When Should A Scientist’s Faith Disqualify Him From Scientific Institutional Authority?

When Should A Scientist’s Faith Disqualify Him From Scientific Institutional Authority? August 18, 2009

In reply to this post addressing previous objections that Wandering Internet Commentator made to me, WIC returns volley (sentences in italics are quotes he has taken from my previous post to him):

I anticipated creationists figuring in your reply. The problem is, though, I’m not really sure they’re the best example of religion ‘polluting’ the scientific endeavor. Outside of other creationists and evangelical Christians, nobody takes ‘creation scientists’ seriously. If these people were peddling their faith-polluted science in peer-reviewed journals and whatnot I think you’d have a point, but since these people aren’t really part of any respected scientific circles I wonder if it’s appropriate to call them scientists in any meaningful sense. On the other hand, all 10 of the folks Dr. Heddle referred to in his challenge are respected members of the scientific establishment who publish in peer-reviewed journals and generally seem to be good scientists. If you could tell me how you detected the 5 religious scientists among them–or how to detect the pollution of religion in any scientific endeavor that has managed to pass peer review–I would be a bit more impressed.

I brought up the creationists as an example simply of how faith based reasoning is unscientific.  I never in any of this said that the creationists were considered legitimate scientists or that religious scientists as any kind of rule brought their faith into the laboratories.  I cited the potential areas of conflict with Dr. Collins where he has explicitly said false things (like that altruism is not observed elsewhere in the animal kingdom) or showed a willingness to let dogmatic religious beliefs close off avenues of explanation.

But I was not arguing that any good scientists were bad scientists just because on Sunday mornings they jettisoned their laboratory’s intellectual scruples at church.  My focus of my point was that insofar as their science is good it does not employ faith.  So faith and science are NOT compatible in the lab.  And in a fully rationally scrupulous life, they’re not coherently compatible in a full picture of the world where Monday-Friday, the world is investigable view critical reasoning.  And on Sundays, centuries old arbitrary faith claims not subject to critical rejection are taken to have mystically guaranteed authority.  That’s the whole point.  That the existence of scientists who live in cognitive dissonance does not prove faith and science are consistently capable of rational reconciliation.

Thank you for your links to both Harris’ clarifications on his original piece and Myers’ post, but I must admit I find neither to be particularly convincing. Although I won’t go into too much detail (I’m not sure what the size restrictions on comments on this blog are), suffice it to say that to be most accomodating to your viewpoint, and to concede that Harris has proven Collins’ religious views are stupid and unscientific, I still wasn’t very convinced that they would actually harm his science. Despite his ‘problematic’ views on stem cell research, Harris admits he would probably not be able to do much damage to it as director of NIH. Harris casts aspersions on how Collins has said that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence and that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted,” but these are rather vague statements, and it seems to me Harris is reaching quite a bit by assuming that Collins would be opposed to understanding ‘human wellbeing at the neurological level’ or that he views methodological naturalism to be exactly the same thing as atheistic materialism. Perhaps he does, but Harris’ article has not convinced me.

In regards to Dr. Myers’ post, while Collins may not possess ‘integrity’ in regards to his religious beliefs and in the sense of ‘unimpaired and sound in construction,’ neither do plenty of other scientists in regards to other secular matters–to take the example of Dawkins again, despite his advocacy of rationality he opposes foxhunting for fundamentally irrational reasons (his parents told him to) and his arguments have tended to be vitriolically irrational (even if, as you say below, it’s okay to be mean so long as you make cogent arguments, making fun of the way someone pronounces ‘nuclear’ is just meanness for the sake of meanness and not a cogent argument for or against anything). Dr. Myers is on stronger ground when he mentions how he fears Collins may use his post to inappropriately evangelize, but again, I’m still not convinced by this either. He may have gotten Clinton to mention some religious stuff and talked about ‘The Language of God’ and all that, but given the disproportionate representation of other religions in the medical establishment, such as Muslims and Hindus, I find it hard to believe that Collins has a proven track record of being inappropriately evangelistic, because if he had, he almost certainly would have offended someone important a while ago and wouldn’t have managed to get as high as he did in his position in the Human Genome Project.

I took his acknowledgment of the right of “New Atheists” to be a concession that everyone has freedom of speech. But his characterization that they should no their limits and stick to supporting evolution less they be “unseemly” engaged in cultural conflict over religion tells me he thinks that these issues of belief are not matters for urgent and passionate public discourse in which atheists from all expertise may and should offer to the public their insights into how their specialize knowledge might illuminate public thinking on these issues. So, again, I read that as: “let the church dominate discussions of ’spiritual’ matters with hegemony and no countervailing dissenting voices in the public sphere because that would ‘unseemly’ violate the sacred separation of non-overlapping magisteria!”

I do apologize to Dr. Heddle if I’m putting words in his mouth, but it seems to me your interpretation of him is somewhat uncharitable. If I had to bet, I wouldn’t say he believed “that these issues of belief are not matters for urgent and passionate public discourse ” and that atheists shouldn’t be allowed to add in their two cents, I get the distinct impression that he is arguing against:

1: Saying that Dr. Collins shouldn’t have his position as head of the NIH on the basis of his religious beliefs

and 2: That there is some meaningful, tangible way in which religion undermines religion.

I am not certain he’s saying “let the church dominate discussions of ’spiritual’ matters with hegemony and no countervailing dissenting voices in the public sphere because that would ‘unseemly’ violate the sacred separation of non-overlapping magisteria!”

So, while calling people pinheads, he speaks outside of his specialization to wander into epistemology, demanding an empirical argument for what is a normative claim—making it pretty clear he cannot discern the difference between the two.

Well, he may have his own response to that, but just to make sure we’re on the same page, what *is* the difference between the two? You’ll have to excuse my ignorance here, whereas you have a doctorate in philosophy (I think) I’m just a Wandering Internet Commentator whose experience with philosophy extends no farther than a 101 college class. So if you wouldn’t mind me asking, just what is the difference between an empirical argument and a normative argument, and why should we consider the latter having as much merit as the former, or even any merit at all?

Dr. Heddle equated the New Atheists aggressively advancing atheism publicly as tantamount to overstepping the bounds of their scientific specialties in a comparable way to James Dobson wanting to influence public policy rather than focus on spreading the “gospel.”  That’s pretty much a “stay out of public discussion and stick to your jobs of promoting evolution” line to me.  For a brief start towards answering your other question (about why normative arguments should have merit), click here and respond to this post addressing it.

Why wouldn’t I? Didn’t I just argue that their intellectual scruples should not be left in the lab? I am a philosopher and I specialize in ethics, I am concerned with scrupulousness in all manners of belief and action, be they matters of inquiry in philosophy, history, social sciences, natural sciences, religion, politics, etc. I am against irrationalism.


The problem is, though, if you believe Collins ought to be denied his position as head of the NIH because he is irrational and believes in stupid things for bad reasons, you could just as easily argue that very many otherwise well-qualified scientists should abdicate their positions. The aforementioned Professor Dawkins has acted irrationally and demonstrated irrational convictions before, and it wouldn’t be difficult to argue (though I shall refrain from doing so) that his opposition to foxhunting is a ridiculous belief based on a risible line of reasoning (your parents didn’t like it? So what? Maybe they were wrong). If you oppose secular irrationalism as vehemently as you oppose religious irrationalism, you would have to demand that Dawkins step down from his position as Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (well, if he hadn’t retired already, of course )

Whether or not rationality is the supreme, greatest, or even best good and whether or not irrationality is something to be weeded out and eschewed in general is a debate I shall again refrain from having here, but I brought up the example of Dawkins simply to illustrate that if you believe Collins is a bad scientist and should be denied his position on the basis of holding bad beliefs for bad reasons, one could make the same argument for very many other famous scientists, Richard Dawkins not being the least among them.

And yes, I did read the end of your post. To be charitable, I won’t respond to your statements on Dawkins’ ‘justified’ beliefs in regards to foxhunting, I will simply say ‘congratulations’ on your expertise with Nietzsche and your enthusiasm for other philosophers and experts in your field, and when you say,

I am happy to criticize scientists wherever I can judge they are wrong or that their public arguments outside their specialization are wrong and worthy of refutation. That does not excuse religious scientists from being challenged for their bad epistemology or for making bad philosophical and theological inferences about what is compatible with scientific knowledge,

I will simply reiterate that if you believe Collins is ineligible for his NIH position because his theological and epistemological views are incorrect and able to be refuted, one could make similar arguments that Dawkins and other atheistic scientists are ineligible for their position because they have incorrect and refutable views on secular matters ranging from ethics to means of argumentation or whatever.

I didn’t say Collins was all-bad as a scientist.  I said that there were worrisome infections of his attitudes towards scientific projects that came from religious prejudices.  Whether or not those play out or have played out in tangible practical scientific matters is ultimately up for those with more knowledge of his track record than I to assess.  What 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.

As Myers has pointed out (in a post I can’t seem to locate right now) we live in a nation chock full of Christians and have had numerous Christians as NIH heads with no peeps of complaint from New Atheists.  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.

We are all probably shallow and painfully bad thinkers on the majority of topics outside our specializations and active hobby interests.  So, it has not mattered whether previous NIH heads held religious beliefs or not.  What matters in this case is Collins has specifically merged his science and his faith and made explicit arguments about their compatibility and the supposed effects of limiting scientifically acceptable answers in accord with his interpretation of his faith.  He has made his religious beliefs part of his scientific identity, choosing to leverage his scientific credibility to bolster the credibility of believing on faith (“if this great scientist thinks faith is rational, then how can we less intelligent people call it irrational?”)  There are consequences to doing that when faith is antithetical in principle to rigorous naturalistic scientific investigation.

Now, maybe in the past Collins has kept the two segregated in practice wherever real knowledge was on the line.  In that case all his showy language about faith and science mixing just fine is revealed to be something he does not believe in practice since he knows in practice faith is bad thinking that would corrupt his science (which is where he does his serious thinking).  So, maybe that’s all he’s doing.  Claiming that faith and science are compatible just because he adopts both whereas in practice he carefully separates them and implicitly reveals his real awareness that they’re not compatible and mutually reinforcing at all.  So, maybe he safely keeps faith out of his science and will do so as NIH director.  But since he made an issue of stressing their compatibility, this should be scrutinized carefully and I find some of the red flags suspicious.  Beyond those flags, I cannot speak since I am not an expert on his career by any means.

If Dawkins used his scientific posts to argue for methods of reasoning (such as faith-based ones) that contradicted scientific methods when relating to scientific issues, then he would indeed be worthy of the same criticisms.  If his politics are bad or his ethical judgments badly formed (and, again, I’m not sure I trust his own judgment on that) the question is “does he make part of his platform his willingness to mix these with his science as Collins does when he wants to use his scientific cred to bolster faith?”  If so, then “hell yes” we would have a serious problem with Dawkins.  Soviet science was infamously corrupted by political dogmatism, so we can say there are real possibilities in theory for anti-religious dogmatisms also to infect science and there are instances of it happening.  If somehow Dawkins tailored his scientific theories simply to critique Bush or deer hunters then he would be a bad scientist who should not have any authority over major scientific institutions.

But, in fact, Dawkins shows a fascinating willingness to both argue vehemently that we embrace the fact of selfish genes as the most essential evolutionary unit while vehemently denouncing Social Darwinism politically.  If he were letting his English socialism politics corrupt his science, surely he wouldn’t be one of the coldest proponents of selfishness (metaphorically) being the key to successful evolution!  But he adequately recognizes that our social and moral norms are a separate matter from how evolution objectively works.  He thinks it functions along principles at odds with socialistic ideals.

A couple instances of Dawkins arguing passionately against reading Darwin into morality and reading moral prejudices into nature:

I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live.

For more on what I think constitutes unjustifiably leveraging one’s credibility (as Collins does to an extent), click here.

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