The BBC nominates J. K. Rowling’s controversial essay for the Russell Prize (it didn’t win)

December 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

The article below, from the Deutsche Welle, knocked me for a loop. Remember when J. K. Rowling was vilified as “transphobic” for putting up this tweet last December?

She then published an essay on her website in June explaining her stand on transexual women, discussing her own domestic abuse and sexual assault, decrying the “trans activists” who tried to destroy her career (impossible, of course) and, most tellingly, expressing sympathy for trans women in statements like this:

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

It’s a poignant essay, explaining in what ways she sees differences between trans women and biological women. Nevertheless, she was also attacked by two stars of her Harry Potter movies: Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, who showed thereby that they were ignoramuses. As the DW article below (click on the screenshot) adds:

The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet — two of the biggest fan sites of the Harry Potter series — have also rejected Rowling’s beliefs.

“Our stance is firm: Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. Intersex people exist and should not be forced to live in the binary. We stand with Harry Potter fans in these communities, and while we don’t condone the mistreatment JKR has received, we must reject her beliefs,” the sites said.

The sites also found “the use of Rowling’s influence and privilege to target marginalized people” to be out of step with “the message of acceptance and empowerment” in the Harry Potter books.

Read the essay: she is not “targeting marginalized people”—far from it. She shows empathy for them. She is making an argument for making some distinctions between trans women and biological women. That is an argument worth having, no matter what you believe.

Rowling’s essay also says this:

On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.

I don’t know how those plans are faring, but this is a very bad idea. If a reader knows about this initiative, please post below.

At any rate, the article below notes that Rowling’s essay was one of five nominated for the BBC’s Russell Prize, named for Bertrand Russell and awarded by the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan for the best (nonfiction) prose of the year—prose that embodies Russell’s qualities of engaging language, erudition, and moral force.

To use the British term, I was gobsmacked. J. K. Rowling? The woman whom much of the world rejected as a “transphobe”?  The nomination didn’t comport with what I knew about the Beeb and its wokeness.

To be sure, the prize doesn’t seem to be an “official” BBC award—simply one editor’s take—but even so. . .

I was going to put this post up two days ago, and then forgot about it. In the interim, the Russell Prize was awarded—and Rowling didn’t win. You can see all the nominees at Rajan’s article below, and I’ve put up links to their pieces.

Here’s what Rajan had to say about Rowling’s piece in the nomination, and it’s very good:

JK Rowling: Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues

JK Rowling is almost certainly the greatest writer of English children’s fiction of her generation, and a remarkable humanitarian. It turns out she writes exhilaratingly powerful prose too.

In a blog about the transgender debate, she offended many people. Offence is the price of free speech. Those offended felt she was questioning their identity and even attacking their human rights, which they argue is a form of discrimination or hate speech.

I take absolutely no view whatsoever on the issues that she raises.

I do take an issue on abuse and trolling, and Rowling has achieved the inglorious honour of topping many a league table for those. The deluge of hatred that she faced before writing this blog made it brave, and it was nothing compared to what came after. Talking about bravery, so too, by the way, was Suzanne Moore’s engrossing, long, personal essay for Unherd on why she left the Guardian.

We should all applaud bravery in writers – even those with whom we disagree. And Rowling’s essay contained moments of both real beauty and piercing honesty, as when she revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

What the judges – that is, the voices in my head – most admired about the writing was the plain English. It is an interesting fact about rhetoric that if you want people to understand something, plain, mono-syllabic words are usually your best bet: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

Or think of the final line from Enoch Powell’s most notorious speech: “All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

I’m not endorsing the argument; but the rhetorical power of that line comes from the fact that there are 16 words, the first 15 of which have one syllable, and the last of which has three.

Compare it with this line in Rowling’s essay: “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.”

The rhetorical power from those two sentences derives partly from the plainness of the English. Only “women” (twice) and “natal” contain more than one syllable.

If you’re ever editing copy that seems verbose, go through it and think about cutting syllables while conveying the same meaning. Plain English has power. JK Rowling gets that.

The four other nominees and their pieces (with links) were:

Paul Vallely: “How Philanthropy Benefits the Rich” (the Guardian)
Ian Leslie: “64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney” (The Ruffian)
Wade Davis: “The Unraveling of America” (Rolling Stone)
Decca Aitkenhead: “How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief” (The Times)

Aitkenhead won, but I’m unable to access her piece because The Times is behind a paywall. Congrats to her, despite the horror and pain she experienced that her story describes.

But if nothing else, I hope the nomination gets people to go back and read Rowling’s essay. As happens so often these days, people, running in a social-media herd of sheep, attack something that they don’t even read. I would hope that Radcliffe and Watson read her essay, and, if so, why they see Rowling as somehow harming trans women.


Some winners, Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest

October 21, 2020 • 2:00 pm

This year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, devised by London’s Natural History Museum, had nearly 50,000 entries in several categories of nature photography. The Atlantic published 15 of the winning images, which you can see by clicking on the title screenshot below. I’ve reproduced five of my favorites—two are felids—along with the magazine’s captions, but go see them all; it was a hard choice.

The Atlantic adds this: “The museum’s website has images from previous years and more information about the current contest and exhibition. Captions are provided by the photographers and WPY organizers, and are lightly edited for style.”

Five of the winners:

Watching You Watching Them. Urban Wildlife Winner: What a treat for a biologist—the species you want to study chooses to nest right outside your window. The Cordilleran flycatcher is declining across western North America as the changing climate causes shrinkage of the riparian habitats (i.e. river and other freshwater corridors) along its migratory routes and on its wintering grounds in Mexico. In Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, it typically nests in crevices and on canyon shelves. But one pair picked this remote research cabin instead, perhaps to avoid predation. The nest was built on the head of a window frame by the female. Both parents were feeding the nestlings, flying out to snatch insects in mid-air or hovering to pick them off leaves. So as not to disturb the birds or attract predators to the nest, Alex Badyaev hid his camera behind a large piece of bark on an ancient spruce tree leaning against the cabin. He directed a flash toward the trunk, so the scene would be illuminated by reflection, and operated the setup remotely from the cabin. He captured his shot as the female paused to check on her four nestlings. At 12 days old, they will probably fledge in a few days. Behind her—the cabin serving as a conveniently spacious hide—the biologist recorded his observations. 

© Alex Badyaev / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Late Delivery. Behavior Birds Highly Commended: With a beak full of krill, an Atlantic puffin comes in to land on Grimsey Island in northern Iceland. Most of the colony had already settled for the night, and Catherine Dobbins d’Alessio tracked the puffin as it circled in on the wind, lit by the evening sun, giving her a glance as it shot past. The food was for its chick, in a burrow down the cliffside.

© Catherine Dobbins d’Alessio / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Great Crested Sunrise. Behavior Birds Winner: After several hours up to his chest in water in a lagoon near Brozas, in the west of Spain, Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez captured this intimate moment of a great crested grebe family. The grebes build a nest of aquatic plant material, often among reeds at the edge of shallow water. To avoid predators, their chicks leave the nest within a few hours of hatching, hitching a snug ride on a parent’s back. Here the backlings will live for the next two to three weeks, being fed as fast as their parents can manage. Even when a youngster has grown enough to be able to swim properly, it will still be fed, for many more weeks, until it fledges. This morning, the parent on breakfast duty—after chasing fish and invertebrates under water—emerged with damp feathers and a tasty meal, and the stripy-headed chick stretched out of its sanctuary, open‑beaked, to claim the fish.

© Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

When Mother Says Run. Behavior Mammals Winner: This rare picture of a family of Pallas’s cats, or manuls, on the remote steppes of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau in northwest China is the result of six years’ work at high altitude. These small cats are normally solitary, hard to find, and mostly active at dawn and dusk. Through long-term observation, Shanyuan Li knew his best chance to photograph them in daylight would be in August and September, when the kittens were a few months old and the mothers bolder and intent on caring for them. He tracked the family as they descended to about 12,500 feet in search of their favorite food–pikas (small, rabbit‑like mammals)—and set up his hide on the hill opposite their lair, an old marmot hole. Hours of patience were rewarded when the three kittens came out to play, while their mother kept her eye on a Tibetan fox lurking nearby. Li caught their expressions in a rarely seen moment of family life, when their mother had issued a warning to hurry back to the safety of the lair.

© Shanyuan Li / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

And the grand prize winner:

The Embrace. Grand Title Winner and Animals in their Environment Winner: A tigress hugs an ancient Manchurian fir, rubbing her cheek against the bark to leave secretions from her scent glands. She is an Amur, or Siberian, tiger, in Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park. Hunted almost to extinction in the past century, the population is still threatened by poaching and logging, which also impact their prey—mostly deer and wild boar.

© Sergey Gorshkov / Wildlife Photographer of the Year


h/t: Barry


The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Louise Glück, for poetry, and nobody wins the guess-the-Laureate contest

October 8, 2020 • 6:30 am

Rarely does a poet receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bob Dylan was the most recent one), but we have one this year, the American poet Louise Glück. The Nobel Foundation’s Press release (very skimpy) is here, and her official Nobel biography is here. The award is ““for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. One excerpt from the biography:

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

Glück is much honored; she also won the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

I have to say that I’m not at all familiar with her work, and, given these encomiums, I should have been (my knowledge of American poetry stops with Sylvia Plath and of non-American poetry with Seamus Heaney). The Nobel Committee gave an excerpt from her work:

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

As of this writing there’s no video of the announcement, but I’ll post one when it appears.  Here’s Glück reading from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award.

As for yesterday’s “Guess the Literature Prize” contest, it was again a miserable failure—nobody guessed Glück.  (The favorite seemed to be Margaret Atwood.) What a pity!

A consolation contest: guess the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

As I noted this morning, my Nobel Prize Contest was a miserable failure: nobody even came close to guessing any winners of the three science prizes. Ergo, nobody won.

Well, you get another chance. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow morning. Guess the winner and put your guess below.

Rules: One guess only, and best to give a single name. In the unlikely event that the prize is shared by more than one person, your guess is counted correct only if you name both people. Since you can win with just one name, best to suggest only one name.

The first person to guess the winner wins the prize, so if you have a likely candidate, best to post the name now.

The contest closes at 7 p.m. Chicago time today.

The Prize will be be a paperback copy of Faith Versus Fact, autographed, made out to you, and bearing an original PCC(E)-drawn animal cartoon with a pro-science and anti-faith message.

Let’s have some entries this time—this ain’t rocket science.

Doudna and Charpentier win Chemistry Nobel for CRISPR/Cas9 method of gene editing

October 7, 2020 • 6:15 am

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was long anticipated, for the CRISPR/Cas9 system of gene editing was a tremendous accomplishment in biology and chemistry. It promises a lot, including curing human genetic disease (see the first five posts here). Remember, Nobel Prizes in science are designed to reward those who made discoveries potentially helping humanity, not those who just made general scientific advances.

A prize for developing the editing system was, then, almost inevitable. The only question was “who would get it?”, since several people contributed to the work that led to CRISPR/Cas9.  It turns out that the Prize—in Chemistry—went to the two frontrunners, Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.  Other serious contenders were George Church of Harvard, Virginijus Šikšnys at the Vilnius University of Biotechnology, Francisco Mojica of the University of Alicante, and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute (the dispute was largely over whether those who developed ways to use the method in human cells also deserved the Prize). There will be a lot of kvetching today, but if I had had to pick two to get the prize, given that only three can get it au maximum, it would be Doudna and Charpentier. (They could have awarded up to six prizes if they’d split the CRISPR award between Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry.)

The press release from the Nobel Foundation says this:

Genetic scissors: a tool for rewriting the code of life

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.

In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.

Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

I haven’t looked it up, but I think this is the first time that two women have been the sole recipients of any Nobel prize.(Correction: I should have said “Prize for Science”, for, as a reader pointed out below, two women shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. Their achievement was organizing to suppress sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Here are Doudna and Charpentier from the Washington Post (the paper’s caption):

FILED – 14 March 2016, Hessen, Frankfurt/Main: The American biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna (l) and the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, then winners of the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2016, are together in the casino of Goethe University. The two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2020. Photo: picture alliance / dpa (Photo by Alexander Heinl/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Here’s the live stream of the announcement from Stockholm. The action begins at 11:45 with the announcement in English and Swedish, and the scientific explanation starts at 19:10.

Once again, although seven people, including Matthew, guessed the winners in our Nobel Prize contest (here and here), nobody got the Chemistry or Physics prizes. Given your miserable failures, I may have to have contest for the literature prize alone.

Matthew was also prescient in his book, Life’s Greatest Secret (2015), which includes this sentence:

“Whatever happens next, I bet that Doudna and Charpentier—and maybe Zhang and Church—will get that phone call from Stockholm.”

In 2017, I reviewed (favorably) Jennifer Doudna’s new book on CRISPRA Crack in Creation, for the Washington Post. (Samuel Sternberg was the book’s co-author). The book is well worth reading, but I did have one beef connected not with the narrative, but with where the dosh goes for this discovery. Here’s what I wrote then:

. . . this brings us to an issue conspicuously missing from the book. Much of the research on CRISPR, including Doudna’s and Zhang’s, was funded by the federal government — by American taxpayers. Yet both scientists have started biotechnology companies that have the potential to make them and their universities fabulously wealthy from licensing CRISPR for use in medicine and beyond. So if we value ethics, transparency and the democratization of CRISPR technology, as do Doudna and Sternberg, let us also consider the ethics of scientists enriching themselves on the taxpayer’s dime. The fight over patents and credit impedes the free exchange among scientists that promotes progress, and companies created from taxpayer-funded research make us pay twice to use their products.

. . . . Finally, let us remember that it was not so long ago that university scientists refused to enrich themselves in this way, freely giving discoveries such as X-rays, the polio vaccine and the Internet to the public. The satisfaction of scientific curiosity should be its primary reward.

I’m not sure how the legal battle between the participants (via Berkeley and MIT) has shaken out, and can’t be arsed to look it up, but surely a reader or two will know

Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three for showing that formation of black holes is predicted by relativity theory

October 6, 2020 • 6:15 am

This morning the Karolinska Institute awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to two men and a woman—Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez—for work on black holes.  As the press release notes:

Three Laureates share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole. Roger Penrose showed that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

Penrose got half the prize, with Genzel and Ghez sharing the other 50%.

My Nobel Prize Contest (see here and here) is already a big flop this year, with nobody guessing even one person from each of the two sets of winners so far. Reader ThyroidPlanet, though, did guess Penrose for physics.

The Chemistry prize will be announced tomorrow, and the Literature prize on Thursday.

Below is a video of this morning’s announcement featuring Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The action begins at 26:15, with the announcement in both Swedish and English. At 33:15,  David Havilland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, and Professor Ulf Danielsson explain the significance of the discovery.

Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine goes to three for discovering the Hepatitis C virus

October 5, 2020 • 7:00 am

Knowing that the first Nobel Prize for science would be awarded today—in Physiology or Medicine—I made a contest in which readers were to guess just one winner of each of the three science prizes plus the winner of this year’s Literature Nobel.

Well, the first prize was awarded this morning, and the contest is already over. Everyone lost (see here and here).

Granted, this was not an easy one to guess. The award in fact went to three people—Harvey Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles Rice—with each getting a third of the prize money. The award was given for the discovery of the virus that causes Hepatitis C.  Here’s part of the press release from the Nobel Prize site:

This year’s Nobel Prize is awarded to three scientists who have made a decisive contribution to the fight against blood-borne hepatitis, a major global health problem that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer in people around the world.

Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice made seminal discoveries that led to the identification of a novel virus, Hepatitis C virus. Prior to their work, the discovery of the Hepatitis A and B viruses had been critical steps forward, but the majority of blood-borne hepatitis cases remained unexplained. The discovery of Hepatitis C virus revealed the cause of the remaining cases of chronic hepatitis and made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.

. . . The Nobel Laureates’ discovery of Hepatitis C virus is a landmark achievement in the ongoing battle against viral diseases (Figure 2). Thanks to their discovery, highly sensitive blood tests for the virus are now available and these have essentially eliminated post-transfusion hepatitis in many parts of the world, greatly improving global health. Their discovery also allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs directed at hepatitis C. For the first time in history, the disease can now be cured, raising hopes of eradicating Hepatitis C virus from the world population. To achieve this goal, international efforts facilitating blood testing and making antiviral drugs available across the globe will be required

Here’s the video of the award with details about the winners, and giving some scientific background; the action starts at 12:50. It’s worth listening to the 20 minutes of science, as you’ll learn a lot. There’s also an interview with the Secretary of the Prize Committee beginning at 34:34.

I guess the prize for CRISPR-Cas9 will have to wait for another year.

Guess the Nobel Prizes, redux

October 4, 2020 • 8:30 am

We didn’t get many entries in the “Guess the Nobel Prize” contest, with the prize being an autographed book with a special commissioned drawing by yours truly. To enter and see the rules, go to the earlier post and leave your guesses there (or below). (You have to guess one person who will win in the three science categories plus the literature prize.)

I have no guesses myself, but I already have plenty of books!

Guess the Nobel Prizes

October 2, 2020 • 9:00 am

It’s Nobel Prize season again, and again I’ll have my annual contest, which almost nobody ever wins.  Your job is to guess the Nobel Prizes for this year in all four following categories:

  • Physiology or Medicine
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Literature

You must get all four right to get the prize, which is an autographed copy of either Why Evolution is True or Faith Versus Fact (your choice). And in the book, besides making it out to you, I will add a genuine PCC(E) drawing an animal of your choice.

You can make only one guess per category (no saying “it could be X or Y or Z”). For areas in which more than one person can win—science prizes can be shared by up to three people—it’s best to name just one person, for if you name someone who doesn’t win, you lose the whole category.

Put your choices below. What do you have to lose?

If several people guess all four right, the first entry wins.

The Prize Awards will begin on Monday, with announcements on these dates:

PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE – Monday 5 October, 11:30 CEST at the earliest
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Wallenbergsalen, Nobel Forum, Nobels väg 1, Solna

PHYSICS – Tuesday 6 October, 11:45 CEST at the earliest
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (Kungl. Vetenskapsakademien, KVA), Sessionssalen, Lilla Frescativägen 4A, Stockholm

CHEMISTRY – Wednesday 7 October, 11:45 CEST at the earliest
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sessionssalen, Lilla Frescativägen 4A, Stockholm

LITERATURE – Thursday 8 October, 13:00 CEST at the earliest
The Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), Börssalen, Källargränd 4, Stockholm

Francis Collins, new Templeton Prize winner, pushes woo in a Scientific American interview

May 22, 2020 • 2:00 pm

As I reported two days ago, NIH head Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, just nabbed the lucrative Templeton Prize, usually given to people who are both science minded and blather on about the “Big Questions”:  metaphysical “why” questions like “Why are we here?” or “What is our purpose?” Designed to exceed the Nobel Prize in dosh, the prize enriched Collins by a cool $1.3 million. Below is a photo of his press conference and the announcement of the award, in which Collins, unlike Tr-mp, is setting a good example by being properly masked.

Before I proceed to take apart Collins’s “theology”, such as it is, let me say that by all accounts he’s a really nice guy. Remember when he helped Christopher Hitchens get the best cancer treatment, even though Hitchens mocks and reviles everything Collins holds sacred? I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with the guy—until  the conversation turned to God.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, right, received the Templeton Prize for his work to de-escalate mistrust between scientists and people of faith.Andrew Harnik / Pool via Reuters

Apparently there was an NPR interview with Collins yesterday, but it isn’t online yet. I’ll link to it when it appears. But if you want a precis of his views, John Horgan interviewed Collins for Scientific American in 2006 and, as far as I know, Collins’s form of Christianity hasn’t changed since then. (You can read about it in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents evidence for Belief.) Horgan has (excuse the metaphor) resurrected the interview to mark Collins’s prize.

Now the “evidence for belief” in Collin’s book and this interview is both thin and unconvincing, and in fact doesn’t go beyond C. S. Lewis in sophistication or novelty.  Collins, for instance, argues that the fact that humans have a “Moral Law” constitutes strong evidence for God, as an innate morality could have been bequeathed only by God.  That, of course, is ridiculous: not only could evolution instill rudiments of morality, but there’s a cultural veneer on our evolutionary legacy, born of human experience, that can spread from society to society. And, of course, moral dicta are not universal, and I shouldn’t have to mention variations over time or among societies to show that.

Collins notes that he believes in the Resurrection, but avers that God uses miracles sparingly. But that’s one of them, and it’s curious that if God resurrected Jesus so that humans could be saved by their Christian faith, why Collins doesn’t think strongly that Christianity is the “right” religion? He goes on at length about Christianity not being privileged with the unique truth about God? But if there are many “right” religions, why his adherence to Christianity?

Further, Collins explains immorality—those who break God’s law—as a result of God’s having given us free will. This is, of course, not compatibilist free will that coxists comfortably with determinism, but libertarian free will. This is what his fellow evangelicals, who are many, believe as well. Those who claim that most people who espouse free will are really compatibilists are wrong.

Collins and Horgan:

Horgan: Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?

Collins: That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there. I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God’s feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.

Horgan: The physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, has written about this topic. He asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.

Collins: If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?

Once again, we have to deal with the idea that God gave people free will so they could freely choose whether or not to accept Jesus (I suspect this would be Collins’s take). And if you make the wrong choice, you’re punished unto eternity? That then turns into the question of why God did this. Why is free will so important? For surely God knew that this would lead to untold suffering, so why couldn’t He just give people a form of free will that allows them to choose a saviour, but doesn’t allow them to commit moral evil? Or can’t He give you that form of free will? I thought he was omnipotent!

Well, it’s all obscure, of course (Collins doesn’t answer). But when it comes to physical  evil: tsunamis, earthquakes, childhood cancers, and other bad stuff that doesn’t result from human “choice”, well, it’s all very murky—but God has his reasons!

Horgan: Some theologians, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn’t fully in control of His creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase “God the semi-competent.”

Collins: That’s delightful–and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.

Here we have a watertight edifice that can’t be refuted.  Collins has enough “evidence” to know that God exists, gave us morality and free will, but he’s not quite sure why. But he is sure we have libertarian free will. Why? Because twins tell us!  Apparently Horgan is also a libertarian free-willer, at least judging by the following exchange. (My emphasis.)

Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It’s the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don’t you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project–are undermining belief in free will?

Collins: You’re talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don’t behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience–and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, “No, it’s all an illusion, we’re just pawns in some computer model.” But I don’t think that carries you very far.

Why, exactly, do the differences between identical twins in thought and behavior give any evidence for free will rather than the non-goddy explanations like “learning and experience” (or somatic mutation)?

And with that I’ll stop, because Collins is just spouting boilerplate Lewis-ian Christianity for the masses. And if I do say so myself, his views are theologically unsophisticated. But I’ll take that back, for to deem any form of theology “sophisticated” is to commit a profound error of thought.


h/t: Paul