when you hide behind a phd…
In the popular science blogosphere, a lot of things have been said about Francis Collins’ possible new job as the head of the NIH and many of them were negative. Considering what I’ve written about Collins in the past, you probably won’t have a hard time guessing my opinion on the subject. Plainly put, he’s the wrong person to act as a bridge between scientists, politicians and the public because his goal is to spread his religion using a PhD as armor against his critics rather than advance scientific knowledge. He may be a great project manager and a stellar bureaucrat, but his priorities are not in line with that of a scientific institution which must first and foremost, rely on evidence to make decisions rather than warm fuzzies about supernatural overlords and prayers in front of waterfalls.
Of course Collins’ supporters are playing the evil science atheists are going after a religious person card which makes perfect sense. After all, in a country where almost 80% of the population tends to profess some form of Christianity, the followers of this obscure religion are so oppressed, their leaders need to have meetings about it in luxury hotels and discuss their plight over lobsters and caviar. It’s not just a disingenuous argument, it’s blatantly false. There are plenty of scientists devoted to their religious pursuits but you’d never know it from reading their papers. With Collins, the situation is reversed. He uses his scientific education and status as a bully pulpit from which he concocts elaborate and, for lack of a better word, pseudoscientific justifications for his personal beliefs. Not only that, but he’s proven to be unable to restrain himself and cut down on his blatant proselytizing, ignoring calls for moderation in an alarming display of political tone deafness.
Imagine for a moment if instead of being a scientist up for a post at the NIH, Collins was a devoted transhumanist hired to head the IT department of a Fortune 100 company. One day, analysts and developers come to him with reports of bizarre bugs in a sprawling enterprise system , asking him to allocate some time to track down the bugs and implement a solution at the expense of other projects since the erratic and sluggish behavior of the system is a menace to the entire tech infrastructure. In reply, Collins tells them to leave the bugs alone, insisting that those bizarre errors are really the first stirrings of synthetic sentience as predicted by the Singularity literature. The System, he says, will know all and see all so all your meddling will do is interfere with the System’s work. Instead, he asks them to spend their time looking for a way to download human brains into machines. His tenure would last about two weeks despite his glowing qualifications to be an excellent CIO.
However, when it comes to complex scientific questions, that clear line between personal belief and that personal belief affecting one’s job performance gets very fuzzy. Why? Because the proponents of ideas we’d ordinarily consider out of place and inhibiting to a working environment can be cloaked in a blanket of religious piety and it suddenly becomes “disrespectful and crude” to point them out as detrimental. When you do that with people standing behind a religious shield you’re “offending their beliefs” and you’re supposed to be ashamed of yourself for daring to question their convictions. Unless those vaguely religious ideas aren’t Christian or to some extent Judaic. In that case, knock yourself out and have fun at it. If Collins were a Muslim or a Wiccan, his aggressive evangelizing efforts would be scrutinized from top to bottom by everyone and their second cousin twice removed.
In a country where religion has been promoted as part of what makes Real AmericansTM and a few religious movements are given undue amounts of leverage and reverence, it’s now become all too easy to declare your personal opinion as the truth and deflect all criticism without actually having to address it. This is exactly what Collins’ defenders are doing. Rather than show how aggressively diluting science with dogma helps progress and scientific research, they’ve been pointing fingers as the critics and demanding they back off because the good doctor is a very religious man who takes his faith very seriously unlike those obnoxious, godless heathens. To them it’s a compelling enough argument. To me, it’s an ad hominem defense.