Monday must be Pick On Francis Collins Day!

Sam Harris seems to have triggered some kind of reflex, because there is discussion going on all over the place.

Jerry Coyne has a long piece up that chews over that awful talk Collins gave at Berkeley. He has the full recording of the whole talk — it was titled “The Language of God: Intellectual Reflections of a Christian Geneticist”, and I’m pretty sure the fifth word slipped in there entirely by mistake — and it is a genuinely appalling load of rubbish. It’s two hours long, but I could only make it through the first half hour before having to give up. I thought I had a strong stomach from years of wading through the creationist literature, but I guess I have limits.

I ran away in exasperation at the point where he starts babbling about the fine-tuning argument, claiming that there are only two possible choices: either there is a multiverse with an infinite number of possibilities to explore, or the cosmic constants were chosen by his god. What about chance? There’s nothing impossible about the fact that our universe was the product of a chance event: after all, I am the product of a chance event, a randomized mixture of the genes of two people equally the product of chance. You can’t simply rule out the importance of chance events in the history of individuals or the universe, but Collins does. And what about necessity? It may be that a universe can only exist if it possesses an interlocked set of constants…that, in fact, all the parameters of the universe are co-contingent and co-dependent.

Anyway, I’ve read his book, but I hadn’t experienced the full force of his looniness until I’d seen that presentation. The man is a flaming idjit.

US New and World Report weighs in, too, and asks a couple of reasonable questions that I have to answer in the negative.

But isn’t it possible that Collins’s faith might be valuable for NIH beyond its PR power?

From spending some time with him, it appears that Collins’s scientific curiosity is at least partially motivated by a faith-based desire to understand what he believes is God’s universe. Isn’t that a net positive, given that it helped him lead the team that decoded the human genome?

And might not his faith lend guidance on inevitable questions he’ll face around scientific ethics? Don’t those ethics have to be rooted in some moral or religious system that transcends pure science?

Curiosity is a fine thing and I have to encourage any wellspring for it. However, the defining feature of Collins’ faith, and that part of it that makes it objectionable, is that he uses it to wall off parts of the human world from curiosity. The human genome project was a technological exercise, a sustained, disciplined effort to apply developing tools to a specific, narrow problem. It opens up new avenues for science, but in itself was not a demonstration of scientific competence. His administrative ability led the work to a conclusion, not his scientific skill set.

And what has he done with it afterwards? Declared the genome a divine artifact, decreed that certain domains, such as human behavior and morality, are exempt from scientific scrutiny, and proposed a succession of freakish Christian dogmas as substitutes for reasoned analysis. At this point, where the real science takes over, his faith only gets in the way.

And please, don’t ever equate faith with ethics. They have nothing to do with each other, except, perhaps, that faith is a commonly used escape clause to get away from the requirements of human morality. Science itself is a tool, as amoral as a hammer, and it certainly can be misused, but don’t go crawling to the priests for guidance. Let’s hear from philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and lawyers long, long before we consult with theologians—I can’t imagine a worse fate for scientific ethics than for it to fall under the sway of a dogmatic Christian.

Russell Blackford takes a pragmatic approach: we’re stuck with Collins, there isn’t much we can do to oppose his appointment, and we can’t even make the argument that he’s a crummy bureaucrat — he’ll do a competent job in the office. I agree completely. There really are no plans for the godless horde to march on Washington, there will be no effigies burnt, we aren’t going to even throw rotten tomatoes at the NIH building. We will sigh and go on.

However, we will continue to make quiet complaint, and we will be scrutinizing his actions carefully.

The situation is this: the White House has picked for high office a well-known scientist with a good track record in management who wears clown shoes. Worse, this scientist likes to stroll about with his clown shoes going squeak-squeak-squeak, pointing them out to everyone, and bragging about how red and shiny and gosh-darned big his shoes are, and tut-tutting at the apparent lack of fine fashion sense exhibited by his peers who wear rather less flamboyant footwear.

I would rather Obama had appointed someone who wore practical shoes, and didn’t make much of a fuss about them, anyway. And excuse me, but I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.