Nature Immunology to Francis Collins: You’re not helping

A while back I wrote about Francis Collins’s new edited collection, Belief: Reading on the Reason for Faith, and, deciding he had crossed the line between science and woo, recommended that he step down as director of the National Institutes of Health.  He won’t do that, of course.  But it’s not just the militant fundamentalist atheists who worry about this.  Prompted by Collins’s book, the editors of Nature Immunology recently published an editorial called “Of Faith and Reason” with the subheader, “The openly religious stance of the NIH director could have undesirable effects on science education in the United States.” Decrying the low acceptance of evolution in the U.S. compared to Europe and Japan, they indict Collins for contributing to our climate of ignorance:

The publication of the book has great potential to reignite some nagging doubts over the election of Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many hoped that after his nomination he would refrain from publicly discussing his religious convictions and step down from projects such as Biologos, which attempts to reconcile evolution with the idea of God. This, however, has not been the case, and although most agree that Francis Collins is a skilled administrator, there are justified concerns that such public embrace of religion from an influential scientist may have negative consequences on science education.

A correction: Collins did indeed step down from BioLogos when he went to NIH. (The editorial makes one other error: it was a U.S. District Court, not the U.S. Supreme Court, that decided Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al. in 2005.)

. . . Given that US culture has a tendency to blur the distinction between man and office, the nomination of someone with strong evangelical convictions as the director of the NIH can further muddle the creationist versus- evolutionist debate in science education. Although written before his nomination, the new book is being promoted using the author’s credentials as director of the NIH. In the introduction and in interviews surrounding the book release, he describes his belief in a non-natural, non-measurable, improvable deity that created the universe and its laws with humans as the ultimate aim of its creation. Some might worry that describing scientists as workers toiling to understand the laws and intricacies of this divine creation will create opportunities for creationism adepts.

While its parent journal, Nature, continues to osculate the rump of faith, Nature Immunology takes a firm stance against woo.  It’s ironic that while accommodationists of all stripes chastise atheists, claiming that our hard-line distinction between science and faith drives people back to creationism, it takes a European journal to see Collins for what he is: a peddler of superstition.


  1. steve oberski
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    osculate the rump of faith

    Well it could be worse, they could be kissing their asses.

  2. Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Collins. Meh.

  3. Donovan
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t be so worried about Collins for one small, and seemingly condescending, reason: creationists aren’t that smart.

    The argument Collins makes in favor of a divine creator is complex (abstract and meaningless, but complex) and requires the same level of mental rigor and scholarship as understanding science, though I’d say Collins’ version is far more complicated, since there can be so little agreed upon basics.

    Creationism and ID are appealing because people don’t have to think. They don’t have to challenge their core concepts of the universe. I argue that the vast majority of the people we are concerned with are not smart enough to jump on Collins’ wagon. I agree he should remain secular and unbiased while conducting his duties, which unfortunately for him is 24/7 now (but he’s free to step down if he finds it unfair). But let’s not get distracted from the real issues feeding creationism: intellectual laziness and culturally induced fear.

    • BradW
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink


    • GM
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s not how Collins is portrayed to the public though. Yes, the argument is sophisticated and requires somewhat advanced scientific education to understand (and once you have that, it is easy to refute). But it is enough to tell the average person on the street that the head of the major scientific funding agency in the life sciences is an evangelical Christian, which is a very simple statement, to enforce their beliefs.

  4. Alan Packer
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    It should be noted that Nature Immunology is not a European journal. It’s edited and published in New York.

  5. sasqwatch
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Am curious… what this about Nature kissing religion’s ass?

    • sasqwatch
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      ah… I think I found a piece of buttkissing by Philip Ball. OK, I can vomit now.

      • BradW
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        From the ref’d Ball article, he would appear to be a fairly reasonable type of person, but I think he grossly underestimates the dangers of the radical, right, religidiiots in our country.

        Unfortunately they want white supremacy and a theocracy. OVER MY DEAD BODY!!!!!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      To take two other examples besides Ball’s piece: here and here.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        That’s some raving lunacy, there. What’s curious to me is the lack of comments on Ball’s piece (of shit). I’d love to know if this was because they were flooded with sarcasm that they subsequently chose to vet, or if Nature readers in general don’t give a damn about the topic.

        • Ken Pidcock
          Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          (1) I’m not sure it’s raving lunacy. (2) The latter, I think. Actually, Nature readers rarely comment on much of anything.

    • GM
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Very simple – Nature is in the business of making money, not in the business of promoting scientific literacy and defending science from its foes.

      It seems intuitive that its mission should be the latter given its status as one of the two most prestigious scientific journals, but the reality is different. As a result dangerous positions and ideas are avoided…

      • sasqwatch
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Makes sense. And that has been characteristic of my dealings with Nature when they butchered the controversy about African HIV transmission routes. It was received wisdom and politics all the way, with a dash of good-ol-boy dynamics to seal the deal.

  6. daveau
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Lots of us can see Collins for what he is. What we can do about it is another matter.

    I admit that I had to look up “osculate”. Handy new vocabulary word.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    But it’s not just the militant fundamentalist atheists who worry about this.

    Ummm…I know you don’t really use this nomenclature to describe anything, Prof. Coyne. I take this as a joke, but it can be used by the religious.

    • Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Oh they have so many other sources for that phrase, I don’t think there’s much need to worry about ironic use of it here.

    • Posted July 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      What Ophelia said. I don’t think we need to bite our tongues every time we are tempted to a bit of irony or sarcasm. We’ll be quote-mined anyway, so we might as well be ourselves rather than eviscerating our own prose. It’s no good having to second-guess constantly about the political wisdom of every phrase. That would paralyse us.

  8. Tulse
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Boy, Nature Immunology is so strident! They are not helping! Surely we should only judge Collins by his scientific work! Don’t they know he’s an important accommodationist?

  9. littlejohn
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    As bright a man as Obama clearly is, his background, like mine, is in the liberal arts. I don’t think he understands why Collins’s appointment, despite his professional credentials, was not the best choice.
    I often find myself speculating on the president’s actual religious beliefs. I assume that since our presidents, with a few obvious exceptions, come from the elite classes, many must have been closet atheists. I think we can safely claim Jefferson, for example.
    It’s a damn shame presidential candidates, unless, like Jimmy Carter they are genuinely religious, are forced to lie about the topic.
    It might be interesting for a presidential historian to make a list of likely skeptics among our presidents. Any volunteers our there?

    • Marella
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      I’d be willing to put money on Obama being an atheist. His upbringing is classic. Atheist mother, spent time in Muslim schools, then came to America and found Christianity. I guess it’s possible he believes but I really doubt it.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        In a post here a while back, I suggested that Obama might be an atheist. Most of the commenters would have none of it!

        • Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          That’s because we’d like to, and we’re wary of wishful thinking!

          • artikcat
            Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:27 am | Permalink

            Thank you Ms Benson

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Nixon, I’d bet. Offer good enough odds, I’ll take Reagan. Everybody says Lincoln, but he seems really complicated. Obama? You’d think so, since his rationality is so exceptional among American political leaders. But, remember, we’ve been talking about Francis Collins here. It seems that you can’t be too smart to compartmentalize.

  10. Bruce Gorton
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Just a heads up:

    I live in South Africa, and my mother is an auditor. She recently attended a SAICA fraud seminar.

    One of the speakers, Mario Fazekas, raised evolution as an example of a “hoax” including the following in his slides.

    First slide (Note I am retyping from hard copy here)

    Heidelberg Man Built from a jaw bone that was later conceded to be human.

    Nebraska Man Built from one tooth and later found to be from an extinct pig.

    Piltdown Man the jawbone turned out to belong to a modern ape.

    Peking Man 500,000 years old. All ‘evidence’ has disapeared.

    Neanderthal Man At the international Zoology Congress (1958) Dr Cave said that the skeleton found in France >50 years ago was that of an old man with arthritis.

    Cro-Magnon Man One of the best established fossils is at least equal in physique and brain capacity to modern man, so what is the difference?

    Modern Man this genius thinks we came from a monkey.

    Remember, this is a guy who is giving a fraud seminar to Chartered Accountants.

    • Bruce Gorton
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      Second slide.

      The archeoraptor fossil was introduced in 1999 and hailed as the missing evolutionary link between carnivors and birds.
      “The idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs is supported by tremendous amounts of evidence,” said Kevin Padian, curator of the university of California, Berkely, Museum of Paleantology, and a professor of integrative biology.
      It was fairly quickly exposed as bogus, a composite containing the head and body of a primitive bird and the hind limbs of a dromaeosaur dinosaur glued together by a chinese farmer.
      This article was retracted after the fossil “Archeoraptor liaoningensis was shown to be fraudulent

      Unlike the first slide, the basic gist of the story is acurrate – except it leaves out some major details. Such as the fact that the scientific community were iffy about it from the start, and that it was revealed just about as soon as scientists got to take a closer look at it.

      Remember, this is a guy giving a fraud seminar – the basic internal control within the science community called “Peer review” should have been at least mentioned here. Archeoraptor was published without that.

      • Bruce Gorton
        Posted July 24, 2010 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        Third slide:

        Scientists behaving badly:

        0.3% of scientists falsify data.
        0.3% not properly disclosing conflicts of interest.
        1.4% using other scientist’s ideas.
        1.7% unauthorized use of confidential information.
        4.7% publishing same data more than once.
        6% failing to prevent(?) contradictory data.
        10% inappropriately assigning authorship.
        10.8% withholding critical methodology data
        12.5% overlooking other’s use of questionable data
        15% change design/methods/results to suite sponsor
        15.3% dropping data points
        27.5% inadequate record keeping.
        source: Martinson et al., Nature 435:737,2005 (June 9th,2005)

        Three panels from a fraud seminar, given in a third world Country, to our Chartered Accountants. Some of whom may end up amongst our CEOs.

        I am not going to retype the rest because, frankly the rest doesn’t deal with science, but I think those three slides demonstrate the issue well enough all by themselves.

        This is what religion is doing to my country, and continent it sits on. Want to know where AIDS denialism comes from? Or belief in witchcraft even amongst our highest echeleons of business and politics?

        Yeah. That is where it comes from.

        • Posted July 24, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink


          Well done typing all that.

          Will you be blogging on it?

          • Bruce Gorton
            Posted July 24, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

            I can’t until Monday (blogging policy issue).

            Which isn’t such a bad thing because when I heard of this I saw red.

  11. articulett
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Zowie, Bruce!

    This supports Gregory Pauls’s studies which show a strong correlation between non acceptance of evolution and societal ills.

    This is even true in the microcosm of of the U.S. as well as internationally.

    I don’t see how accommodationists can see this data and not understand how the sense of entitlement given to religion exacerbates non acceptance of evolution along with the corresponding societal ills associated with scientific ignorance.

    When we stop kissing the ass of religionists, maybe people will get their science from scientists rather than self appointed experts on the imaginary.

    • ennui
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      A little easier to read, a 2007 essay from Paul and Zuckerman covers the same ground:

      It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where wealth is concentrated among an elite few and the masses are impoverished that the great majority cling to the reassurance of faith.

      Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

      As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one’s middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarians culture emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples’ need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life’s calamities, help them get what they don’t have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven. One of us (Zuckerman) interviewed secular Europeans and verified that the process of secularization is casual; most hardly think about the issue of God, not finding the concept relevant to their contented lives.

      The result is plain to see. Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity. They all go material.

  12. Bruce Gorton
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Now my big question here is – who is Dr Cave?

    • articulett
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink,9171,810450,00.html

      • articulett
        Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        You’ll notice that’s from a 1958 article commenting on events that happened almost a hundred years ago.

        • articulett
          Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          Unlike creationism, science has come a long way in the last 100 years… especially when it comes to filling in the details on our origins. We’ve done things like, oh… map our entire genome… and those of our nearest kin… and discovered the Neanderthal are not our ancestors– rather, they were a separate species.

          Creationists are so incurious about recent discoveries in science because they are stuck on whatever it is that helps them believe that evolution cannot be true.

          What was your mother’s reaction to this?

          • Bruce Gorton
            Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            Well she apparently bit her tongue up until the final slide – where she pointed out that with only 0.3% of scientists falsifying their data, they seem like a pretty honest bunch.

            Mom is awesome.

        • Bruce Gorton
          Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Not only that – it looks like Dr Cave did NOT say that the Neanderthal fossil was an old man as in an old human – but rather an old neanderthal.

          It is very, very different.

  13. Nick (Matzke)
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Hmm, in one part of the thread, “map our entire genome” is listed as one of the great achievements of science. In the rest of the thread, Francis Collins is being bashed like he’s some idiot creationist. Irony anyone?

    • Bruce Gorton
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Isaac Newton pretty much revolutionised physics.

      He also believed in alchemy.

      Irony anyone?

    • articulett
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Is every post of yours this clueless?

      We all acknowledge FC’s science skills; it’s the fact that he USES that science to try and justify his magical beliefs (and he does so publicly) that is the problem. I suspect you’d get a clue if his magical beliefs were different than yours.

      Of course, the clueless are always the last to know they are the clueless ones. Way to miss the point, yet again. (And Venter’s group was first anyway.)

  14. Scote
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Mooney has his attempt at face saving up again:

    “See here. It is a very good piece of work–and you know I don’t often agree with Coyne. I’ll have a bit more to say as soon as I can get a post together, but there really isn’t much more to say…”

    I tried posting this response:

    Well, actually, there is much more to say, like why didn’t you, the **journalist** who has a career that includes exposing falsehoods about science and scientists, do the fact checking Coyne did?

    But I seem to be banned, my comments don’t even go into “moderation,” just straight into the Mooney Memory Hole, where all inconvenient criticism goes.

    But it is pretty funny that Mooney posts this as if this somehow vindicates him when it does the opposite, showing how he utterly failed to check the facts in total abrogation of his duty, a duty that he certainly had by the time of his 4th post on the matter, his “I was victimized” not-so-mea-culpa, and that his continued attempts to claim that the event might have still happened as described were merely the petulant obfuscations of a former journalist who has no interest in getting to the truth if it conflicts with his prejudices.

  15. Scote
    Posted July 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink


    Wrong thread.


  16. Posted July 26, 2010 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    It has now been blogged.

  17. MJ
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I like the description of Collins’ belief as being in “an improvable deity”. Sure could use lots of improvement!

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