Ken Miller on Collins

Sam Harris wrote an op-ed criticizing Francis Collins’ nomination to head the NIH titled “Science is in the details”. Now Ken Miller has written a short letter in reply, and I think he would have done well to have heeded that title.

Dr. Collins’s sin, despite credentials Mr. Harris calls “impeccable,” is that he is a Christian. Mr. Harris is not alone in holding this view. A leading science blogger, also attacking Dr. Collins, demonstrated his own commitment to reasoned dialogue by calling the scientist a “clown” and a “flaming idjit.” When reason has such defenders, Heaven help us.

No, that first sentence is completely false. The head of the NIH can be a Christian, a Jew, a Moslem, even an atheist, and it won’t disturb us in the slightest. Here’s a list of past directors of the NIH; can you identify their faith, their hobbies, their sexual orientation, their favorite kind of music? Do you care? The fact that Collins is a Christian is not a problem at all — we are not interested in narrowing the search pool for science administration to the extent that we exclude the majority of people in this country.

What is disturbing is that Collins is a fervent evangelical believer who inserts his superstition where it doesn’t belong, in the execution of his job. James Wyngaarden and Bernadine Healy and Harold Varmus did not do that. I cannot trust him not to Christianize his responsibilities — from reading his book, it is clear that he actually feels a moral obligation to add religious instruction to everything he does. That should bother everyone.

There should be no religious litmus test for the office, but that does not mean that there shouldn’t be constraints on how the office should be used — it should not be steered into becoming the National Institutes of Holiness.

Jerry Coyne also makes the point that the tolerance always goes only one way: if the nominee were aggressively atheist…oh, never mind. A person who was as vocal an atheist (or Muslim, or Scientologist, or Hindu) as Collins is a Christian would never even be considered for nomination. The kind of behavior exhibited by Collins on his BioLogos website, if done in service of any other belief than evangelical Christianity, would be a great big waving red flag to anyone vetting the nomination.

As for the rest of Miller’s complaint, it is true: I called Collins a “clown” and a “flaming idjit”. But that’s because I believe in telling the truth.

I did not say those things because Collins is a Christian, but because of the bad science and poor logic he uses in his talks. Those imprecations were inspired by an examination of what he did.

I will repeat what I wrote about the Collins nomination again.

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.

I stand by that still. It’s what I think of the situation.

But notice that nowhere have I or Coyne or Moran or any of the people critical of this choice ever claimed that “Dr. Collins’s sin…is that he is a Christian.” That’s simply a disgraceful lie, one designed to imply false motives and generate an unjustified sympathy for Miller’s choice.