Francis Collins Worries Me

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

Like Hemant, I’ve been watching the imminent appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH.

Unlike Hemant, I’ve been very… apprehensive.

For one thing, I worry that he will bring religion into everything, partly in an official capacity.  On the first three pages of his book, he writes about how he “felt compelled to invoke a connection with God” (his words) in his and then-president Clinton’s statements during a 2000 press conference (Collins was in charge of the Human Genome Project at the time).  (via Sandwalk)

Reading the Salon piece by Chris Wilson did a little to assuage my fears, but not enough.  Hemant approvingly quoted this passage:

This formula [between the “unsolved” and the “unsolvable”] offers a convenient litmus test for where Collins falls on a variety of questions: If a given problem appears to be merely unsolved, then he’ll leave it to the realm of science; if, on the other hand, Collins deems a question to be unsolvable, it’s fair game for inclusion in a spiritual interpretation of the universe.

I felt slightly better, but the very next paragraph mentioned that Collins considers human displays of apparent altruism “unsolvable by science”.  I consider it very important to study human behavior of all kinds – will Collins declare some better served by “spiritual interpretation” than science?

But even if Collins considers things to be unsolvable by science, why would he assume that spirituality is right and not just making stuff up?  My very first blog post at Rant & Reason, before I was even a full staff member at the American Humanist Association, was criticizing Collins’ understanding of the interaction between faith and science:

[Collins wrote in his book:] “Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their own tools…”

Collins’ point simply doesn’t follow. To say that there are limitations to science lends no credibility to spirituality’s ability to find truth. It would be like saying, “Space shuttles are not the only way to get into orbit around the Earth. Pogo sticks are another way. Engineers who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their shuttles.” Sure, shuttles have things they can’t do, but that does not mean pogo sticks can go into orbit.

It worries me that the head of the NIH has an untenable view of the relation between science and religion, is involved with groups like the Templeton Foundation, and feels compelled to invoke religion during official speeches.  Let’s see how it pans out.

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