a small point, but it goes to the heart of Coyne’s call for Collins to resign. If Collins speaks for science, Coyne seems to be arguing, then he should resign when his statements clearly go outside the bounds of scientific consensus. There being no scientific consensus around whether science and faith are compatible, he should not continue to be the government’s chief scientist.

But he isn’t the government’s chief scientist. His job isn’t to speak on behalf of science per se in the White House or in public. His job is to administer NIH, and in his free time, he can do as he likes. Science and religion has long been one of his interests, and he contributed an introduction to a book on the topic. Yes, it identifies him as director of NIH, but Coyne’s book and blog identify him as a professor at the University of Chicago, and no one pretends that Coyne’s comments in his private writings are official statements by one of the nation’s premiere research institutions. In Collins’s essay, a section entitled “My Own Perspective On Science And Faith” presents … his personal view on the topic. I disagree with it, Coyne disagrees with it, others are free to do the same.

But that’s not cause for firing him from a job that he seems to be doing just fine. He’s getting big budget increases for biomedical research, he’s continuing to expand access to newly derived stem cell lines, and nothing in Coyne’s bill of indictment suggests any faults in his administration.

The fact is, Coyne’s disagreements with Collins are not scientific, are not biomedical, and are not relevant to his employment. When people start talking about ousting public servants because they state their religious beliefs, I start getting defensive. I know I didn’t care for the Bush administration’s habit of asking members of advisory panels about their religious views before they could advise on unrelated topics. And I’ll happily call out my allies if they tread that same path.

One hopes Coyne can acknowledge this modest error, and will also retract the demand that Collins be fired, as that demand seems dependent on that same erroneous premise.

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    February 26, 2010

    It isn’t a modest error, as you showed. It displays a profound ignorance of how the NIH works, and you’re right. Calling Collins the “chief scientist” of the government ignores huge swaths of other sciences.

    Someone ostensibly on the side of science like Coyne should know better. Has he ever even been funded by the NIH (as opposed to the NSF or other funding agencies)?

  2. #2 J. J. Ramsey
    February 27, 2010

    The call for Collins comes from the same guy who asked the rhetorical question, “And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11,” without checking if the answer to it wasn’t what he expected. It’s your standard “New Atheism”: very strong on anti-theism and very inconsistent on critical thinking.

  3. #3 Josh Rosenau
    February 27, 2010

    Ora: During the confirmation process, Coyne said he currently has an NIH grant.

  4. #4 Anonymous
    February 27, 2010

    Barack Obama tried to put one ass on two chairs by appointing Darwinist cafeteria Christian Francis Collins to be the head of the NIH. It was a political appointment. Obama thought that the appointment would appease both the fundies and tne New Atheists and he ended up appeasing no one.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    February 27, 2010

    And your evidence for this, Anonymous, is … ?

  6. #6 SLC
    February 27, 2010

    Mr. Rosenau has had a fine old time pillorying Jerry Coyne for mis-identifying Francis Collins as the top scientist in the Obama administration. Obviously, Prof. Coyne should have written that Dr. Collins was one of the top scientists in the Obama administration. I hardly think that this misstatement was worth the amount of effort that Mr. Rosenau put into discrediting it. I would note that the misstatement came at the end of a rather long post so perhaps Prof. Coyne was getting a little careless at that point and overstated his case.

  7. #7 SLC
    February 27, 2010

    I hate to bring this up but is Mr. Rosenau going to comment on the award of a Templeton Fellowship to Chris Mooney?

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    February 27, 2010

    SLC, Coyne’s mistake was not just saying that Collins was the chief scientist in the USA. Coyne is basically arguing that Collins should resign his post, not because of any evidence that he is abusing the power of his post, but because he is expressing his personal religious views publicly–and as Rosenau’s points out, he expresses them as personal views, not as official governmental ones. Collins is not even in a position where he has much opportunity to abuse his power for the sake of his views.

    If Collins were arguing for atheism rather than his own faith, would Coyne be so quick to condemn? Would you?

  9. #9 J.J.E.
    February 28, 2010

    Collins is making scientific statements when he says the things he says, unless you call fine-tuning arguments, human inevitability in evolution, etc. non-scientific.

    And he’s actively advocating one particular religious persuasion using scientific* arguments.

    As a matter of being polite, I would suggest that any atheist administrator doing the same should step down. Of course, faith that relies on personal standards of religious “truth” (which is the kind of religion Mr. Waterfall-Conversion follows) is completely incoherent, so this is a pretty big concession. But yeah, if Paul Nurse instead of Francis Collins was NIH director and he started advocating atheism using his scientific credentials and faulty scientific arguments, I’d be calling for his resignation as well.

    However, as you can see in a recent arson case, the standards of what are and aren’t acceptable are so skewed, that only one of those two options would ever come to pass in today’s America: the atheist would be forced to resign.

    Collins is a public servant with an especially large responsibility. If he has time to carry out an ancillary career which uses his public position to flog a book with bad scientific arguments, maybe someone else with fewer commitments should hold that post instead.

    Link to the arsonist case:

    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-churchfires_24tex.ART.State.Edition1.4ba005e.html

    In another residence of one of the alleged arsonists, they found 3 bibles. Does that fact find its way into the title…?
    And of course, there is the contradictory linkage between atheism and belief in demons.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    February 28, 2010

    J.J.E.: “Collins is making scientific statements when he says the things he says, unless you call fine-tuning arguments, human inevitability in evolution, etc. non-scientific.”

    And if he were really America’s scientist-in-chief, that might be a reason to ask him to step down. But he isn’t. He’s the director of the National Institutes of Health. If he had promoted Jenny McCarthy’s misbegotten ideas about vaccines, or homeopathy, or other quackery, that would be a sign that he was in the wrong job. Even Coyne’s claim that Collins gets a pass because “Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition” doesn’t pass muster, since the arguments that he should keep his job would work as well if he were, say, a Wiccan. Now if he were a Scientologist or Christian Scientist, that would be an issue, since both those religions have ideas that blatantly conflict with medical science. However, not all religions do that.

    As it stands, Collins is basically an example of how a molecular biologist can be very wrong on issues outside his field.

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    February 28, 2010

    SLC: “I hate to bring this up but is Mr. Rosenau going to comment on the award of a Templeton Fellowship to Chris Mooney?”

    To what end? He got a fellowship. In this day and age, journalists take their funding where they can.

    And I think I explained clearly why it matters so much that Coyne was wrong about Collins’ status.

  12. #12 J.J.E.
    February 28, 2010

    @ J. J. Ramsey

    Most of your argument is reasonable (though I disagree), but this part: “And if he were really America’s scientist-in-chief, that might be a reason to ask him to step down. But he isn’t. He’s the director of the National Institutes of Health.” is unequivocally wrong if it is even saying anything at all.

    NIH disburses more scientific research funding than NSF and NASA combined. (NIH: ~$30B, NSF: < $7B, NASA: ~$19B) and probably funds more non-medical research than the budget of all of NSF (non medical research coming from NIH is odd coming it has “health” in its name but true; for example Drosophila population genetics is more heavily funded by NIH than by NSF; don’t judge a book by its title). While the U.S. has no “scientist in chief”, the short list for competitors for that title would include the directors of NASA, NSF, EPA, DOE, and NIH. Guess which director controls the most research funds out of all those agencies?

    The rest of your argument is basically saying “it is O.K. for the chief administrator of the largest science funding agency in the history of humanity* to spout scientific nonsense during his tenure as director as long as that nonsense doesn’t contradict directly with the goals of that agency”.

    I disagree with this on two grounds.

    1) As I mentioned earlier, NIH DOES fund a huge amount of basic research that is no more health related than projects by NSF (I should know, I’ve been paid by NIH for non-medical research and will be again when I change funding sources this summer). And indeed, a lot of human population genetics (which is a part of a field that considers human inevitability to be at best a meaningless statement and at worst misguided and wrong) is funded by NIH. So, yeah, Collins does promote unscientific ideas that contradict fields under his purview. And these transgressions are carried out to promote a particular religious perspective;

    2) I disagree that one need only avoid high publicity public advocacy of religious perspectives directly related one’s public service job. It is pretty clear that NIH doesn’t fund fundamental physics research, but Collins’ religious views on fine tuning abuse his heft as a high-profile public figure to lend unearned credibility to a shoddy scientific concept that is designed to promote a religious perspective.

    Why couldn’t Collins just wait until his tenure was over? I say again, if an atheist did this, he’d be out of a job in two shakes of a lambs tail. That is, if he even got the job. That double standard is what enables outspoken Christians to get any job they are qualified while only quiet atheists accommodationist atheists are awarded jobs with a large public platform. An outspoken advocate of atheism never gets interviewed. And if by some miracle one ever did get hired, the first time they spoke out in the way Colllins did, they’d find themselves “resigning” so quick it would make your head swim.

    * That depends on how much research the DOD funds and whether you consider war-technology development to be “research”. The DOD and Pentagon have enormous budgets.

  13. #13 J.J.E.
    March 1, 2010

    Annoying as all heck. I used apersand lt semicolon to specify a “less than” symbol manually, and it worked in the preview, but not in the post.

    It ate a 3/4 of a full paragraph of posting. Anyway, NSF is less than 7 B and NASA is ~19 B. I had other points, but I’m too disheartened to try to recall them and retype them.

  14. #14 J. J. Ramsey
    March 1, 2010

    J.J.E.: “The rest of your argument is basically saying, ‘it is O.K. for the chief administrator of the largest science funding agency in the history of humanity [except for the DOD and Pentagon] to spout scientific nonsense during his tenure as director as long as that nonsense doesn’t contradict directly with the goals of that agency’.”

    Not so much “okay” as it is not enough of a problem to be a firing offense, especially considering that the effects of said nonsense on his actual work are pretty small. Similarly, if a high-profile atheist were to spout pseudohistorical nonsense from Jesus-mythers, I’d consider that a bad thing and an embarrassment for atheists, but unless that nonsense affected the job, I wouldn’t consider it reason to call for resignation.

    J.J.E.: “Collins’ religious views on fine tuning abuse his heft as a high-profile public figure”

    Collins had a high profile well before he became the director of NIH.

    J.J.E.: “I say again, if an atheist did this, he’d be out of a job in two shakes of a lambs tail.”

    Based on what evidence?

  15. #15 J.J.E.
    March 1, 2010

    @ J. J. Ramsey

    1) Pardon me, I mean “A high profile public servant“. The error was mine (though I don’t think this moves the goalposts enough to worry about);
    2) “Based on what evidence?”.

    Given that atheism is seen as a political liability and high profile administrative positions are seen as reflections of the politics of the one who makes the appointments, I think this is a very reasonable inference. And atheists are the most disliked large minority in the U.S. The resignations of appointees in the past indicate that the threshold for resignation is very low if the right buttons are pressed. Atheists are disliked/distrusted more than Muslims, gays, or any other traditionally demonized group:

    http://pewforum.org/surveys/religionviews07/
    Atheists are viewed less favorably than any category.

    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/648/romney-mormon
    “Doesn’t believe in God” is the category that imposes the strongest liability to aspiring politicians.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    March 1, 2010

    J.J.E: “Pardon me, I mean ‘A high profile public servant’. The error was mine (though I don’t think this moves the goalposts enough to worry about)”

    Actually, it changes them substantially. It’s not as if Collins decided to use the NIH directorship as a bully pulpit. Rather, he’s saying what he’s said about science and religion for quite some time, long before he became NIH director, and was probably asked to write his essay because of his history rather than his current position.

    J.J.E., those are great points for arguing why we shouldn’t expect an openly atheist person to be appointed to a high-profile position any time soon, but not for arguing why we should expect an atheist who already overcame the hurdles for appointment to be so easily fired, especially since such a firing would be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the one who did the appointing.

  17. #17 SLC
    March 1, 2010

    Re Josh Rosenau @ #11

    1. Well, Mr. Rosenau and I are just going to have to agree to disagree as to whether the error made by Prof. Coyne relative to Dr. Collins’ status was worth the amount of effort expended in discrediting it. By the way, I don’t agree with Prof. Coyne that Dr. Collins should resign or be fired, absent a showing that his crackpot religious views are having an effect on his performance. My PhD thesis adviser, who was an old earth creationist who rejected the theory of evolution, had religious views considerably nuttier then those of Prof. Collins but they had no discernible affect on his creative output in elementary particle physics.

    2. Relative to Chris Mooneys’ Templeton Fellowship, it should be pointed out that he had to apply for it. I take it then that Mr. Rosenau disagrees’ with Prof. Coynes’ assessment that it amounts to a bribe and possibly an award for Mr. Mooneys’ criticisms of people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne.

  18. #18 John Danley
    March 1, 2010

    The NIH Director plays an active role in shaping the agency’s activities and outlook.

    The Director stays in touch with each Institute’s priorities and accomplishments through:

    1.) regular prayer meetings,
    2.) discussions with Christian interest groups, and
    3.) briefing sessions with Church directors.

  19. #19 Marion Delgado
    March 2, 2010

    I think Jerry Coyne should resign his position and drive a cab, frankly. If that’s how the game’s played now.

  20. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    March 2, 2010

    John Danley, if you are going to make allegations, you ought to at least be kind enough to offer a link supporting them. FWIW, googling “Francis Collins prayer meetings” didn’t seem to turn up anything.

  21. #21 Josh Rosenau
    March 2, 2010

    JJE: I think I fixed that borken comment for you. There must be some sort of pre-filtering going on in the software.

    While I think I had actually addressed most of your points already, there are a few things worth noting. First, he wrote the essay before re-joining NIH, so if the issue is simply that he shouldn’t write such things as NIH director, he didn’t so no foul.

    If the issue is that someone who believes such things as Collins does should not be NIH director, then we had this argument last year, Collins still won his confirmation, and the argument is otiose. People who said that his beliefs disqualified him lost, and demanding his resignation on those same grounds is just sour grapes.

    Finally, the government may not have a “scientist in chief,” but it does have a hierarchy of scientists, and Collins is simply not at the top of that hierarchy. But our government generally outsources scientific advice either to independent scientific advisory panels, or to the NAS. If the nation has a chief scientist, I suppose it would be Ralph Ciccerone. But in no sense is Collins the chief scientist in the government or the nation at large. As NIH director, here is his job description: “The NIH Director plays an active role in shaping the agency’s activities and outlook … is responsible for providing leadership to the Institutes and for constantly identifying needs and opportunities, especially for efforts that involve multiple Institutes… seeks advice from an appointed group of public representatives and the Council of Councils, … the Director is advised through discussions with the Administration, usually through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and with the Congress … responsible for advising the President on his annual budget request to Congress on the basis of extensive discussions with the Institute Directors.”

    Indeed, the Surgeon General has far greater powers as a spokesperson for biomedical science, and certainly has more visibility in issuing public guidance about results of such research.

    The NIH director is not a “chief scientist,” he (or she) is an administrator, setting broad policy for research and administration at NIH and with NIH grants. He is not considered a scientific adviser to the President (except through Secretary Sebelius or through PCAST and OSTP). Anyone who says otherwise is just ill-informed, and should not pass that misinformation on to others.

    SLC: No, I don’t think getting a grant or fellowship constitutes a bribe.

    Marion: That does seem to be how the game is played, alas.

  22. #22 J.J.E.
    March 3, 2010

    @ Josh

    Thanks for fixing the comment!

    Onto the pugilism.

    So you do not find it even moderately noteworthy that a major bureaucrat in a secular governmental position is active in advocating a non-secular perspective during his tenure? Because that’s what Collins is doing. People have their private lives sure, but when one becomes a public servant, a physician, a journalist, or any other profession with a public trust, certain personal sacrifices become necessary. Collins is unwilling to sacrifice his evangelical Christian agenda to even delay publication. Again, I point to the impossibility of doing this with anything religious except Christianity. That Collins happened to have written this before his appointment (something I couldn’t confirm, actually) would be beside the point.

    We scientists are held to a high standard of objectivity and are expected to eschew personal advocacy. Yet this standard is unevenly applied. For example, take yourself, S.J. Gould, and Carl Sagan. All of you are/were atheists and likely find faith to be irrelevant and unsupportable. And Sagan in particular was very careful to disguise his views. His strongest invective was reserved for mediums, dowser, etc. While it is clear that he holds enormous swaths of faith be made of the same stuff as that, he very carefully avoided being quotable on that. Even his invisible dragon argument in context is careful to dance around direct association with faith. Gould went so far as to attempt to create a permanent sandbox that faith could play in without fear of it impinging on science. But now look at Collins, Miller, Giberson, Plantinga, etc. ad nauseum. They have no qualms whatsoever in mixing their faith with science. It is remarkable that Dawkins and Harris have achieved as much success as they have. For the longest time, people who were very strongly atheist in their personal lives would keep it bottled up inside while those religious folks were telling everyone the “good news”.

    Anyway, regarding the major premise of your post (which I reject) Collins is the most relevant and powerful scientist for the largest number of scientists in the U.S. All of those other “higher” ranks you mention influence a world that doesn’t directly impact the arena of research. When a young PI is trying to ensure he or she can get tenure and run a successful research group, that person isn’t hanging on the words of the NAS brass or checking on what Chu’s latest ideas are. They are paying attention to the bureaucracy in the largest science funding agencies. In my field (population genetics), the ability to get an NSF or an NIH grant in the first 4 years of your professorship is probably the biggest determinant of whether or not you get tenure. And in particular, the NIH has a category for population genetics. NSF doesn’t fund that area as well as NIH. For example, Jerry Coyne of all people relies exclusively on NIH (last I checked that was true, though he may have lost the grant or even gotten another, both, or neither, I don’t know, in the interim) for his funding.

    If you were to poll scientists about which bureaucrat was the most relevant to their ability to conduct their daily routine, you’d get the NSF director and the NIH director and probably the DOE director most frequently. You wouldn’t get any of those people you listed. Frankly, your focus on ranks it is hair-splitting and Jerry’s argument doesn’t at all hinge on the distinction that you try to mold into a key argument.

    And, since Collins is a likely future Nobel Laureate and one of the PIs on some of what will be considered to be the most important papers in human history, I don’t think that your comparison to Chu’s possession of a Nobel chronologically earlier than Collins’s likely Nobel carries any weight either. He just made his achievements at a younger age. (Chu already got his Nobel in 1997 and the HGP didn’t even get its official start until 1990 and Collins wasn’t a part of it until 1993, and the first “whole genome” result wasn’t published until 2000.)

    We scientists face an age old double standard. We are held to extremely high standards when it comes to objectivity, balance, etc. We aren’t permitted to spread most -isms (atheism in particular) in our official capacity (I agree with this, incidentally), we are frequently criticized if we have strong advocacy even OUTSIDE our official capacities, etc. Yet these standards are relaxed to the point of parody when any opportunity to pander to religious people is offered, especially Christianity in the U.S.

    For example, your very own NCSE is proud to publish under its own name the point that (my paraphrase) “there are many ways in which evolution (or science more generally) and religion are compatible, here are several of them from the very religions themselves”. And it proceeds to reprint the “compatibility” statements of various faiths. Then we learn that one possible compatible perspective is:

    Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

    [...]

    We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris.

    [...]

    We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

    Nice, religion informs us about “truth”, our minds are gifts from god, etc. And Collins himself goes one step further (p xviii, emphasis mine and content inside brackets mine):

    But here in the twenty-first century, many seem to have concluded that the spiritual experience and the life of the mind ought [Which is in Collins' mind a synonym for 'reason'. Importantly, he stopped invoking science a few grafs before this quote.] to occupy separate domains, and that disruptions, conflicts, and disenchantments will result if the firewall comes down. Surely humanity’s ongoing search for truth is not enriched by such limitations.

    So, for us scientists, in the agencies that represent us and the scientists who are tapped to administer our lifeblood, the perspective of “religion as a means of obtaining truth” is flogged. Even in a domain (science) where atheists are a major force, our private perspectives (which most of us keep to ourselves) is mocked and derided by our very own organizations who see fit to disregard that perspective by one-sidedly hyping its alternative. The very few of us who dare to say otherwise (in relatively bland terms) are castigated as having committed a sin. (Read Collins’ piece in its entirety to see this.)

    Finally, just to hammer home my key point: the U.S. is a secular government. While we shouldn’t care what our public servants do in their spare time (as long as it is legal) we should hold them to a high standard when they are conducting their duties. They should disavow the very appearance of conflict of evil (my apologies to Thess. 5:22). Yet, Collins rejects this principle. And he isn’t just doing it for some issue that is orthogonal to his responsibilities. He is arguing for a very dangerous view of science, encouraging fellow believers to accept unscientific ideas (or at the very least, unverifiable ideas) and to levy skepticism when science goes against certain core beliefs of faith (p xv):

    [discussing altruism]
    But all evolutionary models lead to the requirement for reflexive hostility to outside groups, and we humans do not seem to have gotten that memo.

    [Skip examples of altruism ...]

    We should be somewhat skeptical of atheists who dismiss these acts of radical altruism as some sort of evolutionary misfiring [what is he implying here?]. If these noble acts are frankly a scandal to reproductive fitness, might they instead point in a different direction, as argued by philosophers down through the ages – toward a holy, loving, and caring God, who instilled the Moral Law in each of us as a sign of our special nature and as a call to relationship with the Almighty?

    If you add this to his fine-tuning arguments and his past record of advocating for scientific evidence for god, it is pretty troubling. Maybe not if you are Christian (though I suspect that many Christians are troubled as well), but definitely for non-Christians. People suggested that Collins could prove his seriousness by pushing his personal advocacy in the background for 4-8 years. He seems to have failed.

  23. #23 Josh Rosenau
    March 4, 2010

    J.J.E.: “That Collins happened to have written this before his appointment (something I couldn’t confirm, actually) would be beside the point.”

    Did you click through this link in my last comment?: http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/02/nih-director-ruffles-feathers-ag.html

    In any event, if your claim is that taking on a high profile position requires greater restraint than it would otherwise, it seems like you are saying it wouldn’t be a problem if he wrote the essay before taking that post, so I’m confused about your argument. Nor is it at all clear that “a public servant, a physician, a journalist, or any other profession with a public trust” must cease discussing his or her religious beliefs. If that’s the standard, shouldn’t Jerry Coyne also resign from his position of public trust (professor)? Are physicians more trusted than scientists? According to Pew, scientists and physicians are tied in terms of public trust.

    Nor do I think the standard you’re advocating would be good for society. There’s nothing wrong with having a religious motive (as many abolitionists and civil rights activists did), nor with expressing it publicly, even as a public official. The problem is when that religious agenda comes to control your official actions. Slavery is wrong, and wrong for reasons bigger than any evangelical’s particular theology. The politics can start there, so long as that’s not where it stops.

    No one has shown (or to my knowledge suggested) that Collins has misadministered NIH, that research dollars are being directed according to religious views, or that policy is being influenced by his personal faith. Embryonic stem cell lines continue to be approved, and the criteria for approval are even being broadened under his watch.

    Nor, FWIW, am I an atheist. As I’ve said before, I’m theologically agnostic, which is different. I never felt that I was restricted from expressing my views on religion in the course of my science studies, so I can’t say I quite see the double standard at issue here.

    I’m not convinced that most (life) scientists look to the NIH director as the top government scientist. First, because the NIH directorship is not a scientific post, but an administrative one. Second, because the NIH director doesn’t make funding decisions. Those decisions are made by Congress and by peer review panels created specifically to insulate scientific research from political pressure.

    Third, even if Collins were regarded as the nation’s chief scientist (which I continue to dispute for all the reasons indicated already), note that the Pew poll cited above found that “More scientists name the Human Genome Project or other advances in genetics as the greatest U.S. scientific discovery or achievement of the past 20 years than mention any other breakthrough. Fully 39% cite the Human Genome Project, which identified all human genes and the complete sequence of DNA bases, or other progress in genetic research as the greatest U.S. scientific achievement or discovery of the last two decades.” I think life scientists curious about the policy and science approach likely to be favored by Collins will look to his scientific work (which they admire immensely) than to his obscurer religious writings.

    I’d actually be interested in the poll you describe, of which bureaucrat most impacts their work, but I doubt that the director of NIH or NSF would rank. It’d be the program officer who administers their grants. The NIH and NSF directors are intentionally isolated from the decisions that affect individual investigators.

    Skipping past your mischaracterization of NCSE (as I can’t see the relevance here), I don’t know what “the appearance of conflict of evil” means. So I don’t know what it means for you to think “Collins rejects this principle.”

    For me, the question of whether he should resign comes down to whether he is doing his job. His job is not to be the nation’s chief scientist (however ill-informed people might view him), it is not to be a spiritual counselor, it is to administer NIH. Until someone shows that he’s doing poorly at that job, calls for his resignation are codswollop. And writing an essay before he was NIH Director doesn’t have any obvious impact on how he runs NIH.

    Collins does not have to “prove his seriousness.” As you note, he’s on the short list for a Nobel Prize, for having steered to completion what is recognized by many scientists as the premiere scientific accomplishment of the last couple decades. And no one is complaining about his administration of NIH, just about his private religious beliefs which he expresses in his private life but not while he’s on the taxpayer clock. And that’s a dangerous precedent.

    This isn’t to defend his arguments on the merits, just to argue that he’s entitled to make arguments that you disagree with about science and religion, and still be NIH director, provided he keeps them separate. Which he seems to be doing.