Francis Collins’s final friend

Dr. Francis Collins finds himself in the middle of an ethics-, science-, politics-, money- and religion-filled debate instead of in the chemistry lab lately. Despite Christopher Hitchens’s recent shout-out, you have to wonder if the embryonic stem-cell research debate has left him fairly friendless.

The geneticist faced some opposition from his fellow scientists when he was chosen last summer to lead the National Institutes of Health. Then he faced further opposition when he announced approval for human embryonic stem cell lines for federally funded research. Now he opposes a federal court’s decision, which issued an injunction last month stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

This divisive appointee makes an interesting profile for The New Yorker, who considers the past, present and future for the geneticist who led the effort to sequence the human genome. The story doesn’t fall into the assumption trap we’ve complained about before: “He’s an evangelical, but he’s still smart”! You have to get past the deck: What is a “fervent Christian”? (Remember our discussion of devout Christians)

But there are a lot of good things to say about Peter J. Boyer’s piece: The piece is pretty fair, allows for some nuances and tension, explains just how exactly we got here. The reporting is solid, and the storytelling is compelling where he weaves in Collins’s personal life with science, politics, and faith.

The introduction shows Collins’s many accomplishments and shows why this brilliant scientist would come under scrutiny: his faith.

The objection to Collins was his faith–or, at least, the ardency of it. Collins is a believing Christian, which places him in the minority among his peers in the National Academy of Science. (Of its members, according to a study, only seven per cent believe in God.)

The next section gives us a slice of what it’s like to manage the NIH’s funding, showing how politically divisive the choices can become. The reporter weaves his farming background into the story of how he went from unbelief to converting to Christianity. We get a good sense of how his peers reacted when he was chosen.

Last summer, some of the world’s preeminent scientists were in Cambridge, England, celebrating the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” when word arrived from Washington that Obama had chosen Collins to run the N.I.H. “A lot of those New Atheists were in attendance, and they were incredibly alarmed,” Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, who was Bill Clinton’s director of the N.I.H., says. Varmus, who now runs the National Cancer Institute, is an old friend of Collins’s, and was his boss during the Human Genome Project. “I tried to calm everybody down,” he says. “I said, Francis is a terrific scientist, and very well organized and a great spokesperson for the N.I.H., has terrific connections in Congress, and is a delightful person to work with.”
It was clear that Collins’s handling of stem-cell policy would be the critical test of his ability to separate faith from secular duty.

On that last sentence, how could handling the policy become a test? How does handling stem cell funding demand separating faith from secular duty? Does Collins think the two are separate or does one inform the other in any way?

Boyer appropriately provides some basic details for why embryonic stem-cell research has become so divisive.

The principal ethical issue posed by the research–the fact that the embryo must be destroyed in the process–was a cause of real concern even to the man who pioneered the process, Dr. James Thomson, of the University of Wisconsin. “If human-embryonic-stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said in 2007.

The story then offers some of the historical context for how Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush handled the federal guidelines. Boyer also explains how scientists furthered stem cell research that did not involve the destruction of embryos, showing why some did and didn’t work.

A glaring question the writer finally addresses is how Collins reconciles his faith with the destruction of human embryos.

Before Collins had a direct say in the Administration’s decision on stem cells, he was personally torn by the ethical questions posed by stem-cell research. He has long opposed the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. He sees a human embryo as a potential life, though he thinks that it is not possible scientifically to settle precisely when life begins. But Collins also feels it is morally wasteful not to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of embryos created for in-vitro fertilization that ultimately are disposed of anyway. These embryos are doomed, but they can help aid disease research.

What’s unclear here is how much faith and/or science guides Collins’s reasoning. A few quotes here and there would have been helpful to fully understanding Collins’s logic for those who may disagree with him.

Next, Boyer explains the latest court case which blocked the federal funding.

Collins said that he was stunned by Judge Lamberth’s decision, as were most people in the research community. Perhaps they should not have been. The ruling didn’t arrive out of the blue. Although the battle over embryonic stem cells had receded from public contention, the issue had not gone away. Earlier this summer, a lawsuit against the Administration filed by a group of plaintiffs (including two researchers specializing in adult stem research), claiming that the new Obama rules harmed their work by increasing the competition for federal research dollars, was reinstated by a federal appeals court.

As Mollie covered earlier, the suit was brought by some Christian groups. She argued that the reporters could have spoken with people who don’t believe the NIH guidelines violate federal law. This time, why not glean some comment from the plaintiffs and show the interesting debate between Christians?

If the story could have gone further, I wonder how has Collins’s reasoning has impacted his standing among other scientists and Christians. In other words, it seems like he’s sort of in a lose-lose situation. Some of his fellow scientists discredit him because of his faith; Some of his fellow Christians discredit him for his pro-embryonic-stem-cell research stance. So is Christopher Hitchens his only friend left?

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  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    I found it interesting that Dr. Collins divorced and remarried *AFTER* he converted to Christianity. The author just made a throwaway reference to it, but I find it telling and want to know more about how Dr. Collins reconciles his stated belief in Christianity with the Bible’s teachings on divorce.

  • Jerry

    Some of his fellow scientists discredit him because of his faith; Some of his fellow Christians discredit him for his pro-embryonic-stem-cell research stance. So is Christopher Hitchens his only friend left?

    According to http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/dailynews/poll010803.html about 50% of evangelical white protestants supported embryonic stem cell research a few years ago so it seems his belief is very much mainstream but not, of course, for the people who get quoted in the media.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jerry, thanks for adding that link. That’s pretty interesting. You are right that many evangelicals do support embryonic stem cell research, but my hunch is that many pastors/leaders who loved him a few years ago aren’t necessarily cheering him on now (Al Mohler, perhaps). Mohler doesn’t represent all evangelicals, but I feel like there’s been a shift somewhere.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Crimson Wife, if the divorce happened before his conversion, is it still relevant? It might be worth asking or worth probing, but it might not find its way into the story unless it helps us understand something more.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    As always, please keep the comments focused on journalism, not the political issues.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    Sarah- the timing of Dr. Collins’ divorce is significant because many Evangelicals who have been divorced reconcile the discrepancy with their beliefs by noting the divorce occurred prior to their conversion/being “saved”. The fact that it happened afterward calls into question whether he picks & chooses which parts of the Bible to follow (as does his stance on ESCR and many might say his beliefs about evolution).

  • Phil Lembo

    No, Collins has at least a few more friends than Hitchens. There are many Christians outside the conservative evangelical subculture. Most of them would not have any reason to take issue with how Collins has handled stem cell research, because they don’t share the same presuppositions as that subculture. The same would be true for matters in his personal life, like his divorce. Given the pivotal role of religion in the stem cell debate, I would have liked to see some discussion of the differences of opinion between believers and where they come from.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    A factoid that I don’t think is in the New Yorker piece: Collins has been a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Association and was the keynote speaker at their meeting in Chicago in the summer of 2002. James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, the plaintiffs in the suit to block the new NIH rules, are members of the same group. The CMDA was one of the original plaintiffs in the same suit.

    Collins also got some flack for only approving a few new stem cells lines earlier this, and rejecting others for not meeting the new standards. He’s also opposed to making new embryos specifically for research. Embryonic stem cell researchers want to create new embryos with specific diseases so they can study them and Collins won’t allow it.

  • Dave

    It should be underscored that the New Yorker distinguished embryonic stem cell research from stem cell research in general.

  • Matt

    He sees a human embryo as a potential life, though he thinks that it is not possible scientifically to settle precisely when life begins.

    This is a key sentence. It is probably not a stretch to say that Collins likely also believes that the Bible is not clear on the question of when life begins (which is my view, and I consider myself strongly evangelical), though it would have been nice for the reporter to get that angle specifically. Is it possible to oppose abortion without believing that the Bible teaches life begins at conception? Are there evangelicals who think it is? These kinds of questions don’t fit into the usual polarizing narrative, but would be good to explore.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Phil, yes a discussion about the differences among Christians would be helpful.

    Bob, that is a very good point and one I tried to make but you showed evidence for it. He apparently had fans in the CMDA but now they appear to be on opposite sides.

    Matt, good questions to further the discussion.

  • Hector

    Re: Sarah- the timing of Dr. Collins’ divorce is significant because many Evangelicals who have been divorced reconcile the discrepancy with their beliefs by noting the divorce occurred prior to their conversion/being “saved”

    If he had a civil marriage, then you could argue that it wasn’t really a marriage in the eyes of God, and so divorce shouldn’t be a big problem. My understanding of the Christian prohibition on divorce is that it applies to Christians who get married in church, but not to non-Christians or to non-sacramental marriages. If two people get married without the understanding of lifelong fidelity (which many civil marriages nowadays don’t include) then they can’t really be said to be married in a Christian sense, and so I don’t see there would be an issue with them getting divorced (unless their are children, a sick spouse in need of care, etc. in which case the general duty of charity comes into play).

    If he had gotten _married_ after his conversion, in a Christian ceremony, then I’d agree it would be a problem if he was later divorced and remarried.

    I don’t know exactly what evangelical churches believe about divorce, though.

  • Hector

    Re: Is it possible to oppose abortion without believing that the Bible teaches life begins at conception?

    I don’t know about the Bible, but Christian tradition has consistently held that Jesus’ earthly existence began at the Annunciation (i.e. at His conception). That would seem to suggest that human life & personhood, in general, begin at conception. The first- and second-century Christian documents dealing with abortion condemned it categorically, without specifying any particular time before which it was OK and after which it was not.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    one wonders about this claim:
    The objection to Collins was his faith—or, at least, the ardency of it. Collins is a believing Christian, which places him in the minority among his peers in the National Academy of Science. (Of its members, according to a study, only seven per cent believe in God.)

    Really? The survey is summarized here

    Wikipedia says to belong, you have to be chosen by another member, and is composed of only 2100 members.

    Has anyone actually looked into bias of their sample base? Or looked into the possibility that NAS membership is biased against those who believe in any religion?

    In contrast, a Nature survey showed that

    In the US, according to a survey published in Nature in 1997, four out of 10 scientists believe in God. Just over 45% said they did not believe, and 14.5% described themselves as doubters or agnostics. This ratio of believers to non-believers had not changed in 80 years.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    To back up tioedong’s references, the Washington Post recently ran a story about Elaine Howard Ecklund’s 2009 book, Science Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Ecklund found that about half of the 1,700 scientists she surveyed considered themselves religious.

    What do you make of the spotlight on Collins’ beliefs in Boyer’s article, but the descriptions of Steven Pinker as merely a “cognitive psychologist” and PZ Myers as merely a “biologist”? Pinker and Myers aren’t neutral observers, here. Myers is an outspoken atheist and a frequent critic of any attempt to harmonize science and religion, while Pinker was named the 2006 Humanist of the Year. (Myers won the award in 2009, btw.) Shouldn’t Pinker’s and Myer’s (non)religious beliefs be at least mentioned? Their opinions aren’t based on any kind of scientific disagreement with Collins, so far as I’m aware. In fact, Myers’ quoted “criticism” is just a personal insult.

  • Stoo

    Mike, looking at Ecklund’s data (disclaimer: atheist blog) something around 23% might be a more accurate figure for traditionally religious scientists.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Stoo,
    Sure – but “religious” vs. “traditionally religious” are 2 different things. How many Americans are “traditionally religious”? The claim of NAS is that only 7% of their members believe in God – period. Ecklund’s research shows that either NAS’ survey was flawed or that NAS is not even close to being representative of scientists in general.

  • Stoo

    Well from that item I linked

    “From the other side, it is just 9% of scientists (compared to 63% of the public), who chose, “I have no doubts about God’s existence.” An additional 14% of scientists chose, “I have some doubts, but I believe in God.””

    This is as opposed to otpions like “I don’t believe” or “don’t know, no way to know” or “A higher power, but not god”.

    So again we’re looking at 25%-ish of scientists that we might describe as theistic. Which of course is rather more than 7%, but still rather short of supporting the idea that half of scientists are religious.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Stoo,
    Yes, and 48% of scientists identify with a religious tradition and 66% say they are a “spiritual person.” Here’s a better link to a paper by Ecklund explaining her findings. Does an agnostic Unitarian who practices daily meditation and prayer count as “religious,” or does her uncertainty about God’s existence trump every other aspect of her life? In other words, it’s complicated – much more complicated than the picture of “scientists are atheists” promulgated by both the New Atheists and certain Christian apologists.

    OK, let’s get back to journalism. The NIH isn’t just made up of academic scientists – it also includes lots of medical professionals. From the research I’ve seen, medical professionals believe in God and adhere to a religious practice at a much higher rate than academic scientists (whatever that rate might be). Here’s a 2005 survey that found that 76% of physicians believe in God. So, couldn’t the article have been alternately framed as “Collins part of medical mainstream, academic researchers out of touch”?

  • Stoo

    “Out of touch” is a rather choice of words to put on it; suggests they’re missing out on something deemed important in this context.

    And yeah you’ll get a fuzzy area that falls outside of both traditional religion and atheism.

  • Stoo

    rather *negative choice of words, meant to say sorry

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Stoo,
    So you don’t think religious beliefs are “important in this context” – i.e. the origin of human life, suffering, dealing with incurable diseases, the proper care for the dying? Duly noted.

    If I were commissioned by the New Yorker (don’t I wish!) to write an article on my hypothetical topic, I would choose my phrasing more carefully. My point is that Collins’ beliefs are always compared to those of university-based natural-science researchers (usually tenured or tenure-track faculty at research universities), when the circle of comparison could be drawn any number of different ways: the medical profession, medical researchers, all STEM professionals, all people with science-related PhDs (regardless of career), and so on.

    Further, it should be apparent that membership in the ultra-competitive world of cutting-edge research (like that represented by the National Academy of Sciences) is only partly based on personal merit. You can’t get in without merit, but there are plenty of ways to have all the merit in the world and still fail to make the cut.

  • str

    “It was clear that Collins’s handling of stem-cell policy would be the critical test of his ability to separate faith from secular duty.”

    On that last sentence, how could handling the policy become a test? How does handling stem cell funding demand separating faith from secular duty? Does Collins think the two are separate or does one inform the other in any way?

    That is the typical way of silencing potential concerns: We allowed you, Christian, in that position – now prove to us that you you are an “enlighted secular being” and collaborate with our Mengele-like research. Sadly, Collins is a Quisling who collaborates.

    It is also interesting that in this case, the decree of a law court is not seen as sacrosant. Suddenly, resistence is permitted.

  • str

    Matt,

    This is a key sentence. It is probably not a stretch to say that Collins likely also believes that the Bible is not clear on the question of when life begins (which is my view, and I consider myself strongly evangelical), though it would have been nice for the reporter to get that angle specifically. Is it possible to oppose abortion without believing that the Bible teaches life begins at conception? Are there evangelicals who think it is? These kinds of questions don’t fit into the usual polarizing narrative, but would be good to explore.

    Whether the Bible says anything about this is a realy issue. When life begins is a scientific question and can be answered by scientific means and has been answered by scientific means. It is the pro-aborts that chose to close their eyes to that scientific result.

  • str

    Stoo and Mike,

    IMHO the question about God’s existence is the common but nonetheless stupid question to ask. Merely believing that God exists doesn’t go very far.

    But I am puzzled about the figures that apparently state that those declaring themselves religious is greater than those you believe in God’s existence. (This cannot be all explained by non-th(d)eistic religions.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    str,
    Like I said above, it’s complicated. Ecklund’s paper here goes into more detail about her findings, though to get the complete stats you’ll have to buy the book. Religious traditions with typically high certainty about God (e.g. evangelicals, fundamentalists) are much underrepresented among scientists, while traditions with lower certainty about God (e.g. mainline Protestants, Judaism) are much more common. Ecklund finds that 15% of scientists identify as Jewish, compared with only 2% of the US. Check out the Pew Forum for what I’m talking about re: relative certainty about God.

    Another part of Ecklund’s findings is that religious scientists are more likely to practice a “closeted” faith. I don’t think you have to be a psychologist to see that separating your faith from your public persona might be likely to cause (or result from) doubts about your religious beliefs. One part of your life – the religious part – reinforces your beliefs, but the greater part of your life undermines them.

  • str

    Thanks for the clarifications, but IMHO there are no “Religious traditions with typically high (or low) certainty about God” as any tradition is equally certain in its tenets – only people are uncertain. And certainly Judaism is not a tradition in which God is less important.

    “One part of your life – the religious part – reinforces your beliefs, but the greater part of your life undermines them.”

    That assumes that science undermines beliefs which I don’t think is true, especially not in that generalisation, because “beliefs” is much too broad a sphere.


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