Every scientist has biases and ways of thinking that may enter into their work. The good scientists presumably are conscious of this and try to keep their biases out of the science, and only espouse those ways of thinking that allow them to make progress. Of course, scientists are human beings, and whether it was Einstein’s faith in certainty (an objective reality, if you will) or Newton’s dabbling in alchemy, even the greatest scientists have had their lapses. Generally, I would like to imagine a certain amount of respect for diversity of background and motivations in the scientific community- so long as such diversity does not noticeably impact the work done to discover nature’s laws. This is why I’m a little distressed to see a few instances of people objecting to the appointment of Francis Collins to head the NIH- because he’s Christian.
Certainly his detractors wouldn’t put it in such terms, but that’s really what it is. I need to get more specific here, and say that I’m motivated to write this by PZ Myers’s recent post on the matter, so I’ll be addressing his arguments in general. I have no special love of Christianity- even as part of a residual sympathy, since I was never raised Christian. Perhaps I have other sympathies that come into play here, but I’ll save it for later. I don’t have a special dislike of PZ Myers, whose blog I read regularly, though I find it somewhat hit and miss. In case you were wondering, I think this was a miss. The most relevant portion of his post as far as I’m concerned is this:
So what's different about Collins? He doesn't keep it to himself. He is openly and avidly evangelical, brags about adding religious messages to NHGRI announcements, and recently built a high-profile website that promotes evangelical Christianity. I don't mind a Christian in charge of the NIH, but I do object to a missionary, especially one who has said some awfully stupid things about science, being put in control of such a large chunk of our country's science budget.
Certainly, he’s an evangelist for the religion, which seems to be Myers’s main objection to his appointment. However evangelism is part of the religion for some people, and if he wishes to use spurious arguments in support of that evangelism, that is entirely his business so long as government money isn’t spent in this pursuit. To argue that the objection is not to his religion, but to his evangelism is bullshit. Evangelism is part of the package, and you can’t argue what can or cannot be a part of someone else’s religion. This is especially true considering that the arguments Collins uses are part of his own rationalization of his beliefs rather than active dishonesty on his part. If it interferes, then it interferes, and he shouldn’t have the job. If his statements are merely stupid or wrong, but don’t affect his job then we should be consistent and complain about Joe Biden constantly.
He also does not have major issues with current scientific consensus on evolution. He may well be a theistic evolutionist, but in practical terms, this means very little in terms of how he will run the NIH as an administrator. He has demonstrated his ability to tackle scientific problems.
Fundamentally, Collins hasn’t really done anything beyond think a certain way and have certain beliefs which he has evangelized as part of his personal life. Are these beliefs incompatible with science? Yes, in some respects more than others, but once again he has not demonstrated a willingness to allow them to affect his duties at the NIH. While he may use such terms as “God bless,” or similar language in his new position, it remains within the bounds of acceptable political speech considering that President Obama himself uses such language. Much as I dislike it, it’s not a disqualifying factor.
We can’t spurn every scientist with a religious bent from positions of importance simply because they are evangelists who have made spurious statements. We are all evangelists who have made spurious statements whether they involve superstition or not. We will persist in being such people all our lives because it’s part of the nature of believing in anything, whether or not it involves pie in the sky when you die. There can’t be a minimum standard on spurious statements and evangelism of questionable beliefs when unconnected to a lack of scientific contribution, and which allows us to prejudge the person’s abilities and remove the benefit of doubt. If there is such a standard, I won’t sign up for it. I wouldn’t want to be part of the scientific community. I’d rather be a crank and a crackpot working in isolation than a prejudicial pompous ass. This sort of attitude is what Richard Feynman found so objectionable about the National Academy of Sciences in his lifetime (I have no idea whether this has changed since). He perceived it as an association preoccupied with keeping people out as a means of considering the “in-group” special (my words, not his).
I wouldn’t have gone into science if I was not at some point, religious. That’s my bias in this. We are all motivated to do science by different things, and in many cases, religion is a part of a scientist’s initial push to explore. Usually it’s grounded in a sense of wonder about God’s creation. Sometimes it fades as a motivation, as it did in my case, whereupon the person finds another reason to continue doing science. Other times it only gets stronger. I learned a long time ago that resenting people’s motivations to do the same things you do is a waste of time and energy. Why should I care that someone contributes to charity because they think God commands it, when someone else gives to charity to assuage personal guilt over some event in their lives? Ranking and rating is for the military, consumer reports, and video games. It doesn’t change the nature of their contribution, nor in the grand scheme of things when I’m dead and buried and humanity no longer exists, make me a “better person” than they because my motivation was empathy.
It is what it is, a flash of objection based on nothing more than a man’s religion. If it can be demonstrated that his integrity as a scientist is affected so severely by his religious beliefs that he is not qualified execute his duties, I wouldn’t be writing this. His religious beliefs, however much he chooses to evangelize, are not a disqualifying factor in and of themselves. Instead, what I see is people making accusations of a vague possibility that his beliefs may affect his performance with no more than innuendo to back these assertions. It’s petty and does nothing but run a fissure through the community with no apparent benefit to the advancement of science or knowledge.