A mild form of mental illness

480px-Francis_Collins_official_portraitIf you read the New York Times profile Monday of Dr. Francis Collins — and based on reader e-mails, I know at least a few of you did — than there was probably one paragraph about the evangelical Christian at the head of the National Institutes of Health that jumped out at you. This sound familiar:

First, there is the God issue. Dr. Collins believes in him. Passionately. And he preaches about his belief in churches and a best-selling book. For some presidential appointees, that might not be a problem, but many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.

I guess my secular friends are right: I do need to see a doctor.

You can imagine that last word, even with the weak qualifier mild, elicited some responses. I mean, was the Times really saying that, in general, the God-fearing lacked the cognitive function to realize, like a sane person, that God doesn’t exist?

No, the paper wasn’t saying that. It was attributing that remark to a group that presumably includes Collins’ critics and his supporters. Maybe presumably is the wrong word. How’s ostensibly?

“No source for the claim just a generic ‘many scientists,’” reader Aaron wrote. Really, I’m not surprised.

Being that such a quote isn’t exactly the kind that a scientist who then might be looking for research funding from the NIH would want to give, I suspect that if such a statement was made, it was made on background. By a single scientist. And that’s very possible. (No mentions of dementia in this somewhat sympathetic Slate piece.) Just as likely, though, is that the reporter here, Gardiner Harris, who spent the summer on the Collins-as-controversy beat, was writing with a bit too much voice.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a poll from the National Academy of Sciences supporting such a sentiment is true. But in this case it evokes this comment from Holly Hunter’s character, a member of the White House press corps, in film “Broadcast News“:

Another thing I can’t stand is … when White House reporters bull— with each other after a briefing and then one of them has a theory and the other quotes it in his story as “White House” sources say …

I never used that one, but I’m sure it goes a long way.

What about the rest of the Collins profile? It’s otherwise unremarkable and fairly friendly piece. It’s laced with a bit of snark, and you’ll be surprised to learn that not only does Collins wear a leather jacket and ride a Harley, but he eats French toast! In general, though, except for a few critical voices you may not have heard before, there was littler here that you haven’t read elsewhere before.

collinsbookSome of what the Times wrote has come to be cliche:

He drives a Harley-Davidson, wears a black leather jacket on his back and his religion on his sleeve, and plays a custom guitar with big-name rock stars.

And some was revealing about the culture at the NIH:

“I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H.,” he said, “and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on.”

But he said he understood that cultural considerations could play an important role, which brings up the transportation and clothing issues.

Dr. Collins’s predecessor, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, drove a silver Mercedes sports car to work and wore expensive suits, and those choices — along with a natural reserve and the unpopularity of President George W. Bush, who appointed him — meant he was never entirely embraced by the thousands of rumpled scientists who make up the core of the health institutes’ staff.

That he was a brilliant scientist and had highly developed organizational skills never won him plaudits outside of the agency’s top leaders, many of whom praised Dr. Zerhouni effusively.

By contrast, Dr. Zerhouni’s predecessor, Dr. Harold Varmus, rode a bicycle to work, wore khakis and was beloved.

But it was difficult to wash away that sour taste of dementia. You know what those crazy Christians say about a little yeast …

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  • Dave

    This sloppy use of psychiatric language drives me up a wall. A late friend of mine investigated the brain functioning of people in a variety of spiritual states and found them not only mentally healthy but activating different parts of their brains in a predictable manner. A book about it, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” was published posthumously. It’s a scandal for the NYT to be ignorant of this while gauzily quoting the “many” scientists who likely don’t know dementia from doughnuts.

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  • Martha

    “the thousands of rumpled scientists who make up the core of the health institutes’ staff.”

    *rolls eyes*

    Can we get any more clichéd about the image of scientists? I’m just surprised he didn’t manage to work “absent-minded” in there somewhere.

    Fashion sense (or lack thereof) as a criterion for the job – now that’s removing ideology from science! ;-)

  • Bern

    Rotten, rotten, rotten reporting. What the piece shows is that certain writers just can’t get over an intelligent person who is passionately religious. Shame on the Times!

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Good point, Dave. Using “dementia” in this sense, when not directly quoting someone, is an incredibly inexact application of the English language. Especially for the paper of record.

  • Chris

    I agree with Dave. The loose use of clinical psychiatric terms drives me nuts. Dementia is a clinical term, and is defined as an acquired loss of function in multiple cognitive areas from a previously higher level of function. There must at least be memory impairment, and the symptoms must be severe enough to cause a decline in social and occupational functioning. Based on this definition, it would be incorrect for a scientist or physician to “diagnose” Dr. Collins with dementia. :-)

    Wait! Dr. Collins might have a delusion–”a fixed, false, idiosyncratic belief”. Nah! Couldn’t be that either. His is not an idiosyncratic belief…

    Actually, Dr. Collins believes in something some other scientists do not believe in. So, more accurately we could rewrite that second sentence to end: “…many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a serious disagreement with their own world view.”

    It would be nice to know the source of the “many scientists”, but let us not quibble.

  • Chris

    Actually, on further thought I think that second sentence could be rewritten as:
    “…many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as silly and old-fashioned.”
    Less scientific, but more accurate!

  • Jerry

    a sign of mild dementia.

    I wonder if those who believe that are suffering from delusional disorder http://allpsych.com/disorders/psychotic/delusionaldisorder.html or perhaps ‘Folle a` Deux,’ http://allpsych.com/disorders/psychotic/sharedpsychotic.html

    After all, since I have an MA in Psychology and believe in God, then clearly I’m entitled to label those who don’t believe. After all, my mentor in such things, Dr. Science, says that he can make his statements because he has “a Masters Degree… in science!”

  • Julia

    The loose use of clinical psychiatric terms drives me nuts

    What drives me nuts is the misuse of schizophrenic to incorrectly describe people who are leading double lives, have split personalities or multiple personalities, etc. Schzophrenia indicates difficulty perceiving and expressing reality. There can be distortions of any of the five senses, including smell, halucinations, delusions; and disorganized thinking and speech.

  • Stoo

    The writer probably had visions of PZ Myers or someone like that, ranting away about delusions and dementia. But I’d agree it was a bad choice of words.

  • http://coltakashi.livejournal.com Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins cannot stand religious scientists like Kenneth Miller, even when the religious scientists are adamant defenders of the theory of evolution and write textbooks to promote it. Dawkins laid into Miller when they were both on a panel discussing evolution, claiming that Miller’s religious beliefs were somehow undermining his scientific work.

    Dr. Collins is Catholic, like Dr. Miller.

    Even if the majority of US scientists do not claim to believe in God, this is a cultural phenomenon of the last 50 years. The fact is that even if only 30% of professional scientists profess religious belief, that is millions of scientists, including many of the best scientific minds.

    Henry Eyring, who had published his Absolute Rate Theory applying quantum mechanics to chemical interactions while at the Institute for Advanced Study, won all of the prestigious prizes in his field of chemistry except the Nobel, kept from him, according to many of his fellow scientists, solely by prejudice at the Nobel committee against the fact that he was an unabashed Mormon his entire life.

    The problem that atheists like Dawkins have with religious scientists is that they are living proof that it is possible to be a fruitful scientist while still beliving in God. Dawkins argues that the idea of God is contrary to reason, but the fact that many of his peers disagree shows the pathetic weakness of his argument. Every single living religious scientist is a total refutation of Dawkins’ core argument for materialism, which in turn is his main argument for evolution. Without materialism as a given, having to actually prove that evolution by natural selection accounts for ALL living phenomena, including the human mind, is hard work. If materialism cannot account for 100% of all facts we observe or experience, such as free will, it must yield to the existence of another source of creative power in the universe. But Dawkin’s “god” of materialism is a jealous “god”, and cannot tolerate sharing the stage. Ergo, Dawkins’ utter intolerance toward Miller and Collins.

  • http://orthodoxconfessions.blogspot.com JLB

    Dr. Collins is Catholic, like Dr. Miller.

    Actually, he calls himself an evangelical in his book (Language of God).

  • http://adizzylife.blogspot.com djinn

    Actually, I think the only problem with religious scientists is when their religion gets in the way of their science. For example, Dr. Collins has stated that there is no biological explanation for altruism–in his opinion, it can only be explained by God. People working in fields he doesn’t believe him that now depend on him at least in part for funding are reasonably worried.

  • http://adizzylife.blogspot.com djinn

    Ah, that “he doesn’t believe in that now depend on him at least in part for funding are reasonably worried.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Another persistent things-that-make-you-go-eeeh! is the use of “paranoia” for the state of being “paranoid” –leaving nothing for real paranoiacs.

  • Stephen A.

    The use of that “dementia” line in the story belies a fundamental belief amongst some on the secular Left that all religious people who ACTUALLY believe in a Divine Being *must* be quite insane. One hears this in respect to prayer, along the lines of, “You actually TALK to God? And God TALKS BACK? If you hear voices, you’re insane.”

    The Bill Mahers of the world, and the “clever” reporters who use it as in the case above, are rarely held to account for this kind of naked bigotry, but if someone critiques an atheist as lacking in some clumsy way, look out! (as we saw alluded to on a different post here on GR.)

  • Maureen

    How do you rumple a scientist?

    I mean, their clothes and hair, I can understand. But the scientists themselves? Are they that dehydrated?

  • Dave

    Maureen, you take away their federal research grants and they dry right up. ;-)