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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.”

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6 Comments

  1. You have good points. But, it all boils down to this:

    Basically, you don’t think Collins would be good for the position because he is a Christian who has such strong beliefs that he isn’t too squeamish about doing a little proselytizing every now and then – whether through books or lectures. Especially taking into consideration the position being attained – which should have none of this sort. Is this an accurate analysis of the point of this post?

    Would you be fine with a Christian scientist who shares 100% of Collins’s views, but distinctly does not take the same proselytistic approach?

    • So long as the candidate has never demonstrated any propensity for injecting or combining religious beliefs with their science (as the vast majority of scientists who are also religious seem quite able to do just as well as those that aren’t), yes. I am a staunch supporter of secularism. I see it as the only way to have a level playing field for all players. As I said, I would be surprised to know that all of his predecessors weren’t strongly religious, and on the whole they have done a great job in making the NIH the beacon of research funding it is today. They just had a greater sense of what the position entails. Collins’ history of using his position to promote his brand of religion (especially when what he talks about in his lectures isn’t just unfalsifiable, but demonstrably wrong) makes a lot of scientists (believers and nonbelievers alike) awfully nervous…

      The directorship of the NIH must be maintained as a secular position. That does not mean atheistic(except to those right-wing religious nutjobs who feel it infringes on their fictitious right to impose their beliefs on everyone else by subverting secularism), though I must admit it seems to be far easier for an atheist to be secular. It means that no person’s religion should even considered in determining their suitability.

      The problem with Collins is that he forces people to consider his religion in determining his suitability for the position because he has a history of using his notoriety to promote religion. That was within bounds when he was head of the Human Genome Project. As director of the NIH, it is strictly out-of-bounds.

      As PZ Myers said in a lecture here in Calgary, religion should be like masterbation: it should feel good, it should be done in private and it should not be a requirement for running for public office. But it’s Collins’ own fault for making his religion front-and-center as an issue. People like Michael Ruse (who acts like a closet theist, not an atheist) just don’t get that.

  2. “So long as the candidate has never demonstrated any propensity for injecting or combining religious beliefs with their science “

    – Yes, Collins isn’t guilty of this. Sure, he is somewhat of a proselytizer, but he does that when he is out of the lab, so to speak.

    Collins’ history of using his position to promote his brand of religion (especially when what he talks about in his lectures isn’t just unfalsifiable, but demonstrably wrong) makes a lot of scientists (believers and nonbelievers alike) awfully nervous…

    – I disagree that he uses his position to promote his brand of religion. He has a position and he has religious views – they are bound to get mentioned under the same breath – especially when giving lectures. It doesn’t matter if some things he mentions related to religion are “unfalsifiable”, (most things in this subject would be unfalsifiable) so long as the things mentioned aren’t in the context of his practicing science. The problem I see here is that you immediately equate religion with belief in the tooth fairy – which immediately makes you think “ah, bad scientist!”. This is a categorical mistake which will be another topic for debate.

    “The directorship of the NIH must be maintained as a secular position.”

    – I agree, and believe that Collins, judging from the history of his work, will keep it that way.

    “The problem with Collins is that he forces people to consider his religion in determining his suitability for the position”

    – I don’t think he has ever done this.(But I could be wrong.)

    “That was within bounds when he was head of the Human Genome Project. As director of the NIH, it is strictly out-of-bounds.”

    – I obviously would argue that he kept his religion separate from his science but I’m glad you agree that he wasn’t “out-of-bounds” as head of the Human Genome Project. It would be preemptive then to assume he will do the same as head of the NIH. But, preemptive or not, you do have basis that he *will* do the same. But what would be so conflicting about what he’s already done and what he is tasked to do at the NIH? I don’t see any conflict apart from his “unfalsifiable” religious notions, which you argue, and still isn’t clear to me, are incompatible with science.

    Hillary once said that she was “touched by the holy spirit”. Lets say she is still being considered for the position she now holds, would you speak out against her too?

    Nice Blog by the way, I don’t mean to be combative here, just having an informal discussion, if you don’t mind.

  3. Sorry I have been away for a bit. When I first read the comment I’d had a few rum and cokes. We haven’t had too many nice weekends up here in the Great White North and our barbecue season is short as it is. Anyway, I’m going to answer your comment in reverse order.

    Nice Blog by the way, I don’t mean to be combative here, just having an informal discussion, if you don’t mind.

    Goodness, no. I think it’s an interesting discussion, especially since this is not a black-and-white issue.

    Hillary once said that she was “touched by the holy spirit”. Lets say she is still being considered for the position she now holds, would you speak out against her too?

    I like this example because I am going to introduce a supplementary example to show where it is I draw the line. I have no issue with the above example. Hillary’s statement indicates nothing that would necessarily interfere her ability to perform the duties of her office.

    Now contrast that with the following situation:

    …Abu Mazen, Palestinian Prime Minister, and Nabil Shaath, his Foreign Minister, describe their first meeting with President Bush in June 2003.

    Nabil Shaath says: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’

    If that kind of thing doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you, nothing will. Do you see where I’m coming from here? There’s a big difference between the two situations and pretty much no middle ground.

    Someone who has a belief in God and leaves their belief outside the lab is one thing. But Collins conflates his unfalsifiable belief with falsifiable science. He’s crossed that line and I am left to draw the conclusion that there is nothing to keep him from doing the same with a secular position such as the directorship of the NIH.

    I obviously would argue that he kept his religion separate from his science but I’m glad you agree that he wasn’t “out-of-bounds” as head of the Human Genome Project. It would be preemptive then to assume he will do the same as head of the NIH.

    If you are saying that it is not within our purview to include his religious beliefs when Collins so readily and publicly includes them in his scientific views, I disagree. He opens that door himself and we are allowed to draw conclusions from it. It is just as preemptive to presume he will be a good director because of his demonstrated administrative ability as an administrator as is his very public conflation of religion and science. Remember, I am not saying this will be the case. I think you are concentrating on the good side and trying to say the bad side doesn’t matter in making a choice. But it does.

    “The problem with Collins is that he forces people to consider his religion in determining his suitability for the position”

    – I don’t think he has ever done this.(But I could be wrong.)

    Oh, hell yes, he did. The moment he wrote his book. The moment he showed those slides. By self admission, his reasons for decoding the human genome were largely religious. All indicators must be considered, even those we might excuse because we are sympathetic towards them.

    “So long as the candidate has never demonstrated any propensity for injecting or combining religious beliefs with their science “

    – Yes, Collins isn’t guilty of this. Sure, he is somewhat of a proselytizer, but he does that when he is out of the lab, so to speak.

    He clearly conflates his science with his religious belief and publicly promotes that. He’s a walking violation of NOMA.

    “So long as the candidate has never demonstrated any propensity for injecting or combining religious beliefs with their science “

    – Yes, Collins isn’t guilty of this. Sure, he is somewhat of a proselytizer, but he does that when he is out of the lab, so to speak.

    Did you not read the slides in the above blog? I think you are relying on wishful thinking here. The evidence that he does is self-reported and overwhelming. You can not ignore these indicators just because you are sympathetic towards them. I would be just as hard on a vocal atheist if the other side of the coin had flipped. I have to admit, though, it seems an awful lot easier for an atheist to maintain secular values than it is for the religious in modern times.

    Collins didn’t seek out this nomination, something I should make clear. He was asked. And I can’t believe he is ignorant of the controversy his appointment is causing, yet he has done nothing to quell the insecurities of those who will be directly affected by his decisions. I think this is also telling, and not a good start. All he has to do is come out and say that he isn’t going to inject that into NIH policy. Yet he hasn’t. He’s not even installed and already he’s off to a bad start.

  4. I resent Francis Collins and Michael Behe not because they’re Christians, but because they bend data to fit their own ideals. Their religious preference has no sway – atheists or not, scientists who abandon the scientific method are simply not doing their job. This is why men like Collins are an unacceptable choice for leadership roles in organizations like this.

    • What really bothers me about Collins is not so much what I wrote here, but what he said when cornered in Religulous. Collins claimed that Maher is setting up a standard of evidence that is impossible for Christianity to meet. The implication is that it is the fault of the standard. As a scientist, Collins should know better! I was embarrassed for him. The standard of evidence I require is emminently reasonable and in proportion to the extraordinary nature of the claim. That Christianity can not meet this standard is not the fault of the standard!


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