Francis Collins as NIH director

I’ve been chewing over what I think of Obama’s picking Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health. (See the New York Times piece here, which includes some reactions by other scientists.)  I guess my first reaction would be to give the guy a break, and take a wait-and-see attitude towards his stewardship of the NIH.  After all, he doesn’t seem to have let his superstition get in the way of his other administrative tasks, and he doesn’t seem to be the vindictive type, either. (I do have an NIH grant!)  I won’t grouse too much about this, but do want to emphasize again that the guy is deeply, deeply superstitious, to the point where, on his website BioLogos and his book The Language of God, he lets his faith contaminate his scientific views.  So I can’t help but be a bit worried.   Two more reactions:

1. I expect Collins to resign from BioLogos if he wants to maintain any scientific credibility.  Yes, the guy has every right to believe what he wants, but a director of the nation’s most prestigious research foundation has to have some standards, and BioLogos is beyond the pale.  Mixing science with faith as it does, it gives people the wrong view of what science is all about and gives his official imprimatur to essentially private beliefs.  Certainly, private expressions of faith are absolutely fine, but Collins has chosen to make his views public, and discuss their relationship to science.  Deism is one thing, but to find God in quantum uncertainty, or to see the evolution of humanoids as inevitable, are pollutions of science.  I will continue to criticize BioLogos for their mush-brain-ness, and will include Collins’s name if he’s still associated with it.

2.  Think about this:  would a nonbelieving scientist who was as vociferous an atheist as Collins is a Christian have any chance to get the NIH spot? I don’t think so.  And a Scientologist who publicly espoused his belief in Xenu and thetans would be considered too much of a lunatic to have responsibility for the NIH. But of course Christianity is a publicly acceptable form of superstition, and Scientology is not.

I had hoped that Obama might end governmental coddling of faith, but it doesn’t look like a lot has changed.

19 Comments

  1. Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    “Private expressions of faith are absolutely fine, but Collins has chosen to make his views public, and discuss their relationship to science.”

    Precisely. And this reminds me to add another question which still awaits an answer from Chris Mooney, to the list that I’m compiling: one of his claims is that ‘we have no business’ prying into people’s private beliefs, but he would have a very hard time finding anyone who disputes that, even among the ‘New’ atheists, so why does he make the claim when he is disputing people who criticize public truth-claims about religion such as those made by Kenneth Miller or Francis Collins? BioLogos is not ‘private,’ so what exactly is at issue here?

    I asked Mooney that weeks ago. I still await a reply.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 11, 2009 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      I fear that Mooney has backed himself into a corner from which he is incapable of extricating himself, due to his ego over-powering what is left of his honesty.

      He seems utterly unwilling to take the short-term hard-path and apologise, and the subsequent long-term easy path of regaining rational adult acceptance of his stance.

      Far be it for me to object to his clear conscious projections to wish to be seen as a cowering mental infant.
      I shall only object should he blame anyone else for his transparent intellectual prostitution to superstition, other than himself.

  2. Andrew M
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Dr Coyne,

    One question that I have is — what exactly does NIH director *do*, and more importantly (something I couldn’t get from the NIH website) what is it that he does that might conflict with his beliefs?

    A few other atheist/science blogs I read have taken the “He’s a great administrator, so it won’t be an issue” approach.

    I know one of the posts related to this one makes mention of stem cell research, and I know you’re holding off on *criticism* per se, but I know I’d appreciate fuller thoughts on what the issues *could* be.

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Best we can hope for is that Collins will find himself too occupied for the stuff he’s had his fingers in. He’s built his portfolio for the Templeton prize.

    • Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Seein’ as how the Templeton Prize far outshines the Human Genome Project & all. Maybe he put the HGP in his portfolio as a footnote.

  4. Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I just hope he lasts long enough to approve my grant:

    http://yrif.org/2009/07/09/my-first-grant-application-to-the-collins-nih/

  5. newenglandbob
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Some of the media reports of the appointment have language in it that makes one’s blood pressure rise.

  6. Francis Collins
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Jerry, if you wish to keep your NIH grant, you will need to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. A quiet afternoon by a waterfall should be enough to convince you of this.

    Sincerely,

    Frank.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 11, 2009 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      Wow!
      The REAL Francis Collins!
      My DNA helix is tri-fold.
      I now believe in the Rainbow Serpent.

    • SLC
      Posted July 11, 2009 at 4:18 am | Permalink

      Jerry, if you wish to keep your NIH grant, you will need to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

      This will happen when the shrimps learn to whistle.

  7. ennui
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    after 8 years of Bush, Obama thought that the NIH could use a little fine tuning?

  8. George Cunningham
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I have known Francis Collins in my professional life and respected his work in genetics. When I read his book “the Language of God” I was so appalled by his lack of scientific rigor and critical thinking when it came to his defense of a belief in Jesus as a personal God that I wrote a book “Decoding the Language of God” refuting his “evidence”. Prometheus Books will release it in December.There is more information on the book at Amazon.com. He is a competent administrator and while I do have reservations about his influence on cloning, embryonic research, HPV vaccination, etc on balance I beleive he will do a good job. We need to combat the false contention that scientist can rationally be Christians using Collins as an example.

    • Joshua Slocum
      Posted July 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      The product description for your forthcoming book on Amazon says this:

      Unlike recent hostile attacks on religious belief, Cunningham’s respectful, well-reasoned discussion will appeal to open-minded people across the whole spectrum of belief and unbelief.

      Do you know who (what entity) wrote that?

  9. Michael Heath
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    We need to consider his appointment an opportunity. We have an evangelical Christian with all the attendant woo, which gives him street cred, with the exception that he accepts the TOE. That’s a rare combination in politics, in terms of what’s stated publically at least. I would argue we heavily lobby him to use his bully pulpit to educate his fellow believers.

    The media would be up for it, they love drama.

  10. Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    The fact that this administration is appointing competent scientists to top posts IS a change from the last 8 years, I think.

  11. Vance Lunn
    Posted July 11, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    The thing to consider is: when it comes to matters of science, does he only consider what is known or theorized using the scientific method? I also would point out that this is why we need to move back away from this strong central government control over every aspect of our lives. If he couldn’t unilateraly make decisions that affected your scientific pursuits, then you would not need to worry about his religion.

    • articulett
      Posted July 13, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      Would you say that if his religious beliefs included the notion that people can be possessed by demons? What if he had Scientology type beliefs?

      Collins thought a waterfall was a “sign” to him from the invisible creator of the universe telling him that Christianity was “The Truth”! You have to be pretty brainwashed not to understand how WACKY that is. Suppose Collins had interpreted this “sign” as proof that he was Moses in a prior life? Or that homeopathy was valid?

      I prefer to have rational people in charge of my government. I don’t buy your apologetic arguments for Collins’ wackiness any more than you’d buy similar arguments for someone advocating an “evangelical Moonie” or a self proclaimed prophet as the NIH director. I think believers in “divine truths” are as wacky as they think those with conflicting “divine truths” are.

      • rimpal
        Posted August 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        The sight of a three stream waterfall struck Collins as a sign of the trinity – the three-in-one. I am wondering why it didn’t strike him to be Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as it did to the explorers of the Grand Canyon! Wacky?

  12. Meryl333 (twitter)
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I recently heard Francis Collins on Science Friday (PBS) and was impressed with his views. Collins accepts BOTH the Creator and the Creation (world) as real. and UNEQUIVOCALLY defends the science of Darwinian creation. There is no disconnect here. (I can give you some references to the teachings of the Vedantin teachers who espouse this wonderfully inclusive POV of qualified non-dualism. A good choice by Obama.


9 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] who can think like a scientist in charge than yet another Jebusite with an evangelical agenda. Jerry Coyne, Steve Pinker, and Eric Michael Johnson all have interesting things to say on this subject. I have [...]

  2. [...] published a discussion of Collins’s appointment called “Jesus Goes to Bethesda.” I weighed in yesterday. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Shoot me now: Francis Collins’s [...]

  3. [...] this pick is getting panned by many that I respect (here,, here and here). So what are the objections? Here are [...]

  4. [...] O resto do texto pode ser lido aqui. [...]

  5. [...] 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 [...]

  6. [...] another lie to Meyer and the Discovery Institute. For the record, what I said about the matter is this: I’ve been chewing over what I think of Obama’s picking Francis Collins as head of the National [...]

  7. [...] summer, when Collins was appointed as the new Director of the National Institutes of Health, many people, myself included, were understandably very concerned, as he is an evangelical Christian who [...]

  8. [...] themselves, who I’m only too happy to name; DRM, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. Keeping in mind that I’m not asking you to agree with them, that I’m not asking you to enjoy [...]

  9. [...] dufus” when it comes to issues of religion and some scientific principles. Coyne says he “can’t help but be a bit worried” about some of Collins’ religious [...]

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