I want to say this at the get-go before I am accused of being prejudiced and bigoted: I do not think that only atheists can do science. I do not think that only atheists can determine science policy. In searching for someone to head the NIH, such a policy would reduce the field considerably and exclude many excellent candidates that we would be justified in predicting they would do a fantastic job.
Francis Collins is not one of them. Yes, he has shown his ability to administer very large scientific projects. Yes, he has demonstrated his ability to do good science. But these are not the only requirements for heading the National Institutes of Health, the largest funding agency for biomedical research in the US. Something less well known is that it also funds research outside the US if certain conditions are met.
Collins has a history of evangelizing and seeing God in the results of his research. But anyone can see God anywhere if they look hard enough and want to see him there. But pareidolia fundamentally lacks cause and effect determination, whether it’s Jesus in a piece of toast or thinking DNA is the language of God. He’s even written a book on his beliefs, The Language of God. I am in total agreement with Sam Harris when he writes
In fact, to read The Language of God is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: The body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet, polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.
If it weren’t for the fact that Collins was putting forward his ideas in the context of a mainstream religion, his career would already be over. Substitute for the Abrahamic god Collins believes in with some other one that isn’t accepted by the majority of Americans and he would already be in obscurity.
I’ve already given two requirements for being the head of an organization which has a lot of power in regards to what research gets funded, both of which he excels at: scientific track record and scientific research program administration. But there is one requirement he fails utterly: separation of personal beliefs from science.
Some people point to the fact that there is nothing about religion in his peer-reviewed scientific publications. This is as true as it is irrelevant. If he had ever put in some reference to God signing his name in DNA anywhere in his journal submissions, that same peer review would have rejected their publication out-of-hand. And (this is for those who think science is out to remove God) not because it mentions ‘God’, either. Any statement like that without demonstrating causation experimentally is always a red flag whether it contains the word ‘God’ or not. And that’s exactly how it should be. Thus, his scientific publication record can only be used as a metric for his ability to perform the requisite work for publishing scientific research results. It can not give us any insight into how he would direct research program funding.
Francis Collins knows this and would never submit a paper with any such statement in it, regardless of the fact that he believes what he wrote in The Language of God. But his personal beliefs are relevant to his approval as head of the NIH. Matt Dillahunty from the Non-Prophets defended the selection of Collins in a recent podcast, but I think he is fundamentally wrong. Sorry, Matt. I usually agree with you, but not this time.
Dillahunty makes a grave error by asking the question of where in his publications he injects his religious beliefs. But the question, as I’ve shown, isn’t relevant because it can’t answer any question related to his beliefs and how they might affect his research goals. Peer review filters that out.
Nor is Dillahunty’s argument that we should not reject Collins for the position because of his personal beliefs really relevant, either. Even if I didn’t already know it was illegal to do so, I would never block the hiring of someone just because of their personal beliefs. It wouldn’t even occur to me to care. So, here Matt and I agree. The problem is that Collins has a track record of being a shameless evangelizer and using his position to further those ends. If I were considering hiring someone and found out that they did this would indeed be just grounds for removing them from consideration.
Collins has often been touted as living evidence of Stephen J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), that Science and Religion are compatible. But NOMA is garbage. Science and Religion overlap constantly and represent two utterly incompatible views. In Sam Harris’ article he presents the content from a number of slides shown at a UC Berkeley lecture he gave in 2008:
Slide 1: Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.
Slide 2: God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.
Slide 3: After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.
Slide 4: We humans use our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.
Slide 5: If the Moral Law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?
The above slides show Collins’ errant disbelief that evolution can be a source for moral and ethical behavior (the evidence for which Sam Harris gives a short overview of in his editorial). They are also strong evidence that Collins does not adhere to NOMA in the least. His ability to mix unverifiable and unfalsifiable (and therefor to this positivist, nonsensical) religious statements with verifiable and testable science is remarkable, something impossible if NOMA were actually a valid concept. What it is evidence of is a person’s ability (in this case, a remarkable ability) to hold to incompatible ideas simultaneously. This is exactly what PZ Myers meant in his blog Pharyngula when he wrote
The situation is this: the White House has picked for high office a well-known scientist with a good track record in management who wears clown shoes. Worse, this scientist likes to stroll about with his clown shoes going squeak-squeak-squeak, pointing them out to everyone, and bragging about how red and shiny and gosh-darned big his shoes are, and tut-tutting at the apparent lack of fine fashion sense exhibited by his peers who wear rather less flamboyant footwear.
Thus, it is clear that Collins sees no issue with using his position as the head of the Human Genome Project to promote his theology. There is no reason to think he will not continue to do so as head of the NIH. More to the point, we are allowed to submit this track record evangelization for consideration of Collins’ suitability. As he would be in a position to directly affect research directions, his beliefs are relevant, especially when he himself makes them so public.
What if he deems certain areas of research unproductive because they are not compatible with his personal beliefs? For someone with a demonstrably strong belief and an equally demonstrated inability to separate these beliefs from his science, this is a real possibility. I put it to you that his beliefs have influenced his own research directions. Remember, he considers DNA the language of God and so this is what made the Human Genome Project worthwhile to him. It is conceivable that other medically valuable research programs may get short shrift because they don’t meet that personal value judgement.
In the end, True Believers(TM) will praise the squeaking of Collins’ shoes, hailing the cacophony as rivaling Mozart’s Requiem. They point out that the religious beliefs of previous candidates for the directorship of the NIH were not considered, and it is only because Collins is so vocal in espousing his beliefs. Well, duh! The negative effects of Collins on the credibility of Science by conflating his beliefs with some scientific facts completely goes completely unnoticed after the euphoria of confirmation bias kicks in.
Maybe I’m being hasty. Maybe not. Maybe he would be the best NIH director ever. But that’s irrelevant to making the choice for director of the NIH. But, you now what? We don’t have a crystal ball, and the choice has to be made on the history of the candidate. It would help a great deal if Collins would publicly state he will back off on using his position to promote religion. It would likely be illegal to do so anyway, and doing so would prompt a Church-and-State challenge. Even with such an assurance I would still keep my eye on his directives. My trust is limited when I have good reason to limit that trust. Craig Venter, who also headed a parallel program to sequence the human genome, is equally qualified without the controversy and baggage Collins happily carries with him. I don’t know what Venter’s religious beliefs are, and I don’t care one jot. His shoes don’t squeak.
I would be remiss as a fine upstanding atheist if I did not give an example of what kind of inverted thinking Collins’ brand of religion promotes in himself. Harris quotes from The Language of God:
If God is outside of nature, then science can neither prove nor disprove his existence. Atheism itself must therefore be considered a form of blind faith, in that it adopts a belief system that cannot be defended on the basis of pure reason. (Collins, 2006, p.165)
This is the most unscientific statement I have ever seen from a scientist. I would expect Ray Comfort to spout such nonsense, but Collins? My! This is a smoke-and-mirrors argument placing the burden of proof not on the claimant (where it indeed must be placed), but on those maintaining the null hypothesis. Assume something exists even if you can’t verify its existence. Shame on Collins! And believers wonder why those of us skeptical of religion don’t read apologetics books. We get nauseous from idiotic nonsense such as this. Why would we read whole books containing this tripe? There isn’t enough Gravol in the world to stop the queasiness. Good thing we have people out there with strong stomachs that can get through this sophistic garbage.
As Harris points out in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, this is a silly argument, one we see all the time
I suspect that this will not be the last time a member of our species will be obliged to make the following point (but one can always hope): disbelief in the God of Abraham does not require that one search the entire cosmos and find Him absent; it only requires that one consider the evidence put forward by believers to be insufficient. Presumably Francis Collins does not believe in Zeus. I trust he considers this skeptical attitude to be fully justified. Might this be because there are no good reasons to believe in Zeus? And what would he say to a person who claimed that disbelief is Zeus is a form of “blind faith” or that of all possible worldviews it is the “least rational”?
How on earth did Collins ever get where he is with this kind of ‘logic’?
But I’m sure I will still be called prejudiced and bigoted. To those people I say, “Sod off.”