Francis Collins to Head NIH

By Chris Mooney | July 9, 2009 6:19 am

The New York Times reports that some raised the issue that he is religious and very public with it:

 There are two basic objections to Dr. Collins. The first is his very public embrace of religion. He wrote a book called “The Language of God,” and he has given many talks and interviews in which he described his conversion to Christianity as a 27-year-old medical student. Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Dr. Collins’s evangelism.

Do those complaining think that his “evangelism” will affect his ability to do a good job at NIH? Because if not, I fail to see how this is a relevant criticism.

Is non-supernaturalism being proposed as a criterion for holding a high level science policy position? That would be still more problematic, especially in light of very valid attacks on the last administration for vetting science policy appointees based on politics.

Needless to say, I’m glad of the choice. It elevates to new prominence someone who merges top tier science with religion–a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life.

(I can only guess what others will think.)

P.S.: Great Collins quote from a Time magazine profile, which focuses at the outset on Collins’ defense of evolutionary science: “I think the majority of people in the U.S. probably occupy a middle ground but feel under attack by the bombs thrown from either side. We haven’t heard very much about the way these views can be rendered into a very satisfying harmony. And I do hope that both camps are a potential audience for what I have to say.”

Comments (42)

  1. Matti K.

    Mr. Mooney: “Is non-supernaturalism being proposed as a criterion for holding a high level science policy position?”

    Well, most supernaturalists are strongly discriminated against. Or do you think Collins would have gotten the job if he would have confessed to a sincere and deep belief in astrology?

  2. Gina Mel

    Ever read what Collins writes regarding science? Do you really think astronomers and physicists think his fine-tuning is great science?
    http://biologos.org/questions/fine-tuning/

  3. Archie Bunker

    I disagree. At best, religion shows irrationality. At worst, it’s pretty much schizophrenia.

  4. Ian

    How odd you should think that when nearly every history of science lecturer would credit the many ancient civilizations, with their ‘irrational’ beliefs with scientific knowledge and discoveries. I would even go so far as to say that many would credit the Catholic Church with the birth of Modern Science in Europe owing to it’s teaching from Wis 11:21 that God ordered His creation to measure, number and weight.

    Indeed why would followers of such an irrational belief go onto become some of the greatest scientists the world has known … Avogadro, Coulomb, Pasteur, de Broglie, and many many more over past 1000 years, from Hermann Contractus to say Fr Stanley Jaki (RIP).

    Why should so many of priests be scientists too? Did you know that 35 craters on the moon are named after Jesuit priests? Why is that?

    Heaven forbid anyone with a faith should be a scientist, let alone head up a scientific organisation!

    Now before you say anything about Galileo … what about stellar parallax?

  5. benjdm

    Hypocrite. When naturalist scientists evangelize, they are ‘prying into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview.’ But not when supernatural scientists evangelize – that’s different!

  6. Tom

    “It elevates to new prominence someone who has mastered the art of comparmentalization – a powerful way to show that you really can hold inherently opposing beliefs.”

    FIXED!

  7. Davo

    Nobody doubts Collins’s scientific credentials, but echoing someone’s comment above, why do you get the job if you are an evangelical Christian but don’t get it if you do science and simultaneously believe in fairies or astrology? Actually we don’t even have to go that far; would Collins get the job if he believed in Zeus or Wotan? Would he get the job if he were Mormon? I doubt it.

  8. FredW

    Collins wouldn’t get the job if he were a vociferous atheist, either. So much for tolerance.

  9. andrew

    “Is non-supernaturalism being proposed as a criterion for holding a high level science policy position?”

    Yes, I think using non-super-naturalism in science IS a criterion.

    “It elevates to new prominence someone who merges top tier science with religion–a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life.”

    Yes, it is possible to be hypocritical. It’s also possible for a Medical Doctor to believe diesease is caused by evil spirits… “what a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life!”. We need more Voodoo Doctors in places of prominence! Maybe we need to also elevate the statues of car mechanics who believe in car gremlins because some intolerant, close-minded people seem to think they’re crazy!

  10. It is only the myth that science and religion are incompatible that leads people to believe that you have to be an atheist to be qualified for a high-level science post.

    In any event– if you think that, you’re opposed to the separation of church and state. If you think one must be an atheist for a high-level science post, then you want to mandate a religious test to qualify one for a high-level science post.

    I *would* say that being a creationist would disqualify you for a high-level science post, because that shows that you have bad scientific judgment. But the *fact* is that even though science may lead many to philosophical naturalism, a belief in God is not something incompatible with science. If you reject the results of science on religious grounds, that’s one thing; if you accept all of the results of science, and have good scientific judgment, who *cares* what your religious beliefs are?

  11. Also, compartmentalization doesn’t necessarily imply hypocracy, as Tom says in post 6. It merely implies that one recognizes that human knowledge doesn’t have all of the answers to everything, and that we recognize that there are some places that may be addressed by one mode of thinking, and other places addressed by another mode of thinking. Here are my thoughts on this matter, in which I point out that entirely within the domain of Physics, irrespective of anything outside of Physics, we compartmentalize:

    http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog/?p=102

  12. The White House made specific mention of Collins science and religion work in the official announcement:

    “Dr. Collins has a longstanding interest in the interface between science and faith, and has written about this in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006), which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.”

    Not sure if they were trying to get ahead of folks and mention it first, or if they consider it a selling point.

  13. Needless to say, I’m glad of the choice. It elevates to new prominence someone who merges top tier science with religion–a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life.

    I disagree. I’m glad of the choice because Francis Collins is a great manager and NIH should continue to prosper under his direction. His religion has, and should have, nothing to do with it.

  14. andrew

    “It merely implies that one recognizes that human knowledge doesn’t have all of the answers to everything, and that we recognize that there are some places that may be addressed by one mode of thinking, and other places addressed by another mode of thinking.”

    Science does recognize that it doesn’t have all the answers (that atheists/agnostics believe they/science has all the answers is implied in that statement – find me one scientists that says we have all the answers…). If in the face of the ‘mysteries’ you claim your God and religion fills in the blanks, THEN you claim (if not explicitly) that you have all the answers.

    What is this other mode of thinking your talking about (magic thinking?) and what has this mode of thought given the world?

    How did the first DNA combine itself and life begin? No scientist knows but I bet you Collins has an answer!

  15. I disagree. I’m glad of the choice because Francis Collins is a great manager and NIH should continue to prosper under his direction. His religion has, and should have, nothing to do with it.

    Those are the reasons why he’d be a good choice for NIH.

    It’s a nice side effect that he happens to also be religious, as it is a prominent example that may help us convince the public to accept good science without having to feel like it threatens religious faith in general, despite the fact that fundamentalist theists and fundamentalist atheists alike want us to believe that.

    It’s similar to it being nice that Obama is black. That he’s black has nothing to do with why many of us thought he was a great choice for President. However, the fact that he *is* black is a nice side effect, because it represents how much progress we have made in overcoming the darkness of racism in the heritage of thsi country.

  16. Andrew @14: you’re implicitly leaving out an entire class of questions in your response.

    Science does not have all the answers to scientific questions right now; that’s why we still do science. Nobody knows how DNA first combined itself, but we may someday know.

    However, that only addresses the beginning of what I said. I said that some places may be addressed by one mode of thinking, other places by another mode of thinking. I did *NOT* mean the “god of the gaps” there, where anything that science *currently* doesn’t answer gets filled by religion by default. What I meant is that there are questions that science does not even address in principle, not that there are some things science can address that it hasn’t addressed yet.

    If science could address all questions, then all people who pursue human knowledge would be scientists. There would be no space for artists, humanists, and theologians. Yet, even though you may reject theologians, very few atheists reject artists and humanists out of hand as being intellectually worthless and irrational. I’m suggesting that we admit that we all do accept that there are multiple “ways of knowing”– by which I don’t mean that there are multiple ways of understanding the natural development of the human species, but that there are some questions that are addressed by other means than science. Philosophical naturalism is not the end-all and be-all of productive human thought.

  17. Rob Knop @15: It’s a nice side effect that he happens to also be religious, as it is a prominent example that may help us convince the public to accept good science without having to feel like it threatens religious faith in general, despite the fact that fundamentalist theists and fundamentalist atheists alike want us to believe that.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly here. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it’s a nice side effect, and for the reasons you stated.

  18. andrew

    “It’s a nice side effect that he happens to also be religious, as it is a prominent example that may help us convince the public to accept good science without having to feel like it threatens religious faith in general, despite the fact that fundamentalist theists and fundamentalist atheists alike want us to believe that.”

    Yes – if you have a very uncommon, academic, liberal view of religion which allows you to change and contort your beliefs every once in awhile – that kind of religion and science CAN get along. It sounds like your narrow view of ‘sensible religion’ also limits the kinds of people that are able to practice science. The Karen Armstrong’s of the world are few and far between, and I wouldn’t even call that type of ‘thinking’ religious. Believing 5% of a religions tenets in a metaphorically way makes someone religious just as being able to give someone stitches makes one a surgeon!

    Fundamentalist theists and atheists don’t need you to believe anything. You can read on your own the history of science and about the beliefs of different religions, or not.

  19. andrew

    Theology isn’t ‘another mode of thinking’. They ‘attempt’ to use logic and science as well (they just start out with some bad assumptions).

    I guess I need you to give me examples of this ‘other mode of knowing’. Besides logic, reason, testing, communication, collaboration – what does this other mode involve (emotions, divine intervention)? Sometimes it reads like your confusing ‘knowledge’ and ‘thought’.

    “What I meant is that there are questions that science does not even address in principle”
    Examples please… like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin? I don’t mean to be crude (maybe a little humorous) but I just don’t know what you’re talking about.

  20. mcmillan

    I’m pretty much in agreement with TomJoe. Collins will probably be fine with the day to day business of running the NIH, but there’s probably lots of other people that would be just a qualified. When Collins’ name has come up as a potential appointment there always seems to be people at least implying, if not flat out saying, that he’s additionally qualified for his outspoken religion. That this was included in the announcement seems to say that it was a factor in the decision.

    This goes beyond saying religious belief is compatible with being a scientist in the public eye, where I’m more or less in agreement with Chris Mooney. This is making religious belief into a criterion for administrative positions in governement which is too much for me to be happy about.

  21. Questions that can be of tremendous importance to people who want to get through the day, or who want to figure out how to best organize society, but which are not addressed by science:

    * What are the goals of society? (We can, at least in principle, empirically determine the best political and economic systems to address those goals, but what *are* the goals? Maximum production of durable goods? Maximum individual freedom? Maximum safety from physical harm? Maximum opportunity for individuals to excel? Maximum economic security for all? Minimum difference between the least privileged and most privileged in society? Science can’t tell us which of those is the *right* answer, it can only potentially tell us once we’ve chosen those goals, whether or not our systems are really working towards the m.)

    * What is beauty? (And, I do not mean, “what is the biochemical and neurological response to beauty”, which is a scientific question that some scientists are already addressing. I mean, what *is* beauty itself? That’s not even a meaningful question scientifically, but a lot of people pursue understanding of what beauty is, and it holds meaning for a lot of people.)

    * What is the meaning of my existence? (Scientifically, you would either say that there is no such thing as “meaning”, or that the meaning and purpose of our existence is dictated to us by evolution: specifically, to propogate our own genes as efficiently as possible. But, as Hamlet says, “What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed?” Reducing our lives to being mere biological machines that play a clockwork role in the process of evolution is nihilistic. Most people create or find meaning in their lives far beyond that. This is not science.)

    * Perseverance in the face of extremely difficult situations. Again, science can help tell us what works, but what works is not always itself science. Many people over history have been able to hold themselves together while in the shadow of the valley of death through their religious faith. We may well be able to show why psychologically it works from science, but that faith itself is not science.

    Just a few small examples.

  22. Yes – if you have a very uncommon, academic, liberal view of religion which allows you to change and contort your beliefs every once in awhile – that kind of religion and science CAN get along.

    Why do you consider this to be so uncommon? This is the type of religion that was once described as the ‘mainstream protestant religion’ in the USA. Nowadays, the kind of religion that seems to get all the press, and the only kind that militant atheists seem to think should have the name “religion”, is the sort of religious fundamentalism that either rejects science, or twists science and argues that all scientists are doing it wrong.

    Is the Catholic Church an uncommon academic religion that doesn’t represent what many people believe? And, yet, it fully accepts evolution and the Big Bang and all of that. True, it had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting this kind of thing, and was behaving in a decidedly anti-science manner a few hundred years ago. Nowadays it’s an example of a very mainstream religion that doesn’t wholesale reject science, and whose doctrines *have* adapted over the years as humans have better come to understand the world. If it didn’t adapt its understanding of its doctrines, it would still be arguing that Galileo was heretical and that geocentrism was right!

  23. ChrisZ

    But remember folks, when Atheists evangelize it is destroying our countries scientific literacy!!!

  24. “Needless to say, I’m glad of the choice. It elevates to new prominence someone who merges top tier science with religion–a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life.”

    As always, that simply steps around the real problem. People have pointed this out over and over and OVER again yet Chris never acknowledges it. Of course “you really can have both in your life” but that is not the same thing as epistemic compatibility. Everybody already agrees that you really can have both in your life, the question is whether you can have both in your thinking without denial or evasion or compartmentalization or some other defective “way of knowing.”

    I do wish Chris would address this, just once, instead of always addressing what no one disputes instead.

  25. Ophelia @24: Everybody already agrees that you really can have both in your life, the question is whether you can have both in your thinking without denial or evasion or compartmentalization or some other defective “way of knowing.”

    If I tell you that I can have both in my life without denial, evasion, compartmentalization, or some other defective “way of knowing”, would you believe me? What sort of evidence would it require to convince you? A lot of people make the claim that I cannot do so, but the only thing they have to back up that point of view is their own opinions.

  26. TomJoe — there’s no hope. The New Atheists believe, *by definition*, that if you’re a scientist and if you’re religious, that you have to have a defective “way of knowing”, because they believe religion to be a defective “way of knowing.”

    It’s no more useful trying to convince them that you’re not defective in your thinking than it is trying to convince a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist creationist that we *know* the Universe is billions of years old. They have very firm beliefs that they will not budge on.

    The only hope is to convince them that by being so callous, rude, and “out their” with their beliefs, they are hurting a common cause that we share with them, specifically, the cause of good science education. Likewise, I wish that creationists would shut up, because *they* hurt a cause I have in common with them, specifically, convincing rational people who aren’t Christian that it’s OK to be Christian.

  27. Ugh… “out there”. How embarassing. Writing “their” when you mean “there” is one of my pet peeves, and I just *did it*. Blush.

  28. Rob – TomJoe — there’s no hope.

    I pretty much suspect as much, I just want to read it from Ophelia’s own hand. She wants Chris to address it. The point is, is it worth addressing at all? If by her own admission, there is no hope, then she should stop asking Chris to address it.

  29. bob

    @Rob Knop: Thank you for informing me that, *by definition*, I am an arrogant, bigoted fundamentalist. I had no idea! Or, do I not count as a “New Atheist”? Do I have to have a well-read blog or best-selling book to warrant the proper noun? Is there a membership card I should have received?

  30. Arj

    Personally, I’d have a lot more beefs with NIH itself, than I do with this choice of leadership for it.

  31. Bob — do you think that anybody who is religious is deluded or ignorant? Do you go around stating that opinion publicly a lot? If so, then, yes, you’re arrogant and bigoted, and you’re a “fundamentalist” in the sense that you can’t imagine somebody having a view on religion different from yours without that person being worthy only of insult.

    Mind you, some may have a different idea about the definition of “New Atheist” than I do. All the terms I’ve tried to use in the past have generated scorn and derision — militant atheist, fundamentalist atheist, angry atheist. What I’m talking about are the sort of atheists who think that anybody who doesn’t agree with them on religion must be ignorant, deluded, or stupid, and has no hesitation whatsoever about sharing that opinion widely and in the face of the religious. That’s what I consider to be bigoted behavior.

  32. Is the Catholic Church an uncommon academic religion that doesn’t represent what many people believe? And, yet, it fully accepts evolution and the Big Bang and all of that.

    Is the Catholic Church an uncommon academic religion? Phrased a bit oddly, but kinda, yeah – remember, only 58% of American Catholics agree that evolution is the best explanation (etc.) (Pew poll). I generally assume that what most people believe is a form of popular, often personal, religion not astoundingly similar to the elite forms of their tradition.

    . The New Atheists believe, *by definition*, that if you’re a scientist and if you’re religious, that you have to have a defective “way of knowing”, because they believe religion to be a defective “way of knowing.”

    Perhaps the best way to put it would be that religion isn’t necessarily a “defective” way of knowing in this sense because (at best) it simply isn’t a way of knowing, as understood within this argument (Creationism and such presumably still fall into the “defective ways of knowing” category – here I’m thinking of “sophisticated”/liberal/non-fundy/etc. religion). Arguably a way (ways) of living/coping/feeling/dealing/thinking, etc., but not of knowing in this sense.

  33. Dan S @32: … only 58% of American Catholics agree that evolution is the best explanation.

    Is this a problem of the Catholic Church however, since the Catholic Church is on record as not being diametrically opposed to evolution? I contend not, that instead the problem rests with the education system.

  34. John Kwok

    What matters most with Francis Collins’s appointment as head of NIH is both his scientific and administrative abilities. I really don’t care about his particular flavor of Christanity as long as he:

    1) Recognizes that evolution is valid science – which he most certainly does – and presumably recognizes too, evolution’s key role in directing future research in medicine and epidemiology.

    2) Demonstrates that he is a capable administrator, which he most certainly did as the director of the Human Genome Project.

    IMHO other considerations, including his religious beliefs, are irrelevant regarding his qualifications for and ability to serve as the head of NIH. I am reasonably confident that the aforementioned points were among those strongly considered by President Obama and his key officials in science and technology.

  35. John Kwok

    @ TomJoe –

    Clearly Ophelia Benson is letting her irrational attitudes towards religious faith override any reasonable considerations she might have to understand why Collins was tapped by President Obama for this position (But what more can we expect from her, when it’s standard operating procedure?).

  36. tomh

    @ #25 TomJoe wrote:
    “If I tell you that I can have both in my life without denial, evasion, compartmentalization, or some other defective “way of knowing”, would you believe me? What sort of evidence would it require to convince you?”

    How about an example of this “way of knowing” and just what it is that can be known in this way. Known, as I understand it, means knowledge learned. Can you describe this alternate “way of knowing” that enables you to gain knowledge?

  37. Dro

    Francis Collins possesses greater intellect than anyone who has posted on this blog, myself included. I think he’ll do just fine…now get back to work.

  38. Heraclides

    It elevates to new prominence someone who merges top tier science with religion–a powerful way to show that you really can have both in your life.

    As far as I can see, that isn’t the conflict in his appointment. If he had religious beliefs, but never raised them in the context of his work, or used his position to raise or promote them, then I might agree. (In this case, the fact that they never needed to raise them would illustrate that they really could have both without issue: that they “have” to raise them suggests otherwise.)

    The conflict is that—apparently, I have to trust others on this—he raises his personal religious beliefs in the context of his day job and uses his position to promote them.

    Anyone who uses their position to push personal agendas is open to query as to if that is sound. If someone believes in some particular “natural health” “woo” and uses their profession position or status to promote it, they’re open to query, right? See the logic?

    (Nothing I’m writing here says anything about how well he’d do, just why I think it’s a fair thing to look closer at his appointment.)

  39. John Kwok

    @ Heraclides –

    Collins directed the Human Genome Project successfully for years. Not once did I hear anything even remotely suggesting that he placed his religious views ahead of his science.

    All that the current “controversy” about Collins’s “fitness” to serve as NIH head is really, nothing more than a ridiculous tempest in the teapot stirred by Militant Atheists of the Coyne and Myers variety.

    I concur with Dro’s excellent assessment (@ 38) of Collins’s “fitness” to serve as NIH head. It is a sentiment that I endorse strongly.

  40. nastassja08

    francis collins is the perfect choice. the right mutation for our changing times. if he is 100% christian, then science would not go forward. if he is fully a scientist and atheist, then what would stop him from merging humans and apes to create a new breed of unquestioning servile creatures? baing christian and scientist is a cautious way of going into that brave new future.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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