On Unjustifiably Leveraging One’s Credibility

On Unjustifiably Leveraging One’s Credibility August 18, 2009

WIC writes this reply to recent remarks I made to him.  I am only quoting here the portion I specifically address, to read his counter to me in its entirety, click here.

The question then becomes whether or not Collins is truly ‘sloppy’ outside the lab in regards to religion. You, Harris, Myers, and other atheists might believe so, but some folks ranging from Christian laymen to Christian scientists to maybe even some agnostics…perhaps even–gasp!–atheists!–might disagree. Personally, after reading Harris’ and Myers’ responses, I’m still not certain Collins is that irrational. Still, this isn’t the place to argue that…

I can say though is that the concerns about him have to do not with his religious beliefs but with his explicit attempts to relate them to science and show how they demarcate for him the limits of science. The issue is not their private beliefs, which we may criticize the way we criticize any one’s private beliefs but not consider to have bearing on their job performance insofar as they do not interfere with their job performance…I may have loopy ideas about economics but that doesn’t make me a bad philosophy teacher as long as in my capacity as philosophy teacher I do not presume to speak unqualifiedly on economics.

Relieving, but the key word here is “as a philosophy teacher.” When Dr. Collins gave that fateful lecture at Berkeley transcribed here, according to Sam Harris, was he acting as the lead of the Human Genome Project? So far as I can tell, no, as at the beginning of the video we see the whole thing was set up by the ‘Veritas Project,’ I don’t know what that is but looking it up on Wikipedia doesn’t tell me it’s officially related to any of Collins’ professional appointments. If you lectured your students about economics in philosophy class, I would not be too eager to see you in that position. If, on the other hand, you talked about your personal wonky views on economics in a lecture funded by people unrelated to your university and completely unrelated to you in your professional capacity, I would offer to complaint, regardless of how much I disagree with you. You could even write a book about your wonky views on economics, but so long as you didn’t insist your students read it for class, I would have no issue with it.

In that sense, however much you disagree with Collins’ apparent belief that there is no conflict between Christianity and science, he does not seem to have gone out of his way to advocate that view in a professional capacity. When he published a book declaring “A scientist presents evidence for belief,” that book was published by some “Free Press,” not the Genome Project or anything related to Collins professionally. You can say that his book was bad, and the ‘evidence’ shoddy and unscientific, but it’s hard to argue it’s evidence of him mixing his professional work with his religious craziness. However pathetic and deluded his beliefs may have appeared to be in that video, they were not given while he was in his office at the Genome Project or doing work on it, they were given when this “Veritas Forum” asked him to come to Berkeley and share his personal views on the rapprochement of faith and science.

Thus, I still remain not quite convinced of your arguments. Empirically speaking, as I have explained above I see little reason why Collins is such a bad choice as director for the NIH. Normatively speaking, even if we believe folks should be as scrupulous outside the lab as they are inside of it (this is actually debatable, though I obviously won’t play Devil’s Advocate for that position here), I am still not convinced by you, Harris, or Myers that Collins’ talk at Berkeley is indication of a lack of rationality or good sense. I haven’t read his book, though. Perhaps that will convince me.

While Collins’s remarks are off the “dime” of his scientific institutions (so to speak), he still leverages his scientific credibility to claim to speak authoritatively on the relationship between faith and reason.

Now, when the content of his claims about their relationship is one that starts to imply that faith can start trumping reason, he gives the impression that that attitude is normatively a good one and a scientific one, whereas it is a bad one and one that he holds in spite of his otherwise being a good scientist in the lab, not because of it. In other words, it is not his lab’s scrupulousness that justifies faith. But he gives the impression that the two are normatively compatible.

My critique of him is largely epistemological, that he’s muddling epistemic waters by using his credibility as a scientist to gain credibility for his epistemology as though his scientific attitudes were functionally compatible with faith attitudes. I think they’re clearly not functionally compatible but, rather, evidence of cognitive dissonance.

So, whereas I wouldn’t mind a scientist speaking about the insights into epistemology that science has taught him (see the exemplary Richard Feynman for example), I have a problem with Collins taking the credibility gained from being a good scientist and trying to transfer that cred to precisely what he excludes from his lab: faith. That’s what makes his views in substance, if not in form, so problematic. He is trying to speak as an epistemologist based on his scientific practices whereas the epistemology he propounds is at odds with the scientific method which gives him credibility.

I am more happy with Dawkins, Myers, et. al. because they are simply demanding that the same basic principles of critical inquiry that they see at work in science be extended and applied appropriately to other fields. They are not using scientifically gained credibility to endorse epistemologies alternative to scientific ones. They are demanding consistency, not practicing cognitive dissonance.

And no one should ever pay me to give a lecture on economics. Ever. Outside of my role as a philosophy instructor, I can speak on only a narrow set of issues and only insofar as my training in philosophy qualifies me. And, really, beyond my specializations in Nietzsche, ethics, epistemology, atheism, and religion, I don’t think anyone’s really going to want to read what I have to say.

I do write a good movie review, am an amateur psychologist, and can muse as well as any educated person about politics but I shouldn’t be paid to speak as an expert on science or economics or health care reform or anything else which requires serious specialization.  And even if some group wanted to leverage my philosophy knowledge as credibility to confirm their prejudices on one of these specialized topics, I’d be morally obliged to refuse the offer.

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