Francis Collins Should not be Pres. Science Advisor

Matt Nisbet thinks that Francis Collins should be the next presidential science advisor. He does this after rejecting excellent popularizes of science, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and E.O. Wilson, on the following grounds:

Most science popularizers such as Wilson or Tyson don't have the years of government experience to understand the machinations of Federal science policy. Moreover, they have a paper trail of strong opinions on issues that might make appointment politically tough.

I'm not sure what exactly those issues upon which they have strong opinions are. Is it that they're both atheists? If so, they are amongst the least militant/evangelical/fundamentalist/new/[insert favorite pejorative] atheists amongst visible atheist scientists. Heck, Wilson wrote a book reaching out to evangelicals to help with conservation. And Tyson took what I would describe as a fairly moderate position at Beyond Belief in questioning Richard Dawkins' approach in helping the public understand science.

I think it's reasonable to question Wilson's and Tyson's experience in working on the policy side of science, however the science advisor makes no policy decisions. If you think he should have more of a policy role, then it's appropriate to request someone with policy experience. But I don't think the policy experience is as important as experience explaining science to the general public -- Wilson and Tyson are two of the best at that, and there are other options.

Now, assume we say that the science advisor should have policy experience. Does this make Francis Collins a viable candidate? I argue NO. Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The importance of biology in the near future of science is undeniable, so a biologist would be a good choice (as would a chemist or physicist). He is also an Evangelical Christian who has made his beliefs well known in a book and various magazine articles. Nisbet argues that Collins' religious faith would allow him to reach to a large portion of America (i.e., the religious nutjobs that currently takes anti-science positions).

I think Collins has no academic credibility. What I mean by that is that Collins is unqualified for the position he currently holds. This brings into question using his position as head of the NHGRI as support for appointing him to science advisor. The reason Collins is unqualified for his current position is his public displays of ignorance regarding evolutionary biology. This is important in respect to NHGRI because so much of genomics research relies heavily on evolutionary theory.

Here are a few examples of Collins displaying his ignorance:

  • He thinks humans have stopped evolving. The linked post is from June 2006. In the year and half since that post even more evidence has been revealed that goes against Collins' belief.
  • He thinks that the entire human genome is functional, an absolutely absurd idea.
  • He wrote heavily about what he calls "Moral Law" in his book. He believes that current research cannot explain human morality, therefore goddidit. This is a god of the gaps argument. However, in making his argument, he disregarded large swaths of research on the evolution of altruism, thereby artificially increasing the gaps. This is brought up in a review of Collins' book and this Scientific American article (I quoted the relevant part here).

The first two bullets reveal that he does not understand the material covered within the Institute he directs. The third point indicates he's willing to go outside his ken and, without proper research, misrepresent what is known about a particular aspect of biology.

Please note, I'm not arguing against Collins as science advisor because of his religious beliefs. Rather, I'm pointing out that (a) he shouldn't have the position he currently has, and (b) he does not have the appropriate understanding of science expected of a science advisor. Collins allows his non-evidence-based belief system to determine what aspects of our scientific knowledge he is willing to accept (rather than the evidence, as science should be done). This goes beyond what Ken Miller does -- additionally, Miller is a much better popularizer of science than Collins.

So, if you want a science advisor with policy experience, pick someone other than Francis Collins. And don't choose the person because of their religious beliefs (either religious or atheist). Choose him or her because they are a well respected scientist with experience talking about science to non-scientists.

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Well said. Nisbet says some really ridiculous things from time to time, and does NOT represent the so-called science lobby. (just look at the comment replies in his own post!)

As a former evangelical now turned essentially atheist, and someone quite familiar with Collins, your post, and those you link, firmly twist his beliefs. Francis Collins is a class act, and the sort of evangelical Christian that no scientist ever needs to fear. His appointments have always been meritocratic, and to suggest that he does not serve well in his position because, for example, he thinks that all DNA may serve some sort of purpose regardless of whether that purpose is essential is, well, arbitrary and not genuine.

Kent Hovind would be a great science advisor!


Just kidding, of course. The others mentioned would be great, in my opinion. Ken Miller, Tyson, Wilson . . . any of them would work. I just hope our next science advisor is picked on his credentials rather than his religiosity.

Choose him or her because they are a well respected scientist with experience talking about science to non-scientists.

Collins is all that. You may not respect him, but you show no evidence that your opinion is shared by a groundswell of others in the field.

What I've gathered from RPM's post is that Collins isn't just talking about science. He's diluting it with his superstitions. Humans have stopped evolving? Give me a break.

Collins is all that. You may not respect him, but you show no evidence that your opinion is shared by a groundswell of others in the field.

When has he communicated science to non-scientists? In what way exactly is he a popularizer? His book was about religion, and only incidentally about his scientific work - and even then, only to the degree that he could tie the latter to the former, making some 'unusual' assertions along the way.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

When has he communicated science to non-scientists? In what way exactly is he a popularizer?

I have heard that the first half of his book (which I have not read myself) is decent, and is a refutation of intelligent design. It's in the second half where he goes about finding evidence for God in fields in which his own competence is questionable.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

About the only bullet that you mentioned that looks solid is the third one, about the moral law. The other two points are dicier.

On the first bullet, the claim that Collins "argues that man will not evolve further" is from an interviewer's summary, and the quote from Collins in support of it is a bit vague and even a bit noncommittal.

On the second bullet, the closest thing to evidence that you have to offer for the claim that Collins thinks that the entire genome is functional is an article with the quote "A certain amount of hubris was required for anyone to call any part of the genome 'junk.'" Considering that the article was pointing out--even as it defends the term "junk DNA"--that a "huge amount of the action in terms of evolution and function is taking place in what was once considered junk," Collins' words, at least as the article quoted them, aren't so ridiculous.

If you are going to declare so strongly that Collins is unqualified for his current job and doesn't understand evolutionary biology, you ought to bring more solid evidence to the table.

RPM circa June 2006, "... I'm giving Collins the benefit of the doubt and assuming he didn't actually say humans have stopped evolving."

RPM circa January 2008, "He thinks humans have stopped evolving."

At what point did you stop giving him the benefit of the doubt?

It's just one more decision tainted by the Evangelicals. What percentage of the population do they make up, anyway? Does anybody worry about what the rational people think when making these appointments?

Nobody is stating that Collin's isn't a class act, and I'm sure he's in the position that he's attained because he has some decent administrative abilities and rewards those based on merit alone. Yet, because of his personal acceptance of some illogical belief system, he can't be completely taken seriously. I'm sure he's able to compartmentalize his beliefs when he's working, yet, that is not enough. Why does he choose christianity, and not for example, buddhism, or islam as the morally correct path of life? That's because he's been indoctrinated into a virulent meme and cannot remove himself from it.

As for calling Richard Dakwins a misanthrope, that's just fully slanderous. Has that bastard ever read anything he's written about how all human beings are equal, and his support of humanism? We need a broad spectrum to counter the religious, and Richard Dawkins represents the no-nonsense straight shooter. Even Neil Tyson, I'm sure at night dreams of beating a few creationists over the head with a mallet, but won't admit it. As for Hitchens, his neoconservative views need to be shaken up. He's fearing islamic fundamentalists and believes that we must destroy them through force. I think education is the best motivator for change.

By Helioprogenus (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

"Nobody is stating that Collin's isn't a class act, and I'm sure he's in the position that he's attained because he has some decent administrative abilities and rewards those based on merit alone."

He's also a darn good scientist who has made strong contributions to the study of human genetics. I know people who have trained under Collins and they the highest regard for his work, professionalism and ethics.

By Unsympathetic reader (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

Hey, RPM! I posted the following over at Matt Nisbet's place and I'd like to post it here, too, as a disclaimer:

MATT: Whoa!

I appreciate being mentioned on your blog, but if you check my original post, you will see that I was skeptical about the merits of science popularizers, as when I wrote:

"Independent, thoughtful men and women who are career scientists or better-known for science popularization are probably not the best choice, because they will have already said or written things which are impolitic or easily misrepresented....what you need is someone who has achieved in science, but who switched to bureaucracy and who has some understanding of the weight lifting and making nice-nice that gets science funded in the first place."

I went on to mention Francis Collins, who definitely qualifies under the latter description. However, many of my skeptical friends don't know Collins from his actual body of work in gummint, but as an evangelical Christian who makes poor arguments about evolutionary biology. Among such, he no doubt fits the description of someone how has 'written something impolitic or easily misrepresented.' Obviously, I don't agree, Collins would make a reasonably good choice.

But my post didn't single Collins out as the best choice, necessarily, nor did I view his personal faith as especially qualifying him for service. It would be misleading to characterize my post as such, or to identify my views as the same as yours, Matt, and I want to make sure people know that. Thanks for the mention all the same.

While I'm on the topic, I'd like to remark that the PSA's main job should be to advise the President and defend the interests of the scientific community, not explain science to the general public or to advance a particular partisan agenda. I don't know why so many commenting seem to think otherwise.

You may not respect him, but you show no evidence that your opinion is shared by a groundswell of others in the field.