On Francis Collins’ NIH appointment

My gut reaction: I’m not happy with it, but I’m having a hard time getting as upset as Steven Pinker. But the more I think about it, the more I think Pinker has a point.

Independent of Collins’ religious views, he’s an immensely plausible candidate, given that he administered the Human Genonme Project.┬áIt’s a move from one massive scientific administrative task to another. Makes sense. But Collins is also known for his religious advocay, and my guess is that religious advocacy has been almost as important to Collins’ place in the public eye as the Human Genome Project. If not for the HGP, he wouldn’t be in the public eye at all, but if not for his religious advocacy, he’d barely be in the public eye. When the HGP was ongoing, who really cared who the administrative head was? Most people, hearing the word “project” in there, realized it was a massive undertaking not attributable to any one Einstein-like genius (though Kary Mullis’ invention of PCR was pretty pivotal). Religion is Collins’ real claim to fame.

From this, two other things become safe guesses: first, Obama appointed him in large part to suck up to religious people. Compared to giving Rick Warren a key role in the inaugeration, this is pretty small potatoes on the sucking-up-to-religion front. Second, you can bet he’ll use his position as a pulpit. PZ has pointed out that Collins already did this with the Human Genome Project press conference.

As I said at the beginning of this post, though, I had a hard time getting upset at first. These things are, in the grand scheme of things, annoyances. The political process is constantly giving us office holders who got their jobs for semi-arbitrary reasons, as well as office holders who use their positions to get airtime saying stupid things. However, people like Jerry Coyne and Hemant, who say they’re unbothered only because they expect Collins not to use his position for advocacy, strike me as naive. If you feel the way they do about the principle, you should be deeply bothered by the facts.

More importantly, though, The Language of God still said some immensely stupid things about science: unsupported assertions about what science can’t do, as well as some ignorant criticisms of evolutionary psychology. My general impression of Collins is that he really doesn’t want scientific answers to certain questions, to the point where he’s convinced himself (for rather silly reasons) that science can’t answer certain questions. Not the kind of person you want directing the US’s medical research. Steven Pinker puts the point well:

Also, the human mind and brain constitute one of the frontiers of biomedical science. Cutting-edge research treats intelligence, morality, and religious belief as products of evolution and neuroscience. The idea that there is divine design and teleology behind these functions, on the basis of Iron Age and medieval dogma, is antithetical to this vibrant research area. How will Collins preside over the allocation of research priorities if he believes in “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted”?

UPDATE: Coyne was right, I was wrong: Collins is going to resign from BioLogos.

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  1. So, in Mr. Hallquist’s extremely narrow view of the world, any remotely religious person should be automatically barred from any and all scientific activity. Thank God that Mr. Hallquist has no tangible influence over important appointments to organizations such as the NIH. It is entirely possible that President Obama’s NIH appointment was to “suck-up” to religious people. Or perhaps our president made his appointment based on the incredible body of scientific work that Mr. Collins has accomplished and does not let external variables such as religion enter into the equation. Better yet, perhaps President Obama has a soul and truly believes that a little religion injected into all of our earthly works is not necessarily harmful, but actually helpful.
    Thanks for your time,
    Michael Lewis
    (Mechanical Engineer & Christian)

  2. This isn’t what I said. Re-read the post.

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