The geneticist has had a distinguished career and for the last dozen years has served as director of the National Institutes of Health, a massive federal agency that does basic research as well as fund the research of scientists in the US. The fact that he has served during three different administrations both Republican and Democrat shows that he has managed to avoid much of the partisan attacks that now routinely target prominent scientists, such as tthose on Anthony Fauci, who is head of one of the agencies that are under the NIH umbrella. Collins has been steadfast in his support of Fauci.
Collins is also an evangelical Christian, a fact that caused many people in the non-religious community to oppose his nomination by George W. Bush to be head of the NIH. But he has won over the skeptics by the way he has handled his tenure, with no evidence that he was driven by his religious beliefs in making scientific decisions.
He also wrote a best-selling book The Language of God where he attempted to reconcile belief in a god with science. I dissected that book in a 11-part (!) series of blogs back in 2009 where I pointed out the many flaws in his argument. But I have always respected Collins as a scientist and I especially admired his steadfast commitment to make freely available to everyone the data that were generated during the sequencing of the human genome, where he was named leader of the federal effort.
Dhruv Khullar interviewed Collins and the latter lamented the loss of trust in science, especially during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, Collins has struggled with a painful paradox: science is more effective and necessary than ever, and also less trusted. Researchers revealed how a novel pathogen spreads, evolves, and kills; they used its genome to create lifesaving vaccines in less than a year. At the same time, politicians and media figures, especially on the right, have undermined pandemic recommendations, maligned public-health leaders, and sown doubt about vaccines. Tucker Carlson, the host of one of the most-watched cable-news shows in America, recently told his viewers that there had been a “complete failure of public-health leadership.” He went on, “These people don’t take it upon themselves to know the data and to say it truthfully, so instead they have inculcated this culture of severe fear.” Tens of millions of people, disproportionately in rural and conservative communities, have chosen not to get immunized against a virus that has killed almost a million Americans. In surveys, only around a third of respondents say that they have high levels of trust in the N.I.H. and the Food and Drug Administration; eight in ten say that Republicans and Democrats disagree on basic facts. “When the history is written of the worst pandemic in a century, the scientific response will be seen as a shining light in the midst of a dark time,” Collins told me. “But science is caught up in a much larger disillusionment with the traditional foundations of how we decide what’s true.”
Today, evangelical Christians have among the lowest levels of trust in science in America, and the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy. As a scientist whose faith is important to him, Collins called the disconnect “heartbreaking.” “I feel responsible somehow that myself and the rest of the scientific community has failed to get the message across,” he told me.
Collins describes his efforts to get the message across by appearing on Fox News.
“I don’t know how much good it does,” Collins told me later. “I’m seen by that particular part of society as a sort of élitist scientist who is probably in cahoots with companies, or God knows what.” After each appearance on Fox News, he receives a barrage of e-mails from viewers. “Sometimes I think these are written by bots,” he said. “I can’t imagine a human being actually sitting at a keyboard and putting these words together—not just about me but about my family. Everything you could imagine, in the vilest kind of language.” … Still, Collins said, he is far more likely to accept an interview request from Fox News than CNN.
Collins’s attitude is practical—there’s no need to persuade people who already agree with you. But it also seems rooted in a Christian sensibility. “My heart goes out to them,” he said, in reference to pandemic skeptics. “They have been misled in a systematic way by voices who claim authority but basically distribute lies. That just says to me I should have more sympathy for people who are on the right. If there’s a group that needs help—and not more accusations and insults—it’s them.”
Khullar sums up his impressions of Collins.
Speaking to Collins, I felt that his openness was more than a strategy. It seemed sincere. I wondered whether his sincerity flowed from the fact that he is genuinely part of the two tribes that he hopes to connect. He speaks both languages, understands both cultures, and feels acutely the rift between them.
There are those who point to the fact that there are excellent scientists like Collins who are also religious as evidence that science and religion are compatible even though that is not a valid inference.
As I said in the first post of my series reviewing the book:
To the extent that one can infer the nature of an author from his writings, Collins comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate, tolerant, and genial man, someone with whom it would be enjoyable to spend some time with discussing deep issues. He seems like someone who is sincerely trying to reconcile his scientific and religious beliefs, and he does not shirk the hard questions though his responses to most of them (as I will discuss in later posts) are contradictory and superficial. But that is unavoidable. Once you have made the decision to try to reconcile science with belief in a personal god, you cannot avoid contradictions because the two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible.
I attended a talk given by Collins at my university just after the completion of the Human Genome Project. In person he matched the impression given in the book. I was impressed by his gentle yet forthright manner and the respectful and clear way he answered questions, including my own.