But Sam, I'm afraid, is slipping. His diatribe against Francis Collins here (and earlier here) is badly reasoned. Now, I get it that he doesn't like to see Francis Collins being appointed director of the National Institutes of Health. I don't really like to see it either, because even though Collins ran the Genome Project and has a great reputation as a scientist and science administrator, he writes books that promote evangelical Christianity. As a non-believing Jew, I find myself choking on that twice (once for being non-believing and once for being Jewish). And then I have to choke again, because as a philosopher I find his views on the relationship between science and religion naive. But all that choking won't do as a reason to object to his appointment. The only valid objection would be that Collins's religious and philosophical ideas are going to prevent him from doing a good job of running the NIH. If you can't show that, then you just have to hope it comes to light that he pays his housekeeper under the table, or accept the appointment with dignity.
It's fair to say that Francis Collins has lots of different stuff going on in his head. So to speak, there's a science box, a religion box, and a philosophy box (where he thinks about the relationship between the religion and science boxes). What Harris demonstrates (at great length, and to my satisfaction) is that there's some very unreasonable stuff in the religion box and in the philosophy box. But where's the argument that the tainted boxes are going to affect the goings on in the science box? That's what he needs to argue, in order to have a principled objection to Collins's appointment. It is not at all self-evident.
The case for this seems to be limited to two sentences, which Sam is evidently proud of, since they occur both in his New York Times editorial and in the longer essay:
It can be difficult to think like a scientist (even, we have begun to see, if one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.But this is exactly what he hasn't substantiated. He has done nothing to show that there's anything wrong with what goes on in Collins's science box. In fact, everything we know about Collins suggests there's nothing at all wrong. Remember: head of the Genome Project. Eminently respectable scientist. Collins is actually obvious evidence against the two sentences. As much as might be going wrong in Collins's philosophy and religion boxes, there's no impact at all on his science box!
Now, I suspect what Sam might say here is that all the boxes count. We really don't want people running the NIH who are not all around good reasoners. That's what I gather from his response to a paragraph he quotes from Unscientific America, the new and controversial book from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. They assume that the goal of science education is to improve science literacy. But no. Sam says they are confused.
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.So--science educators and administrators ought to be promoting "right reason," not just science.
But I don't buy that. I think the head of the National Institutes of Health ought to be doing stuff like finding the cure for cancer. I think science educators have to be interested first and foremost in instilling the scientific knowledge that people need to possess, in order to support policies that are in the public interest. It can't be first priority to stomp out faith and make everyone a great critical thinker. There are a lot of problems with that vision, but one is simply that it would take too long. We need the cure for cancer and the response to global warming now--today.
Here's what makes Sam's essay really odd. He's complaining about Barack Obama appointing Francis Collins, for the reason that Collins has that unreasonable stuff going on in his religion and philosophy boxes. But wait. So does Obama! And so do most of the people running our government. Most of them are not writing books laying out their religious and philosophical views, but they have such views. And it's not grounds for keeping them all out of government...is it?
Take Jimmy Carter, for example. As a Baptist pastor, he has religious and philosophical ideas that are bound to seem totally unreasonable to Harris. Yet they're doing no damage. Carter does not sit around in church praying for peace and waiting for God to intervene. He travels around the world doing the work of making peace. And Obama himself professes to have found God as a young man (like Collins), but there's no sign this impairs his performance in office.
So. Sam Harris needs to show how Collins's religious and philosophical ideas interfere with the way he does science. If he can't do that, then he just has to hold his nose and put up with the appointment.