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Our Commentary on Francis Collins

Our commentary on Francis Collins
[ http://www.defendscience.org/ds_commentary16.html ] has created some controversy - more so than any recent thing we have written.  In reading over the responses, some in agreement and expressing concern about the implications of Collins’ appointment, others passionately in opposition to what we wrote, we felt both that there were, in some cases, real disagreements being expressed and also some lack of clarity about what we were actually saying.  And we also feel that there are very important issues for science at stake in this, and so we are sending out this email. 

We feel that we have to apply the same standard - the same underlying principles - to Obama that we did to Bush.  When, as for example in his stem cell policy, Obama utilizes the same underlying Christian fundamentalist moral norms as Bush to set the limits for what the government will fund in terms of stem cell research, we would be derelict if we did not criticize that.  (See our stem cell commentary “Obama's Stem Cell Research Policy: Needed Science Remains Banned and Constrained by Christian Fundamentalist Ideology”
http://www.defendscience.org/ds_commentary15.html )

An important part of the way we criticized the Bush attacks on science was crystallized in the original Defend Science statement, which we will quote again: 
“…one thing the overwhelming majority of scientists have in common is their understanding that, when conducting scientific investigation and applying the scientific method, it is essential to use as a starting point previously accumulated scientific knowledge -- the storehouse of well-established scientific evidence about reality which has previously been arrived at through concrete and systematic scientific observation and experiment and has been subjected to rigorous scientific review and testing. This is what we scientists stand on as our foundation when we set out to further investigate reality and make new discoveries. This is how science has been done and how it has advanced for hundreds of years now, and this has allowed science to benefit humanity in countless ways. "Genuine science never proceeds from, or uses as its starting point, any set of subjective "beliefs," "opinions" or "faith-based edicts" handed down by religious or secular authorities and proclaimed to be beyond human questioning, testing and investigation. To bring into the scientific process assumptions, religious or otherwise, which were not arrived at by scientific methods, and which by definition cannot be tested by scientific methods, would destroy science as science." 

Secondly, the biggest controversy in our last email was over our criticism of the particular way that Obama and also Collins have used a version of “the compatibility of religion and science”.  We were accused by some of arguing that no one who is religious should hold government office; in other responses, we were accused of saying that religion and science are incompatible.  We actually did not argue either of these things, and we did not address philosophical or religious questions in their own right.  What we did argue was that there is actually an attack on science going on under the guise of arguing for the compatibility of religion and science.  We did not say that everyone who believes that religion and science are compatible is attacking science.  We did say that there is a real logic in Collins’ position that he has repeatedly stated which undermines the scientific method and scientific thinking.  He has clearly stated his views repeatedly and in public forums, and we think we accurately portrayed them in our previous email. 

Some expressed disagreement that Collins’ position is in conflict with evolution or that it is a variant of creationism.  They pointed to the fact that he seems to accept evolution and even criticizes some creationists.  There has been much good exposure written in recent years about cruder forms of creationism including: young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism and most recently “intelligent design” but not much about so-called “theistic evolution”.  A key aspect of the ID approach to undermine science is the “god in the gaps” approach.  Applied initially to gaps in the fossil record, it has evolved (pun intended) into a general approach to look for still-open questions of science, declare that these questions cannot be answered by evolutionary theory (or more generally by science) and, in the ID case, hold this up as an indication of evolution being “in crisis”.  Famous examples of this approach have included the evolution of the eye, and the bacterial flagellum – both of which have been shown to be explained entirely by evolutionary theory.

Putting forward “god did it” as the answer to questions about the natural world, whether it is the origins of various biological processes like life and evolution, or how notions of good and evil developed in human societies or as-yet-open questions about the apparently fine-tuned constants involved in current physics and cosmological theories, is anyone’s right – but it is not science.  It is un-testable religious belief.  And injecting it into the science arena from one of the highest positions of science in the federal government – and calling that a way to reconcile science and religion - undermines science.

(It is interesting and somewhat ironic that in his talk at Berkeley, Collins warned people about which unresolved questions of science one could base one’s faith in god upon, and in particular he said he wouldn’t recommend picking the question of the origin of life because in his view, that question may get resolved soon by science.)

Some felt it was positive politically for evolution to have high-level support from Collins, coming from his religious perspective.  To those who raise this argument we must ask what is the reality of this kind of “support”?  We don’t feel that we should be engaged in some kind of bargaining over what basic principles of science and the scientific method we should be willing to give up in exchange for political support.  We do welcome genuine support for science from all quarters – and this does involve many people who will pick and choose what aspects of science they want to uphold.  But the head of the NIH is not just anybody, and there are real consequences from the appointment of Collins that must be confronted.  As we stated in our original letter:
“Placing Collins in the position of authority as Director of NIH will have harmful effects on science itself, and beyond that, will only embolden opponents of science from the Discovery Institute to their many right-wing Christian Fundamentalist backers. They will interpret Collins’ injection of his brand of creationism into the heart of the federal government's medical and health research establishment as an opening to them injecting their brand of anti-scientific poison into the science classroom.”

Some argued that all this is a minor matter, that compared to the assault on science by Bush, what is going on now and what Collins represents does not warrant criticism by Defend Science.  We agree that the frontal assault on scientific thinking and method that took place under Bush is not identical to what is going on today.  But what have we been reduced to if our standard is “better than Bush”?  We do think that there are significant and important dangers to science and the public understanding of science in what is now unfolding under Obama, and we don’t think this is a minor matter.  Obama has yet, so far as we can tell, to say a word (either since becoming president, or during the campaign) to call out and oppose the continuing creationist assault on teaching evolution in the schools.  This is not a neutral position – this is harmful, it encourages the creationists, and it gives no backing to the defenders of evolution.  Many people are confused – in part because Obama has deliberately sought to create an aura of a friend of science, and an upholder of scientific integrity.  It is remarkable that the very same day he announced how much of an upholder of scientific integrity he is, he also set stem cell policy based on Christian fundamentalist norms – and there was very little criticism from the scientific community; in fact in large part this was hailed as a big advance.

In terms of the question of the “compatibility of science and religion” we actually did not try to and do not think it is our job to address this philosophically – we do think that there is, under Obama, an approach with potentially dangerous implications for scientific thinking in society, which is being justified and disguised by the phrase “science and religion are compatible.”  Many people want science and religion to be compatible, for a variety of reasons:  some because they believe in both; some because there is a knotty political/cultural mess that they would prefer to sidestep.  But we think that we have to look at reality and draw conclusions based on that even if they don’t make life easy.

Some raised that Defend Science has served its purpose and no longer has a purpose under Obama.  We think that there is a continued need for there to be a voice which points out the kinds of things that we are addressing in this email – there are important questions that need to get sorted out and Defend Science can play an important part in that process.  We invite both those who agree and those who do not to let us know what you are thinking, and welcome suggestions about what you think we should be addressing.

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