Wednesday, August 05, 2009

NIH and Francis Collins

 
I wish that Obama had picked someone else as his nominee for Director of NIH. I'm not opposed to Collins simply because he is religious. I'm opposed to him because he has taken a very public and vocal position on the roles of science and religion. Here's how I've expressed my viewpoint in comments on my own blog and elsewhere.
I'm not opposed to Collins just because he is an evangelical Christian. And I would not be opposed to someone from another faith, nor to an atheist.

But when a person becomes an outspoken advocate of a particular religious belief and establishes a foundation and a website to promote that belief (e.g. BioLogos) then that's a different story.

The banner on the BioLogos site reads, "We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation." Collins has gone beyond merely holding a belief that may or may not be compatible with science. He is now actively identified with a particular position; namely, that science and evangelical Christianity are compatible.

Not only that, Collins is on record favoring the use of his office to promote his personal religious beliefs [Mixing Science, Religion, and Politics].

It would be far better to appoint someone who could maintain a decent separation between religion and science. The Director of a major government funding agency should not be openly advocating a religious perspective on science.

It would be just as unwise to appoint a vocal atheist or a vocal Muslim.
This seems to be a difficult position for most people to grasp. PZ Myers shares my perspective on the appointment [Is it really that hard to understand?] but no matter how many times he tries to explain it, there's always someone who tries to turn it into an attack on all Christians. The latest is Matt Springer.

Religion should be kept out of scientific organizations whether they they are government run, like NIH, or collections of scientists like AAAS and NAS [What Should Scientific Organizations Say about Religion?, Theistic Evolution: How Does God Do It?]. By nominating someone with a strong, vocal, religious perspective, Obama is sending the wrong message.



22 comments :

  1. HHmmmm...Fair comment; I might be inclined to buy that position!

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  2. So, basically, you're saying that scientists should "shut up" about their beliefs to avoid causing contoversies. Where have I heard that before?

    And if officials of the NIH can't have vocal metaphysical beliefs, should they have vocal political beliefs? Should Oppenheimer have been forced out of governmental service because of his political views? Why one and not the other? And why just officials? Should recipients of government money shut up too? Should Jerry Coyne give back his NIH grant?

    Does it only apply to expressing one's views while in office/getting money or do we go back all the way in a person's life?

    Yeah, when so much is left unanswered, I think it is hard to understand.

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  3. John Pieret says,

    So, basically, you're saying that scientists should "shut up" about their beliefs to avoid causing contoversies.

    Nope. That's not even close to what I said.

    Where have I heard that before?

    I can't answer that but given the crowd you hang out with (lawyers) I'm not surprised that you've been exposed to some idiotic ideas.

    And if officials of the NIH can't have vocal metaphysical beliefs, should they have vocal political beliefs?

    Nope. I'd rule that out as well.

    Should Oppenheimer have been forced out of governmental service because of his political views?

    Probably. But the analogy isn't very good. What I'm questioning is more like whether Oppenheimer should have been appointed *after* he made his political beliefs known.

    Why one and not the other?

    No reason.

    And why just officials? Should recipients of government money shut up too? Should Jerry Coyne give back his NIH grant?

    No.

    Does it only apply to expressing one's views while in office/getting money or do we go back all the way in a person's life?

    I think we should stick to evaluating a person's notoriety *before* they are appointed to a position of power and influence. I think it would be highly inappropriate to appoint a well-known racist to the Supreme Court, don't you?

    Yeah, when so much is left unanswered, I think it is hard to understand.

    You always did have trouble understanding complex issues. Glad I could help. :-)

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  4. That's not even close to what I said.

    Why, other than to avoid controversies, should anyone's taking "a very public and vocal position on the roles of science and religion" before taking the office have anything to do with that person's qualifications to run the NIH? (Naturally, what that person does while in office is another matter that can properly be dealt with as we deal with prior partisan political activities.)

    I'd rule that [vocal political beliefs] out as well.

    So science organizations should be run by the terminally bland?

    What I'm questioning is more like whether Oppenheimer should have been appointed *after* he made his political beliefs known.

    And you're always sneering at lawyers. Could you tell me what micrometer you're using to split that hair?

    Should recipients of government money shut up too?

    No
    .

    I also asked why. What is the difference you see between someone paid to run an agency supporting research and the researchers paid by the government to do the research in terms of their "very public and vocal position on the roles of science and religion"? If one one is somehow tainting the scientific organization, why isn't the other?

    I think we should stick to evaluating a person's notoriety *before* they are appointed to a position of power and influence. I think it would be highly inappropriate to appoint a well-known racist to the Supreme Court, don't you?

    So a belief in religion of the sort that Collins practices is the moral equivalent of racism? But you're not opposed to him just because he is an evangelical Christian ... of course not!

    We certainly do appoint people to the Supreme Court with vocal metaphysical, political and other beliefs ... what you call "notoriety." As PZ said in his article (though perhaps not thinking the implications all the wat through), to do otherwise would ridiculously narrow the pool of candidates. If you want to argue there is some line to be drawn between being vocal and being too vocal, I'm sure that you'll give us a nice concise, rational metric by which to measure that.

    You always did have trouble understanding complex issues.

    Well, at least I'm glad we agree that your and PZ's position is a difficult one to grasp.

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  5. John Pieret says,

    I think we should stick to evaluating a person's notoriety *before* they are appointed to a position of power and influence. I think it would be highly inappropriate to appoint a well-known racist to the Supreme Court, don't you?

    So a belief in religion of the sort that Collins practices is the moral equivalent of racism? But you're not opposed to him just because he is an evangelical Christian ... of course not!


    Come on, John! You know damn well what I meant.

    We agreed that an overt racist should not be nominated for the Supreme Court. This establishes the principle that someone's personal views can be important in determining their suitability for a prominent government position. Now we can quibble about price, err ... details.

    Please stop pretending that what someone does in their personal life before being considered for a job has no influence on whether they are a suitable candidate.

    You may not agree with the criteria I'm using for Francis Collins but you're being incredibly disingenuous by suggesting that we should never take someone's personal behavior into account when making an appointment to important government positions.

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  6. John,

    I also think Collins was a bad choice, but not simply because he's a vocal Christian. I think he was a bad choice because he misuses science to try to argue for the existence of God. If he's willing to do that personally, might he do so in his role as NIH Director?

    I hope not. To be fair, I'm not aware of any case where his personal beliefs affected his previous actions as a science administrator. However, his evangelical fervor seems to have increased lately, so his past restraint isn't very reassuring.

    Besides, appointing him NIH Director lends legitimacy to his pseudoscientific arguments for God. And that's a shame, because they're really poor arguments. If he'd left out the pseudoscience, and said his Christianity was based solely on personal revelations, I'd have much less objection. (I don't believe in personal revelations either, but that's another matter.)

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  7. So what are we saying here? That vocal atheists like a PZ Meyers or a R. Dawkins or an L. Moran could or couldn't serve on the NIH?

    JP said:

    Well, at least I'm glad we agree that your and PZ's position is a difficult one to grasp.

    LOL!

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  8. Come on, John! You know damn well what I meant.

    Yes, Larry ... I'm just pointing out the absurdity of it.

    This establishes the principle that someone's personal views can be important in determining their suitability for a prominent government position.

    No, it only establishes that what we deem to be public morality is important in determining peoples' suitability for a prominent government position. You aren't arguing (yet) that his Christianity is immoral, you're arguing that his being a "noisy" theist before the fact somehow disqualifies him, apparently because science organizations and the people who run them are supposed to be purer than Caesar's wife.

    Please stop pretending that what someone does in their personal life before being considered for a job has no influence on whether they are a suitable candidate.

    Of course it does ... if it involves that person's morality or his/her qualifications for the job. You've said his Christianity doesn't disqualify him. You've yet to make a case for his being an "outspoken" Christian somehow changes that. From here, it looks like you, PZ and the other "New Atheists" don't have any criteria other than that you don't like his brand of Christianity. Which, by the way, you are free to assert, but don't try to sell us any guff about it being in the name of the purity of science or government ... especially when you're also trying to sell us the notion that it is some great offense to suggest that "New Atheists" tone down their rhetoric.

    qetzal:

    I think he was a bad choice because he misuses science to try to argue for the existence of God. If he's willing to do that personally, might he do so in his role as NIH Director?

    I think that he is (mostly -- Collins treads the line between science and religion much more closely than, say, Ken Miller does) arguing that science doesn't rule out a God that intervenes in suble ways in the world.

    Besides, appointing him NIH Director lends legitimacy to his pseudoscientific arguments for God. And that's a shame, because they're really poor arguments.

    It could also be argued that atheists prominently opposing the nomination of someone who clearly has the scientific skills for the job does the same thing among theists, by lending "legitimacy" to arguments that "Darwinists" are using science to advance their cause. You can't necessarily hold people responsible for whatever tea leaves people see in the bottom of an appointment or who opposes it.

    Now, I'm not saying that there aren't legitimate arguments against Collins, just that this one ain't one of them and that the claim that his religion doesn't motivate the opposition at all is less than credible (which is not to say it's a lie ... just not well thought out).

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  9. @ Timothy V Reeves,

    I can't speak for any "we," but if a vocal atheist made bad scientific arguments against the existence of God, I wouldn't want them running NIH either.

    I don't want anyone running the NIH if their religious, political, or other beliefs lead them to misuse science.

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  10. I think that he is (mostly -- Collins treads the line between science and religion much more closely than, say, Ken Miller does) arguing that science doesn't rule out a God that intervenes in suble ways in the world.

    Not really. For instance, Collins argues that human morality is evidence for God, because it can't be explained by evolution. He also argues that fine-tuning is evidence for God. Those are both ridiculuous, god-of-the-gaps arguments, but he offers them as supposedly legitimate scientific evidence for God.

    It could also be argued that atheists prominently opposing the nomination of someone who clearly has the scientific skills for the job does the same thing among theists, by lending "legitimacy" to arguments that "Darwinists" are using science to advance their cause. You can't necessarily hold people responsible for whatever tea leaves people see in the bottom of an appointment or who opposes it.

    If I was objecting to something other than Collins's misuse of science, I'd agree with you. But that's not the case. Collins twists science to try to support his religion, and he's being appointed to the most prominent scientific position in the US.

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  11. Qetzal said

    I can't speak for any "we," but if a vocal atheist made bad scientific arguments against the existence of God, I wouldn't want them running NIH either.

    That’s a fair comment, but the trouble is one man’s good arguments either for or against religion/atheism are another man’s intellectual excrement. So in trying to get a just parity between opposing interest groups a detached legal opinion or arbitrator may be sort for. In this connection clearly John P has an aptitude for thinking through the societal ramifications of attempts get a fair solution. He certainly earns his money.

    Whoops! Did I just bring up the subject of lawyers pay again? Perhaps we all ought to chip in toward expenses incurred in John providing expert advice to Sandwalk readers. After all Larry’s not going to be able to afford it on his measly academic pay.

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  12. Qetzal:

    Yes, the "moral sense" argument is particularly the one Collins gives that disturbs me the most, in that he is predicting what science will and will not be able to do. The "fine tuning" argument, though, is a version of the classic "infinite regress" argument that goes back to the Greeks and while you may not like it, I can't say it is "twisting science" ... at worst, it's bad philosophy.

    As Larry is fond of pointing out, scientists often have bad ideas about science. That's why science is properly thought of as a collective enterprise rather than just a string of geniuses advancing human knowledge. I can't see disqualifying him over a few bad ideas ... again, it would narrow the pool of candidates too much. (Think John Holdren.) If it is his use of those ideas to advance religion that is the objection, then I think the opponents have an obligation to show some grounds to believe that he will allow that to influence his official duties. After all, we have a mechanism in place to deal with officials who use their position to advance religion and, absent some cause to think the candidate will do so, that seems like a thin grounds to deny the appointment ... rather like Republican cavils about Sotomayor's "empathy."

    Timothy:

    Whoops! Did I just bring up the subject of lawyers pay again?

    I consider advising Larry to be fulfilling my obligation to do pro bono work.

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  13. ..nice to know that the legal profession takes such a charitable line toward underpayed academics!

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  14. Well Larry, I'll hand it to you, you are bending over backwards to be fair, but as is often the case, and as John is pointing out, there often practical problems in implementing our concept of fairness.

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  15. Timothy V Reeves asks,

    Well Larry, I'll hand it to you, you are bending over backwards to be fair, but as is often the case, and as John is pointing out, there often practical problems in implementing our concept of fairness.

    What were the "practical problems" in choosing someone who wasn't a vocal advocate for religion or atheism? None of the previous directors were a problem. In many cases we don't even know where they stood on that issue because they didn't try to mix science and religion (or science and non-religion).

    I just don't see the "practical problems" that we would have faced by choosing an NIH Director who was much more neutral.

    On the other hand, no matter how you feel about the nomination of Francis Collins, you can't deny that it has become controversial because of his outspoken views on the relationship between science and religion. That can't be a good thing fo NIH and for the scientific community.

    From a "practical" perspective, it would have been far better to have chosen someone who was not controversial on this issue. Right?

    Do you think that conflicts with "fairness"?

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  16. If it is his use of those ideas to advance religion that is the objection, then I think the opponents have an obligation to show some grounds to believe that he will allow that to influence his official duties.

    His naive "scientific" arguments for God are grounds to worry about that, IMO. I gather you don't think so.

    To be clear, I don't think it's likely that Collins will let his religion bias his scientific administration. However, I do think there's enough reason for concern that it should be Collins's job to convince us, not vice versa.

    I think that's all the more important in the US right now, given the previous president's track record of letting ideology dictate science.

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  17. Larry:

    On the other hand, no matter how you feel about the nomination of Francis Collins, you can't deny that it has become controversial because of his outspoken views on the relationship between science and religion.

    "Controversy" can always be manufactured. That alone is not enough.

    qetzal:

    His naive "scientific" arguments for God are grounds to worry about that, IMO. I gather you don't think so.

    No, I can see cause to worry. I also see reason to worry about Sotomayor, who seems quite quick to support police and prosecutors, and conservatives have reason to worry about her too. Worry is not enough in our system to deny an appointment because someone is going to be worried about anyone you appoint.

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  18. Prof Larry says:

    From a "practical" perspective, it would have been far better to have chosen someone who was not controversial on this issue. Right? Do you think that conflicts with "fairness"?

    Yes, clearly its easy if the chosen candidate “just happens” to be either apathetic toward meta-issues or has a policy of keeping mum; but life isn't that simple and people are more usually awkward shaped objects. But as I said, I think you are trying to be fair by applying a “debarred rule” equally to all vocal protagonists; the attempt at fairness is commendable.

    However, an equally symmetrical fairness could be achieved if opinionated and forthright candidates weren’t in principle excluded from this kind of public post*. This would bypass the difficult questions arising from just where the authority comes from to decide that forthright and opinionated candidates should be overlooked and whether this should be explicit constitutional practice or done “on the quiet behind closed doors with no questions asked”. This, to me, sets a very bad precedent in our free societies.

    As for Collins’ appointment being the cause of controversy; for myself I would much prefer controversy to certain types of person being either constitutionally debarred or worse unaccountably marginalised. In any case I thought that in free societies controversy is counted a good thing.

    The “If we can’t have it then neither can you” practice seems a rather juvenile solution in favour of fairness. It smacks of the old contention of just who should hold the keys to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Because distrust between various Christian sects was so rife they couldn’t be trusted to share the keys and nobody got them (A Muslim family holds the keys to this day). I just hope our societies haven’t arrived at a similar juncture.

    I have lots of questions about Dawkins’ views, but would hate to think that his outspokenness would disqualify him from public jobs he could do. The appointment of such people sends out good signals about social inclusiveness, about what sort of people can move freely in society and above all about trust. Moreover, like the atheist bus campaign Richard gets people talking about God. The provocative word “Backfired” comes to mind!

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  19. *Footnote: I'm only thinking of socially acceptable opinions here, not fascism, racism, etc

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  20. John Pieret,

    Of course worry is enough to deny someone an appointment! That's always been the case. If the make-up of the US House and Senate were different, worries about Sotomayor's statements and her potential to be a 'liberal activist judge' (as multiple Republicans have publicly fretted) might easily have been enough to deny her appointment.

    At least Sotomayor was forced to address her controversial statements, and she repeatedly pledged that her rulings would be based on the law rather than her personal views. If we'd gotten as much from Collins, I'd be a lot happier.

    Dissmissing legitimate concerns because "someone is going to be worried about anyone" is specious.

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  21. I started out being inclined to agree with Larry's attempt at fairness. However, John P's provocative comments served to prompt me to think a little deeper about this subject.

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  22. Fuck Francis Collins. By constantly babbling about DNA as "god's code" and other shameless nonsense he's promoting a bullshit artist's attitude to science. His scientific profoundity is comp[letley lacking, the code would have been sewuenced with or without his contribution. I don't care how much of a marvelousl administrator he is, or how wonderful he is spending hours over the phone doing politics. To rule science, let's have a REAL scientist. When the director of the NIh finishes his talks with church songs on the guitsr, you know something seriously fucked up is going on.

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