Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sam Harris on Francis Collins

I had a post mostly ready to go a week or so ago about President Obama's nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institute of Health. I was alerted to this by a typically brilliant Op-Ed column in the New York Times by Sam Harris.

Now I see that the NYT piece was a condensation of a much longer piece that Harris has subsequently posted on The Reason Project. It's a lengthy post, but it really excoriates the man who would control $30 billion in public money for research in public health issues.

I didn't manage to push the send button on my original post because I could not improve on Harris's original NYT piece--for my money, nobody can improve on Sam Harris. But the longer version is so worth the trouble and deserves wider dissemination.


Malaise Inc said...

There is some things missing from Harris' piece. There is no discussion how his religious beliefs tainted his science. There is no discussion of how his religious beliefs caused him to make poor decisions while leading the Human Genome Project. And there is no discussion of any policy position that he has taken that is contrary to that of his boss, President Obama. Harris even admits that Collins is impressive and qualified.

So, on what grounds is Harris left to criticize Collins? He is reduced to criticizing what the man thinks and believes. We have spent the last 8 years seeing and living the fruits of enforced ideological purity. It is beyond me why anyone would think thought police tactics are going to be anymore effective just because they come from the other end of the political spectrum.

wunelle said...

Fair enough. This is a peculiar situation, which is what makes it so slippery.

Collins's work, for which he has garnered his reputation as a scientist, has been (as I understand it) to help map the location of genes along a set of human chromosomes. His background is in chemistry, and his work with HGP has been an endeavor of chemistry. He began life as a trained scientist and, facts and methodology in hand, made a religious conversion later in life.

I don't really see the conflict between religious faith and chemistry, except insofar as a faith-based interface with the world would make science an anomalous and uncomfortable practice--a methodology at odds with the practice of explaining things mystically. This is why Collins is an aberration: if his conversion to religion had come earlier in life, he would certainly not have pursued a career in hard science. But he did his training and set his career first, and then made his conversion, which left him with the task of reconciling the two milieux.

He has done this by deciding that his work is in discovering "god's language." Well and good.

But his new position will ask him to wander into other scientific fields where it may be much harder to reconcile a faith-based view of the world with the hard science required to progress. In order to accomplish this reconciliation, Collins will have to bridge worlds which, so far, are not being bridged. And his views since his religious conversion have become incompatible with any scientific methodology (barring the protective bubble in which he has worked), so this makes for an ominous outlook.

I think what is needed here is not the policing of thoughts--he is free to believe whatever he wants--but care in choosing who controls the purse strings of a multi-billion-dollar scientific enterprise. I am free to believe that a protective energy field of "life force" envelops me when I ride my motorcycle, making me impervious to injury; but that belief would make me a bad choice to run the National Highway Safety Administration.

Malaise Inc said...

There are two problems here.

First, you seem to hew to the idea that religious believers are unable to function as scientists. While I would certainly agree that science is, by necessity, an atheistic process, I reject the notion that one must be philosophical atheist to be an effective scientist. There are, always have been and always will be, plenty of believing scientists. So, you need to be careful when you say science and faith are worlds that cannot be bridged. Are you talking solely about the practice of science or also the practitioners? And if you are referring to both, what will you do with all the scientists down through the ages who have been believers? Purge them from the canon as somehow tainted?

Second, you are buying into the notion that evangelical Christians are monolithic in the doctrines they subscribe to. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evangelicals no more agree on every topic than, say, airline pilots do. And they certainly aren't all fundamentalist. And so, what it boils down to is, IMO, the imposition of someone else's biases based on a caricature of Collins as an evangelical, not on any clearly demonstrable policy position or actual decision Collins has made in his life as a scientist or science administrator.

Folks like PZ Myers like to pride themselves on informing their opinions through evidence. Fine, show me the corpus delecti. Because all I see is a bunch of folks purporting to crawl into Collins head and projecting out their own fears and biases rather than building a demonstrable fact based case.

Let me refer you to the blog of a evangelical scientist. And to a specific blog post where he offers a challenge that none of PZ's commenters have ever taken him up on. I wonder why that is.

wunelle said...

So the man who explained the universe as Collins did in 2008 at Berkeley seems a good choice to you? Or are you just poking at the softness of my argument? Is his past work with the HGP all that matters? What would he need to say off-topic to disqualify himself from the position? Or are these really separate worlds? And is that OK? Priest by day and child molester by night? Can he still be a good priest? If Collins is two different people (as he certainly seems to me), do you think he's done a good job reconciling these two sides? (I think the embrace of the one is the death of the other.)

You say the worlds of faith and science can be bridged, are being bridged. I disagree. I think we're trying to make a virtue out of the strange period of overlap in history, when a religious worldview is on the wane and rationality is ascendant. It's not that the two worlds are enjoying a union; it's that people are good at compartmentalizing. Science currently owns vast swaths of territory once claimed by religion, territory ceded with reluctance and bloodshed and all manner of subterfuge. It would be ludicrous to claim this as evidence of the progressiveness of religion.

It's plainly untenable to claim that religion is not an impediment to science.

(As to your latter point, I'll head over and read the post you link to.)

wunelle said...

As for the link you post, this particular author can set up any contest he likes, to determine whatever outcome he seeks. But if the goal is to say that religion is no impediment to science then I think it's a patently absurd point. The fact that believers can publish arcane scientific papers shows our ability to compartmentalize, not religion's compatibility with a scientific methodology.

I suspect that PZ Myers' failure to take the challenge is not due to fear or to being flummoxed by the conundrum, but because the challenge does not prove what the author says it will prove. And PZ seems to keep quite busy frying larger fish.

Sam Harris's point is not that no believer in the supernatural can do quantum physics--no one is arguing that believers on the whole have different equipment or base capabilities than non-believers--but that a belief in the tenets of organized religion is fundamentally unscientific, and potentially undermining. One must live in an utterly different rational world in one case than in the other. People do this all the time (married folks have affairs, for example, yet desire to remain married), but again--it's no feather in the cap of religion that they do so, nor any evidence of these worlds' compatibility.

Malaise Inc said...

Collins has been a successful MD, a successful scientist, and a successful science administrator. He is the perfect candidate to head NIH and the only flaw Harris, et al can find is that he is religious and outspoken about it. I say so what? It is just not enough of a disqualifier that he thinks and believes something they don't like. If he had acted on those beliefs in a way that is contrary to the agenda of the Obama Administration, then they might have a legitimate beef. But, I find it telling that they have produced no such evidence.

You also need to be a little more precise how you parse my points. In general, I subscribe to Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria when it comes to religion and science. So, to a certain extent, the question as to whether they can be bridged is nonsensical. It really doesn't matter since the (or at least should) answer different questions.

What I have a problem with is the idea that science must, in all aspects, be an atheistic enterprise and that the religious beliefs of any particular scientist must, at least, taint their work product and, at most, disqualify them. Again, I agree that the practice of science must be atheistic. But I do not make the leap that it's practitioners must be, as well. It clearly isn't the case with Collins, or we would have heard about it by now. The same goes for other believing scientists, like Francisco Ayala or Kenneth Miller.

And I find it telling that the same folks who like to describe science as a meritocracy do not criticize these mean on the merits of their contributions to science. So, long as their work conforms to the proven process of scientific discovery (methodological naturalism), their work stands up to peer scrutiny, and advances our knowledge it just doesn't matter what they believe outside the lab.

Further, I don't presume to say that religion is not an impediment to science. It is obviously, but not universally, so. There are clearly retrograde sects that are set up in opposition to science and, indeed, all Enlightenment values. But, that is not universally true. Many sects accept what we know of the natural world and don't presume to know better.

Call it what you will. Compartmentalization. Cognitive dissonance. It really matters not. If someone can successfully compartmentalize, just what exactly is your beef with them? Having read some and conversed some on this subject, I can't suss out anymore than "We don't like what he believes, even if his scientific credentials are impeccable." And I would think scientists would be more interested something more demonstrable than that.

BTW, I have had this same conversation a couple other times and it usually gets heated (dare I say irrational) fairly quickly. I appreciate your openness to discussing this calmly.

wunelle said...

I actually meant to take off my sparring hat and ask how things are going! Without your blog, I've entirely lost track (of course) with what you're up to and how some of the things you used to write about have progressed (or not). I hope all is well. I miss your little snippets of country life.

No, you raise excellent, valid points (not that anyone needs me to say so). And your point about science from whatever source being peer-reviewed and standing or falling on its merits is most germane. I agree that the work is primarily the thing, and science has its internal self-correcting mechanism to keep things from going awry. No one, certainly not Collins, is proposing a new "soft science" methodology.

But I'm in the Dawkins camp rather than the Gould camp (and I know this was / is a huge bone of contention among biologists): I think the proposition that there is some kind of creative force in the universe is a fundamentally scientific one, and the idea that there are things "outside of nature" is a cop-out. I think there is a tendency to label things as "beyond understanding" when the proper label is "not yet understood."

What Collins believes in his private heart is his own business, and I suppose we all find our own way and most of us embrace things that others will find offensive / unsupportable. But he's on record--recently, and speaking as a scientist!--saying some really wacky, unsupportable, unscientific things (that's the sticking point: not that he believes wacky things, but that he's a scientist saying wacky things about scientific proposals--or so I believe). And he's saved in large part because so many of the rest of us believe some version of the same wacky things!

But this is a public office, one disbursing vast public funds on scientific endeavors, and here we have, to me, a particularly slippery individual who carries the credentials of a life's work in science while subsequently having undergone a profound anti-scientific transformation.

I think I cannot evade your criticism that I oppose Collins for what he believes, for what I fear he will do, and not for his demonstrated wrongs or damage done. But after eight years of W, where science was systematically undermined, I feel like it's deja-vu all over again: here's someone promoted to a powerful post carrying all the right credentials, but whose views are anathema to the very underpinnings of the institute which he proposes to lead. Why can't we promote someone whose advocacy for science does not come with a mythological asterisk?

I hope you are right and I am wrong: I hope Collins keeps his spooks in the closet and sticks to science. (And I'm happy for the give-and-take!)

Malaise Inc said...

Doing fine actually. Not much different other than busier at work and managed to total my Dodge when some kid lost control and came left of center into my lane. Neither of us was hurt and managed to upgrade to a 2006 Ford F350 in pristine condition.

Glad to see you back blogging regularly again. I've a few to catch up on yet.

wunelle said...

Wow, glad you guys are OK. Every time I hear about an accident like this (one caused by someone else) I wonder about my affection for motorcycles.

And I think when you left off blogging you were in pursuit of a new job, but it was not yet in hand; is this right? Or did you continue with the old firm (not that I know anything about that, but I recall you writing about working from home).


Returning to Collins / Harris. A couple questions, some of which maybe touch on the absurd, but raised in pursuit of a point:

Do you think there's any difference between a person's religious views as they relate to the abstract or physical sciences like physics or chemistry or mathematics versus the theoretical sciences like cosmology or evolutionary biology? (I guess I'm thinking that religion will have grounds for opposing some branches of science more than others, where the conflict is more direct.) I notice in the post you link to, the papers are quite abstract and esoteric; they're not really a challenge to a religious worldview, though the scientific fields will require a discipline that must be kept from one's faith-world.

Would it be OK for Collins to deny the truth of Darwinian evolution? Could he be a young earth creationist for his proposed position? What if he felt that women or nonwhites do not belong in the workplace, even if he promised not to act on these beliefs? At what point could he embrace the profoundly unscientific and still be OK for this post, or is his historical track record really the only things that matter?

I don't know that I have pat answers for these questions myself, and I realize my tolerance for anything even remotely religious is virtually nil.

wunelle said...

Interesting post on Scienceblogs on this subject here.