Obama’s latest appointment has enraged the new atheists in the US scientific community. Plus, Jupiter unexpectedly suffers a direct hitby Philip Ball / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
THE CLASH OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION
The praise for President Obama’s scientific appointments is faltering. His nomination of “media doctor” Sanjay Gupta of CNN for surgeon general (the foremost spokesperson on US public health) was considered by many to be a lightweight choice. In the event Gupta declined, and Obama’s new nominee, Alabama community physician Regina Benjamin, has raised no eyebrows.
But the nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, which co-ordinates most US biomedical research, is more controversial. Collins is a former leader of the Human Genome Project, he has a track record of large-scale management, and commands respect from peers by remaining scientifically active rather than becoming a pen-pushing administrator. MIT geneticist Eric Lander has called it “a superb choice,” while others praise Collins as a “scientist’s scientist.”
So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, Collins’s 2006 book The Language of God. He is outspoken, even evangelical, about his Christian faith. That might not have been a problem if Collins had not appeared to equivocate about “old-time religion”issues such as the interpretation of the Fall and the possibility of divine intervention in evolution. Some scientists are troubled by what you can find on such issues on the website of the BioLogos Foundation, established by Collins to reconcile science and religion.
Collins will step down from BioLogos before taking up his new role, and some of his colleagues offer reassurances that they have never seen his scientific judgement clouded by his religious beliefs. But with the religious opposition to stem-cell science in researchers’ minds, this may not be enough to dispel concern. Collins has become a hate figure among the “new atheist” scientists seeking to combat the religiosity of American life.
Biologist PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota, whose Pharyngula blog is a flagship of new atheism, calls BioLogos “an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly Christian apologetics” and worries that Collins “will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity.” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls him “an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs.”
But Myers also offers what might be a more compelling reason to question Collins’s appointment: “He represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which… I’ve often found exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology.” He’s not alone in fearing that Collins’s enthusiasm for “big science,” such as cataloguing genomes, will leach funding from…