Friday, July 10, 2009


Peter Principle

Are we supposed to take Jerry Coyne seriously?

I understand that he is a great scientist but what are we to make of his primitive philosophy and un-self-aware and contradictory statements on science, religion and atheism? Quite apart from the embarrassment of having Martin Cothran at the Discovery Institute Ministry of Misinformation pointing out his philosophical errors, now there is this on the appointment of Francis Collins:

I expect Collins to resign from BioLogos if he wants to maintain any scientific credibility. Yes, the guy has every right to believe what he wants, but a director of the nation's most prestigious research foundation has to have some standards, and BioLogos is beyond the pale. Mixing science with faith as it does, it gives people the wrong view of what science is all about and gives his official imprimatur to essentially private beliefs. Certainly, private expressions of faith are absolutely fine, but Collins has chosen to make his views public, and discuss their relationship to science.

Um ... this is from the same man who complains bitterly about Chris Mooney, who supposedly "wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it's strategically bad."

Sometimes all you can do is shake your head.


P.S. While I think Coyne's take here is hopelessly muddled, that is not to say that there are no valid criticisms of Collins. These by PZ Myers are very pointed:

He's a big-science guy, who headed the National Human Genome Research Institute. I have some concern that he has a mindset that may not promote the diversity of scientific research — he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which is valuable and does churn out lots of data, but I've often found exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology. I'd have liked to have seen a leader with more breadth: someone with an appreciation of systems biology, or environmental biology, and a little less shackled to the purely biomedical side.

He doesn't understand evolution. He has said that he thinks humans are no longer evolving, that junk DNA is functional, and he can't understand how altruism could have evolved. RPM summarized these deficiencies well. I know he argues well against the specifics of intelligent design, but ultimately, he's following the same gods-of-the-gaps formula that the Discovery Institute does ...
I don't think Collins follows the DI's argument in claiming that, because we don't understand something, therefore God must have done it, except perhaps in the case of the "moral sense" of humans, but it is something of a valid concern.
This is a big one for me: he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity, entirely inappropriately. We already saw this in the announcement of the completion of the draft of the human genome project, where he actually brags about getting Clinton to include religious language in his speech, and where he himself made claims about the DNA sequence being "the language of god".
I'm more sangine about such pious platitutes as "language of God," "the God Particle" and statements by even atheist scientists to the effect that finding fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background is like "looking at God" but Collins' deliberate attempts to co-opt government-funded scientific discovery to religious ends is a justifiable objection.


My position is the same as Coyne's. I don't think Francis Collins should be Director of NIH because he is a public advocate of a certain position on the compatibility of science and religion.

I think that public scientific organizations should be officially neutral concerning religion.

I would also oppose the nomination of PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins.

What's the problem?
I notice that you give no reason (other than your personal opinion/bias?) that having a known view on the the compatibility of science and religion should bar people from public office. Certainly, that goes far beyond merely having the NIH not take an official position on the issue (a position that I in no way grant that you have made an airtight case for). Assuming you can come up with one, there is no logical reason to limit that bar to just the head of the NIH. Any scientist associated with it or taking grant money from the NIH (as Coyne does) would have to be barred from taking any public position on religion in that case on pain of losing that office or funding. Then we have to decide what "neutrality concerning religion" means. Is anyone associated with the NIH barred from advocating for stem-cell research, since many, if not most, religions are opposed to it? Same with birth control and abortion availability?

The only people eligible for public office or grant money under your formulation would be those so indifferent to science in society that it hardly seems like they would be good candidates.

We actually have considerable experience with such questions in the area of partisan politics. When people go to work for government agencies they are not prohibited from pursuing their rights to engage in public debate or political activities -- even those that may indirectly affect their agency or work. They are only required to separate their activities from their official functions. If some issue before the NIH somehow turned on whether science and religion were compatible (a situation I cannot envision, since Collins has never said that compatibility means that religion gets to dictate to science) then he might have to recuse himself but not before ... any more than if he was a Republican and you thought Republicans are public advocates of a certain position you don't like.

Of course, your position is not the one Coyne advocates. He would debar Collins because "Collins has chosen to make his [private expressions of faith] public, and discuss their relationship to science," which, of course, is exactly what Coyne has done and has bristled at being told to moderate his views for strategic reasons. But if he is successful in getting more and more scientists to come out in favor of the incompatibility of science and religion, he would also be barring more and more scientists from participation in and funding from public agencies under your formulation. Given your recent complaints about Canadian funding, I doubt that is what you or Coyne intend.

Coyne's statement remains muddled thinking and, I'm afraid, your attempts to rescue it do not do much to help.
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