Sam Harris already published a much-discussed op-ed in The New York Times about why Francis Collins is a bad choice to head the National Institutes of Health.
Yesterday, he published a longer version of that piece on his website — it’s a much more pointed, in-depth explanation of why Collins shouldn’t be offered this job.
Here are just a couple excerpts:
Is it really so difficult to perceive a conflict between Collins’ science and his religion? Just imagine how scientific it would seem if Collins, as a devout Hindu, informed his audience that Lord Brahma had created the universe and now sleeps; Lord Vishnu sustains it and tinkers with our DNA (in way that respects the law of karma and rebirth); and Lord Shiva will eventually destroy it in a great conflagration.
Some readers will consider any criticism of Collins’ views to be an overt expression of “intolerance.” Indeed, when I published an abbreviated version of this essay in the New York Times, this is precisely the kind of negative response I received. For instance, the biologist Kenneth Miller claimed in a letter to the Times that my view was purely the product of my own “deeply held prejudices against religion” and that I opposed Collins merely because “he is a Christian.” Writing in the Guardian, Andrew Brown called my criticism of Collins a “fantastically illiberal and embryonically totalitarian position that goes against every possible notion of human rights and even the American constitution.” Miller and Brown seem to think that bad ideas and disordered thinking should not be challenged as long as they are associated with a mainstream religion and that to do so is synonymous with bigotry. They are not alone.
And there is also the not-so-surprising criticism of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s claim that the New Atheists hurt the cause of science with their rhetoric.
The first thing to notice is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself — conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.
After reading all this, it’s easy to demonize Collins.
No doubt he’ll get the NIH appointment. And no doubt the people who need to read Harris’ piece won’t read it at all.
I think we have a better chance of making our case against Collins if we go after him if and when he uses his faith as motivation to give/deny grant money. I hope it doesn’t come to that.