An interesting controversy is brewing around the recent nomination of Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The roots of the controversy stem from Collins’ book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” The basic questions seem to be: Is Collins mixing his religious views into science? And, for a nominee to a highly visible position as one of our nation’s top scientists, is this appropriate?

Steven Pinker has made a long statement of concern about the appointment, which includes the following:

Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking. This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

The weave of science and religion doesn’t stop there. Collins also founded Biologos.org, a site that:

addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life

The site was founded using funds from the John Templeton Foundation, a group associated with conservative and “intelligent design” leanings.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a public official holding religious views, but espousing them publicly and positioning them as a boundary on scientific inquiry is questionable, especially within an administration Obama himself has claimed is interested in “promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research.”

How far has Collins gone? Here is an answer on the Biologos.org site to the question, “What is the proper relationship between science and religion?”

Science and religion are sometimes thought to offer entirely separate bodies of knowledge. However, science is not the only source of factual statements, and religion does reach beyond the realm of values and morals.

Let that sink in a moment. Here is the nominee to head the NIH saying that religion can be a source of “factual statements.” It seems anti-scientific to say that religious doctrines are as “factual” as the results of objective investigation and controlled scientific research.

This is a controversy worth following, arguably as significant to our community as the Sonia Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court is to the law.

But given the number of things on the national agenda, it’s likely this will advance under the radar. We may soon have as the head of the NIH a man who has recently gone on record with NPR as saying:

Science is not particularly effective — in fact, it’s rather ineffective — in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important.

Update (7 August 2009): Francis Collins was confirmed by the Senate today in a unanimous vote.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

View All Posts by Kent Anderson

Discussion

12 Thoughts on "The Francis Collins Controversy"

Are you, then, advocating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to adhering to religious belief? It’s fine to be a believer, but don’t speak publicly about it if you’re a government official?

I don’t know any more about Collins’ beliefs and opinions beyond what is stated here, but the points raised seem to carry little cause for concern unless one assumes that religious faith necessarily clouds scientific judgement. One only has to do a brief review of the history of science — or of major scientists, perhaps — to demonstrate that that is manifestly not the case.

You quote, as something to fear: “Science is not particularly effective — in fact, it’s rather ineffective — in making commentary about the supernatural world. Both worlds, for me, are quite real and quite important.” You don’t specify which half of that statement you find troubling; perhaps it’s both. But you’ve already said that there’s nothing wrong with Collins holding personal religious beliefs, so presumably it can’t be the “quite real and quite important” bit. And the first part is quite obviously true. Since the supernatural world *by definition* lies outside the realm of science, science asserts — without proof, and unprovably — that the supernatural does not exist. And that is the limit of its possible commentary on the topic. Beyond a doubt, ineffective.

The quotation from Biologos about the proper relationship between science and religion is similarly innocuous. *Of course* Collins states that religion can be a source of factual statements! Most religions make certain assertions about the objective nature of reality. Again, you don’t object to Collins holding religious beliefs, so why is it a problem when he, well, asserts that those beliefs are true and factual? In any case, the complete answer given on the Biologos site is far more complete than that one statement, describing the process by which science and religion inform and complement one another, and concluding with the reminder that “one should always keep in mind the appropriate boundaries for each”.

In short, on the weight of the evidence presented, I’d answer the posed question in the negative: no, Collins is not mixing his religious views into science — in any problematic way, that is. And I’d say that what controversy there is tastes more like fear of religion than anything else.

I would ask you to consider what other public official in any high office has advertised his or her religious views as openly, frequently, and aggressively as Collins. Can you think of any?

It seems like a normal part of social decorum to keep your religious views out of your professional life, but Collins insists on intermingling them. I do find that questionable. It seems especially wrong when he’s trying to mix two ideas that are epistemologically separate, conflating them inappropriately in a force-fit that isn’t necessary or helpful.

For instance, I do find it troubling that he publicly avows a world above our natural, observable world exists as “quite real and quite important.” He should be more cognizant of his role as a voice for science, whatever his beliefs. To your point, is he preaching science or religion here? He should be clearer in his public pronouncements as a scientific leader.

By the way, what religion makes factual statements about the objective nature of reality? Please share one of these. I’m very curious.

Basically, the Collins nomination raised two questions for me. First, is his religious activism appropriate for a scientific leader in our government? Second, should we consider religious beliefs, which the holder apparently has a hard time keeping out of his or her professional life, as potentially undermining a nominated official’s ability to do the job we’re hiring them for, in this case, doing objective science?

As I mentioned, I don’t know much about Collins’ statements beyond what I read on this very page; thus it’s hard for me to answer your first question about other officials who have spoken out in a comparable fashion. I don’t think that our last president’s religious beliefs were much in doubt though … and even President Obama has talked about his faith in public, even to the extent of saying that he prays that he will be “an instrument of God’s will”.

Of course, the presidency is not a science-centric position per se. But I remain unconvinced that a belief in God in any way compromises one’s scientific integrity. The Big Bang theory was proposed by a Catholic priest, and researchers at the Vatican Observatory publish peer-reviewed scientific research to this day. The two are not incompatible. And if Collins were not open and up-front about his beliefs, would he not then face accusations of dishonesty or deceit?

Of course, one’s acceptance of religious statements about reality as *fact* will vary with one’s personal beliefs. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your question on that point. But to take just one obvious example: Christianity asserts that there is a God, one God, who created this universe and all within it. Is that not an assertion, stated as fact, about the nature of reality?

While Bush and Obama made casual references to religion as politicians are wont to do, I don’t think either has written a book tying religion to their professional pursuits, or founded a web site of the same nature. Casual, political invocations of prevailing religious beliefs is normal behavior in politicians.

Religious people can make contributions to science, there is no doubt. I don’t argue that point. My point is that a voice of scientific leadership shouldn’t be clouded by anti-scientific views. Collins is nominated to a public policy and governmental position. That’s different than Lemaitre working privately to elucidate the Big Bang theory.

Asserting a statement as fact and demonstrating it as fact are two different things. A fact is “a pragmatic truth, a statement that can, at least in theory, be checked and either confirmed or denied.” You yourself said that the supernatural cannot be proven or disproven. Therefore, it is, by definition, not factual. And since science rests on facts, religion has no place in it. That’s not a judgment, it’s merely logical.

You just proved my point. Thanks.

The supernatural cannot be proven or disproven *using the methods of science*. The Wikipedia article you quote lists other methods of fact-checking: “reason, experiment, personal experience, or … from authority”. One of the classical approaches to God is, indeed, found in philosophical reasoning. But this is all veering rather far from the question at hand.

You say that “a voice of scientific leadership shouldn’t be clouded by anti-scientific views”. Certainly not. My point is simply that I see no evidence, no facts, to indicate that Collins’ scientific judgement or purity has been “clouded” because of his beliefs. Has his research been called into question? Does his scientific work show signs of compromise? Your original post states that the Biologos site was partially founded by a group with “‘intelligent design’ leanings”, yet Collins is on record endorsing the theory of evolution. He has a lengthy list of scientific awards and honors to his name. He points out the importance of knowing the limitations of science and religion. When I see evidence of his anti-scientific views, then I’ll worry.

By this logic, if someone founded an anti-x group, has published anti-x writings, and has said that anti-x is part of x no matter what, you’d still take a “wait and see” attitude when appointing him to a major public position over funding decisions for x?

That’s incautious.

Imagine how you’d feel if Sonia Sotomayor claimed in her confirmation hearings that, yes, sometimes the law gets too confusing or ethereal for her to not believe that some higher being is at work outside the law, and that this unseen being will guide her in mysterious ways according to a pre-ordained plan and secret coded messages, so she occasionally flips a coin to decide a case’s outcome, knowing that the coin will reflect the hand of this unseen and unknowable being.

You think you’d wait for evidence of her non-judicial practices? How would it show? She’d still make decisions. You’d have to catch her flipping coins.

Instead, I might evaluate public statements about coin flipping and see whether they comport with the nominated role.

I’m afraid I can’t agree with the assumption behind your “anti-x” example. You are convinced that religion is anti-science, it seems, while Dr. Collins (and I) tell you that it is not so. Perhaps we have reached an impasse. But using your terminology, Collins has published “x” writings as well as “anti-x” writings. Should they not cancel each other out? Instead, they co-exist peacefully.

And in general, I’m quite comfortable with the idea of science and religion co-existing peacefully. So in this specific instance — not for some hypothetical “anti-x” case — I advocate an “innocent until proven guilty” approach.

If Sotomayor, through random coin flips, produced a judicial record that was uniformly hailed as just and insightful by most legal experts, I don’t know that I’d ought to be particularly concerned. Are Supreme Court justices always perfect, even-handed arbiters of the law, unmoved by politics or agendas? Why should I trust the judgement of an atheist any more than that of a Follower of the Coin?

On the other hand, it might give me pause if Dr. Collins were to state that God had personally dictated to him the base pair sequences that make up the human genome. He has not, of course, done so.

Fortunately, in both cases, the fruits of their work could be evaluated by their peers who have the expertise to do so.

“If Sotomayor, through random coin flips, produced a judicial record . . . ”

So the ends justify the means?

Science is a process of investigation. Religion is a system of faith. Religious views seek to stop scientific investigation at various points. They are counter to one another at a basic level, and history shows this through the epistemological debates between them, which are still ongoing. Examples of religious persons who have produced scientific advances do nothing to change this basic problem.

Collins has been nominated to lead — not conduct research in, not work in, but lead — a major branch of the scientific infrastructure of this country, in a public role with a public voice. Lately, he has used his public voice to inject religious views into scientific discussions, even using his scientific credentials to justify his religious views.

He has conflated the two in his public image. I didn’t do that for him. Again, my basic concern is that he seems unaware of the importance of separating the two in his public pronouncements, of keeping his religious views out of his day job, and of focusing on being a scientist first and foremost. That is questionable in a nominee to head the NIH.

The conflict is fairly easy to understand. The fundamental idea behind modern scientific inquiry is that facts must be supported by demonstrable evidence. Science acknowledges that humans are easily fooled, and goes to great lengths to control for that. Evidence is a strict, immovable requirement, and evidence is constantly challenged and questioned.

Religion is all about taking things on faith.

In addition to being easily fooled, humans have an astonishing ability to maintain contradictory ideas. Personally, I don’t understand how it is possible to understand the truth of evolutionary biology and simultaneously believe that the bible is the literal word of God. It seems to me that some scientists, when faced with the facts, are reluctant to discard cherished religious beliefs and traditions. So they challenge themselves to get creative and find some way to explain the contradiction.

Take a tour of the Creation Museum (http://creationmuseum.org) in Kentucky and you will see where this leads – so called scientists going to great lengths to explain how dinosaurs managed to fit on Noah’s ark. You get some very creative and very unscientific explanations for things like the fossil record (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rauchdickson/651871668/).

Perhaps Collins picks and chooses which parts of the bible to accept as fact and which to interpret as just being stories or parables. That doesn’t sound very scientific OR very faithful.

Although it is true that there are many great scientists throughout history who have claimed to also be very religious, it is important to remember that many other scientists were burned as heretics for claiming otherwise.

After years of seeing fundamentalists position Christianity as anti-science, it is sometimes easy to forget the long tradition of people of faith pursuing science. The fundamentalists get the headlines (eg, the Kansas Board of Education), and then during the 8 years of the Bush administration, biomedical research is hampered by the stem-cell restrictions and global warming is denied despite scientific consensus.

Given that context, I think the concerns about the Francis Collins appointment are probably healthy, but we go too far if we conflate Collins with fundamentalists, who believe that the King James Bible is literally true and all else is misguided. I have not yet read Collins’s book, but he is not a fundamentalist, right?

Some of the posts here seem to worry that Collins’s faith limits or potentially limits scientific discovery. From what I have heard about his book, I thought his faith motivates his scientific work. Faith did not prevent him from discovering the genes for cystic fibrosis, Huntington disease, and others, or from leading the National Center for Human Genome Research effectively. It isn’t clear to me that his views are antiscientific, but it is clear that he has some nonscientific views. Is there evidence from his NCHGR/NHGRI leadership tenure that his religious views would limit science?

I do see Collins’s book and Biologos.org as counterweights to fundamentalism, and that makes him a very important role model. The need for spirituality is ubiquitous in the human experience, and there are many people of the Christian and other faiths that want to participate in science and the development of empirical knowledge. Those people should not be excluded from leadership positions if they have demonstrated the ability to lead effectively, and it seems that Frances Collins may be qualified, even if he has shared his spirituality with America.

I think Collins does need to explain how religion can be the source of factual statements, as well as other concerns expressed here, and I hope his hearing is a full one. But after 8 years of religion trumping science, to appoint someone like this is an important signal to all Americans that spirituality and empiricism can exist in harmony.

Comments are closed.