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Francis Collins Appointed as Director of NIH: Science is Attacked Under the Banner of "the compatibility of science and religion"

After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.” Francis Collins, 2008 slide show on science and belief, Berkeley, CA.

"The NIH director needs to focus on science," Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press on Monday. "I have no religious agenda for the NIH." Associated Press, 8/17/09.


Francis Collins, nominated by Barack Obama on July 8, 2009, was confirmed on August 7, 2009 as the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by a unanimous vote of the Senate. Collins’ scientific credentials are impeccable: he is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project.

Collins now:

  • has responsibility for the $30 billion federal budget for biomedical and health-related research;

  • is a key scientific spokesperson in the federal government;

and, for some time, he has been on a very public crusade to proselytize his particular view about the “compatibility between science and religion”. As noted in the AP quote above, Collins denies having any religious agenda for the NIH, but in the same AP interview, Collins again makes a point about harmonizing “extreme voices” – explicitly in connection with how he views his responsibilities at the NIH:

"I do think the current battle that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a productive one," he said. "The chance to play some kind of useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads.” Associated Press, 8/17/09

Collins’ “harmony” is not good for science.

Collins' crusade for harmonizing science and religion

Collins wrote “The Language of God” in 2006, arguing for the harmony of science and his version of evangelical Christianity.  In April of this year, Collins founded the BioLogos Foundation to demonstrate “... the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life.” BioLogos is funded by the Templeton Foundation which for years has used its large wealth (e.g. $1 million 'Templeton Prizes') to buy the complicity of many scientists into its mission of reconciling and blurring the distinction between science and religious approaches to science.

(Collins resigned as head of the BioLogos Foundation when he was nominated to the NIH but made a statement on the BioLogos website expressing his confidence that its work will continue.)

Sam Harris, in a significant op-ed piece in the New York Times, pointed to several dimensions of his views of the problems with Collins' views, including in relation to philosophical and moral questions which are beyond the scope of this article. (see
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/opinion/27harris.html )

But we do need to examine this “harmony” between religion and science, in particular where it comes into conflict with science for Collins, and to examine the political implications of his appointment. A revealing insight into this conflict comes in relation to evolution, a touchstone of science and the scientific method. Collins presented a talk in Berkeley, CA in 2008 on science and belief:
(see http://www.youtube.com/v/DjJAWuzno9Y  for the video of the Berkeley talk)

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

These slides reveal that despite his protests, Collins’ view is in direct contradiction to core evolutionary principles, and to the degree that they influence science and the public understanding of science in this country, his views are very harmful. (footnote 1)

A further glimpse of the real agenda and content of these claims to be showing “compatibility” and to be “building bridges” between science and religion is revealed in this quote from Collins' book 'The Language of God':

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted…. “ (Collins, 2006, p.178)

This reference to “atheistic materialism” serves to delegitimize core principles of the scientific method and to legitimize the introduction of god as a hypothesis in science. Collins argues that it is foundational to understanding reality that there is a God and that God had, and has, a plan for humanity and that this plan operates in and through God’s intervention into evolution. This argument for so-called “theistic evolution” is explicitly applied by Collins to the universe as a whole. (see footnote 2)

To be clear, our own views on these questions are that everyone, of all religious and political views, is welcomed into the on-going struggle to defend science. The Defend Science statement from 2005 spoke to what for most scientists is a core part of our understanding of what constitutes science and distinguishes science from various forms of non-scientific and anti-scientific methods and approaches to science

http://www.defendscience.com/statement.html )

"...one thing the overwhelming majority of scientists have in common is their understanding that, when conducting scientific investigation and applying the scientific method, it is essential to use as a starting point previously accumulated scientific knowledge -- the storehouse of well-established scientific evidence about reality which has previously been arrived at through concrete and systematic scientific observation and experiment and has been subjected to rigorous scientific review and testing. This is what we scientists stand on as our foundation when we set out to further investigate reality and make new discoveries. This is how science has been done and how it has advanced for hundreds of years now, and this has allowed science to benefit humanity in countless ways.

"Genuine science never proceeds from, or uses as its starting point, any set of subjective "beliefs," "opinions" or "faith-based edicts" handed down by religious or secular authorities and proclaimed to be beyond human questioning, testing and investigation. To bring into the scientific process assumptions, religious or otherwise, which were not arrived at by scientific methods, and which by definition cannot be tested by scientific methods, would destroy science as science."

Collins is not just promoting a general philosophical and religious view. From these views he draws, and invites others to draw, purported scientific conclusions that conflict with a scientific view of evolution. And Collins has made clear that he is seeking political allies on the religious right. At the Berkeley forum, Collins spoke of how he is having “good conversations” with people like Rick Warren, right-wing Christian Fundamentalist, who he says is supportive of Collins’ project. Warren is a young-earth creationist and opposes both evolution and Collins' variant of theistic evolution. Although Collins denies it, it is very difficult to see how his passionate and deeply held views will not impact his role as head of NIH, particularly when he sees promoting his view of “harmony” as part of his mission there, as in the AP interview quoted above.

Obama

Obama has repeatedly stated his allegiance to restoring scientific integrity. Recall these words from his Memorandum on Scientific Integrity (3/9/2009):

...But let’s be clear: promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

On the face of it, this sounds good. But the rub is, for Obama these principles are neither determining nor inviolable, they may be and are sacrificed for other perceived needs or political expediencies. Obama has upheld his own version of the harmony between religion and science and he has sought to unite antagonistic elements under one big tent; and that includes extending an embrace and welcome to powerful Christian Fundamentalist currents.

All this has set Obama and his administration in opposition to consistently upholding core principles of science. In the context we find ourselves in the aftermath of Bush, Obama has embraced hard-core enemies of science, and acted as if there is no problem. He has set Christian fundamentalist moral principles as the guide for what kinds of stem cell research can and cannot be done (though in a different way than Bush.) (See Footnote 3) He has not spoken out against the on-going assault on the teaching of evolution in the schools.

With regard to Collins, the issue is not centrally whether he can (or has been able to) set aside his personal beliefs and “do good science”. The position of Director of NIH involves most crucially representing science and the scientific method in the political arena, including to the broad public as well as in matters of policy. Placing Collins in the position of authority as Director of NIH will have harmful effects on science itself, and beyond that, will only embolden opponents of science from the Discovery Institute to their many right-wing Christian Fundamentalist backers. They will interpret Collins’ injection of his brand of creationism into the heart of the federal government's medical and health research establishment as an opening to them injecting their brand of anti-scientific poison into the science classroom.

For all these reasons, this appointment represents a significant and dangerous attack on science and points to the bigger problem for science and scientific thinking represented by the Obama administration.

Footnote 1:

This aspect of “theistic evolution” is a muddle which is in open and sharp contradiction to evolutionary theory. A key point of evolutionary theory since Darwin has been that no plan or direction outside of life on earth itself was required to explain the development of life from single cells to human beings. Stephen Jay Gould and other evolutionary biologists have further emphasized that the evolutionary process does not follow any pre-determined course, (let alone one who's 'purpose' is to create homo sapiens or any other particular species). Rather it is a process full of contingency – the evolution of human beings might not have occurred, for example, if a meteor had not struck the earth about 65 million years ago causing the extinction of most dinosaurs and opening up ecological niches for what were up to that point very small early mammals.

When Collins runs into problems like this, he falls back to (paraphrasing) it really comes down to the question do you believe in God. If you do then God can do whatever he wants.

Footnote 2:

Here is Collins' description of theistic evolution from his book:

There are many subtle variants of theistic evolution, but a typical version rests upon the following premises:

  1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, approximately 14 billion years ago.

  2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

  3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.

  4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

  5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.

  6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.”

There are differences between Collins and his views and those of the most extreme creationists: he accepts evolution (while conceptually enclosing it in a creationist framework and disconnecting humans from the rest of the evolved living creatures, considering them special products of God), he supports stem cell research, including the still-not-approved somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). He has criticized and opposed opponents of evolution including those promoting “intelligent design” and urged them to accept and reconcile facts of science into their religious views.

Footnote 3:

For more details on stem cell policy, see the full Defend Science commentary “Obama's Stem Cell Research Policy: Needed Science Remains Banned and Constrained by Christian Fundamentalist Ideology” ( http://www.defendscience.com/ds_commentary15.html )

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