Steven Pinker on Francis Collins

July 11, 2009 • 6:50 am

Some newspapers and science journals have called atheist-scientists this week, asking for opinions on Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the National Institutes of Health.  In lieu of a phone interview,  Steve Pinker wrote the following to a reporter from one such journal  (copy slightly edited for web publication).  Thanks to Steve for permission to post.

I have serious misgivings about Francis Collins being appointed director of NIH. It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy. The director of NIH is not just a bureaucrat who tends the money pipleline between the treasury and molecular biologists (which is how many scientists see the position). He or she is also a public face of science, someone who commands one of the major bully pulpits for science in the country. The director testifies before Congress, sets priorities, selects speakers and panelists, and is in many regards a symbol for biomedical research in the US and the world. In that regard, many of Collins’s advocacy statements are deeply disturbing.

For example, I see science as not just cures for diseases and better gadgets but an ideal for how to think about the most important issues facing us as humans– in particular, the ideal that we should seek truth through reason and evidence and not through superstition, dogma, and personal revelation. Collins has said that he came to accept the Trinity, and the truth that Jesus is the son of God, when he was hiking and came upon a beautiful triple waterfall. Now, the idea that nature contains private coded messages from a supernatural being to an individual person is the antithesis of the scientific (indeed, rational) mindset. It is primitive, shamanistic, superstitious. The point of the scientific revolution was to do away with such animistic thinking.

This is not just autobiographical. Collins, in his book, eggs on fellow evangelical Christians in their anti-scientific beliefs. He tells them that they are “right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible” and to “the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.” Granted, he is not a young-earth or intelligent-design creationist. But he has stated that God interacts with creation, in particular, that he designed the evolutionary process to ensure that human intelligence, morality, and Judaeo-Christian religious belief would evolve.

That is far more than just expressing an opinion. That is advocacy, which gives incalculable encouragement the forces that have been hostile to science for the past eight years. And this is not just a theoretical fear: a number of right-wing, religious apologists (e.g., Dennis Praeger, in his debate with Sam Harris) used Collins as a stick to beat secularists:  “Here is a famous scientist who takes an interventionist God and the Bible seriously; who are you to contradict him?” This is going to be multiplied if Collins becomes an even more prominent face of science.

Also, the human mind and brain constitute one of the frontiers of biomedical science. Cutting-edge research treats intelligence, morality, and religious belief as products of evolution and neuroscience. The idea that there is divine design and teleology behind these functions, on the basis of Iron Age and medieval dogma, is antithetical to this vibrant research area. How will Collins preside over the allocation of research priorities if he believes in ““the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted”?

Again, it’s important that there not be an atheist-litmus-test for science administrators. A person’s private beliefs should not keep him from a public position. But Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the Institute and his efforts on the behalf of the scientific enterprise in Congress and in public.  At the very least, he should distance himself from the BioLogos Foundation and any other advocacy group.

For more on Collins, see the conversation between him and Richard Dawkins that ran three years ago in Time magazine; it has been reposted on the Dawkins website.  Slate just published a discussion of Collins’s appointment called “Jesus Goes to Bethesda.” I weighed in yesterday.