8/6/09

Sam Harris and Francis Collins

I like Sam Harris, I really do. I read his book The End of Faith and loved it. I'd call it a "necessary" book--it needed to be written at the moment in history when it was written. Its rambunctious style makes for entertaining reading. There are lots of good points in there. Read it, if you haven't.

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.

39 comments:

Tom said...

Jean wrote:

"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. And then I have to choke again, because as a philosopher I find his views on the relationship between science and religion naive."

I'm curious about all this choking. Why do you choke on his evangelical Christianity (once because of your atheism and twice because you are Jewish?)? Do you choke on all beliefs you take to be false or is there something particularly distasteful about the beliefs of Christians (qua Christians--and not qua conservative Republican, anti-science stereotypes of Christians)? And what are Collins' views of the relationship between science and religion? I know that he's against so-called "Intelligent Design," but that's about all I know about them.

Finally, you say that Harris will have to "put up" with Collins' appointment and your post makes me think that more or less describes your view as well. But if he in fact has never let his religious convictions get in the way of good science and science education, well, um, what is there to "put up" with? And would you have to "put up" it (in the same sense) had he been a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or believing Jew?

I just read through what I've written and it all sounds like I'm more "put-off" than I feel. So please take it all with a grain of salt and as a genuine request for clarification.

Tom said...

Sorry, but I'm adding this comment just to have responses sent to my gmail account.

amos said...

I sent a previous comment, which did not appear. After reading Tom's comment, I'll say something a bit different. As Jean says, people have an amazing ability to compartimentalize their ideas, to put them in separate airtight boxes, as anyone who has chatted with his super-efficient scientific doctor and learned that his doctor does not apply either rationality or the scientific method outside of his office. That seems part of life, and as long as Collins keeps his boxes separate as he has up to now, according to what Jean says, I don't see the problem and I agree with Tom that there's no question of putting up with him (I don't live in the U.S. for the record), since whether he goes to church, gardens, worships Dionysius or sleeps late on Sunday morning is a private matter. By the way, I echo what Tom says about the blog: isn't there a way for habitual users to click "email follow-up comments" on the first post?

Jean Kazez said...

Tom, I am saying there's no principled basis for objecting to him, so that's the main thing. But why all that gagging?

If you follow the link, you'll find an easily digested set of slides that represent some of Collins's main views. I find these views unreasonable. No need to hammer that out here, but I do. To be appointed to such a prestigious position adds luster to whatever he thinks, and I hate to see unreasonable things given luster. So--that's some of the gagging.

Then there's the gagging that derives from my being Jewish. Evangelical Christians have an uneven history with respect to how they think about and treat Jews. There's one nice thing about the way Collins talks on the slides--he says "For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement." maybe he means "for Christians" (I hope so), but maybe he doesn't.

I think a gag or two is OK, considering that I do look at the world extremely differently. But that's a far cry from what some of my non-believing brethren are up to. Really...I think it's absurd to say Collins shouldn't be made director of the NIH and that's the key thing.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos--Strange. I don't see anything about "email followup." I didn't even know there was such a thing here. I'm puzzled....

Ah. Wait a minute! Now I see that when you look at "preview" you get a chance to be emailed follow up comments.

Had no idea. I don't think I have any control over how that works, but I'll look into it.

amos said...

Tom: You might take a look at the way Jean is treated in these comments by the brotherhood of true atheists, and you'll understand that her stand is courageous. She is now public enemy number 2 (Mooney is number 1). http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notescomment4.php?id=2865&numcomments=24

Jean Kazez said...

Well, I was only lashed briefly over there. I was almost disappointed.

But Tom actually does make me think about my reaction. Tonight I'm going to watch Jonathan Demme's movie about Jimmy Carter. I'm a huge fan. Obviously, his religion makes no difference at all to me. So why does Collins bother me? I am still thinking about it.

Tom said...

Amos and Jean: thanks for your responses. I have to say that the discussion at "Living Colors" is the most civil and reasonable of any blog I've ever visited. Y'all are to be commended. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful replies to my posts.

Ophelia Benson said...

"To be appointed to such a prestigious position adds luster to whatever he thinks, and I hate to see unreasonable things given luster."

I was going to say something like that, so I'll just point to that and save myself the trouble.

I think that could be considered a reasonable objection to the appointment - but I'm not very sure about it.

Partly it depends whether the job is purely administrative or partly as it were ambassadorial. If he's supposed to do outreach as part of the job, and the outreach is evangelical - that would be dubious, I think.

It might surprise you to know that Jerry Coyne told me he thought people shouldn't fuss about the appointment but give him a chance. (I think that was before the slide show started circulating though.)

amos, you spend too much time trying to stir up trouble.

amos said...

Ophelia: Since you thrive on trouble, maybe you could pay me a commission.

Jean Kazez said...

Would it shock you all if I said I take a certain amount of pleasure in trouble? It's when it gets above a certain level that I literally get a headache. I like the intense focus that's involved in being under attack, and having to do your best thinking to get yourself out of it. The one thing I wish is that other topics I discuss on this blog would get that sort of scrutiny. I'd love to be attacked for that "half vegan" post, for example. A certain sort of person would think it was morally appalling, and sadly enough, they're not here to contend with.

amos said...

O.K. The next time you say something that I can attack in good conscience (and no one else attacks), even if I don't fully believe what I'm saying, I'll attack it. That is, I would find it hard to defend something I consider to be evil, but there are lots of things that I don't believe in, but don't necessarily consider to be evil. I also confess that many times I take the politically correct position, and I could just as well take the non-politically correct one. So I promise to produce more trouble in the future.

Ophelia Benson said...

It wouldn't shock me but it would surprise me a little! But you do always say you like confrontation in real life. I sort of don't take it in properly because it doesn't seem to square with the other stuff.

Obviously I like trouble, of certain kinds. The whiff of gunpowder...

I suppose I could try to be more peaceable once in awhile - but it probably wouldn't fool anyone.

Never mind, I'll exercise my wrath on Helen Ukpabio for awhile. Now she deserves it.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, well I am possibly a mass of contradictions--I like debate and irreverence, but don't want to totally disconnect with anyone. So, there you go. Yes, just a whiff of gunpowder, but not more than that.

Now I'm going to have to google "Helen Ukpablo."

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, I just lied. I do disconnect with people with The Wrong Politics. I have my limits.

And now I will go watch a movie about my hero Jimmy Carter... a guy with the right politics.

amos said...

Almost everyone likes a little trouble, as long as they end up winning and as long as the loser recognizes his defeat politely and with a smile. Strange as it may seem here, after all our troubles, we end up friends or at least without rancour (thank you, Rabbi Amos), which is an index of shared spiritual maturity. Enjoy your next battle, Ophelia. My best to you.

Faust said...

Well I've read both those articles now and I have to say that Sam seems particularly restrained in those pieces.

He say says for example "one can only hope" that Collins does not, as you say "mix boxes" in his time as the director of the NIH.

But one DOES hope that no?

He says "this appointment makes me uncomfortable" but not an outright "this appointment should not have been made" or "Francis Collins should step down."

So while there is some stuff I might like to pick at in there, or to unpack more fully, I'm not sure that he's doing much more than holding his nose here. He's just holding his nose Very Loudly. But there is nothing wrong with that.

I do agree that the paragraph about the goal being to value the principles of reason itself is instructive.

Jean Kazez said...

From the NYT editorial--

"Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?"

Isn't that just a more artful way of saying "I object to Francis Collins becoming director of the NIH"?

amos said...

Is a scientific understanding of human nature possible? I doubt it. Science can point out certain constants in human beings, but humans are a creative species, with a capacity for invention and imagination and perversity that transcends science.

Jean Kazez said...

Whatever the final truth may be about evolution and morality, I would not want someone directing an evolutionary psychology program who had already made up their mind that evolution can't explain morality (that's what Collins thinks). But I see no evidence that in his role at the National Institutes of Health he'd have either the power or the inclination to limit that sort of research.

Ophelia Benson said...

'Isn't that just a more artful way of saying "I object to Francis Collins becoming director of the NIH"?'

But we're supposed to read charitably!

:-)

But seriously - yes but. Yes he is saying he objects but he is also being careful to say it carefully.

I'm not terribly invested in this (yet anyway) but I do think there are good reasons to object/worry. If for instance his increased clout gives more clout to BioLogos and thus Templeton (which funds BioLogos) - that would be unfortunate. It shades into the state privileging a religion.

Notice how carefully I word it.

Faust said...

"Isn't that just a more artful way of saying "I object to Francis Collins becoming director of the NIH"?"

In the same sense that M&Ks civility post is an "artful way of telling Coyne to `shut up'"

So no. And if one wants to read it that way...yes. That's the thing about this stuff. We are interpreting meaning, and ascribing motivations and intent.

I choose to read M&K in that very specific post on civility (yes I'm aware it fits into a "pattern of behavior") as saying: "We think that Jerry Coyne's commentary will not be productive in increasing scientific literacy because it will cause people to close their minds to science. This will cause stagnation or regression not progress on the public education front."

And I see Sam saying "I am uncomfortable about Collin's appointment because it sends a signal that we are willing to tolerate (read: value) highly irrational thought processes in an individual that has been assigned to a position where scientific rationality is critical. This is regression and/or stagnation not progress."

I see both statements as being normative in similar ways. Now one can say that M&K are dead wrong about their thoughts on strategy and they are causing regression/stagnation by enabling people like Collins, but I don't don't find it anymore plausible that they are telling Coyne to shut up than Sam is telling Obama to "make collins step down" or some similar recommendation except in the general sense that when one disagrees with something, one wants people to behave in a different fashion. But if that constitutes "shut up/step down" then all argument is a form of "shut up/step down" since argument is the primary way, outside of violence, that we aim to change other peoples behavior.

Which is why I find the "shut up" argument silly. In fact I wish people would shut up about it.

Jean Kazez said...

Not trying to be ornery, but I honestly did think Harris was objecting, and not just expressing discomfort or making general points about religion and science. He was saying that Collins is a bad choice for director of the NIH. I should think Sam Harris would be happy with my interpretation. If not, I'll gladly stand corrected.

M&K's remarks about Coyne's New Republic article are only humorously lampooned as telling Coyne to "shut up". That's a rude and abusive phrase. If you go back and look into it, they were not the least bit rude and abusive to him, but only took the position that his NR article was strategically advised. Yes, they think he shouldn't be so vociferously arguing for the incompatibility of science and religion, no they didn't tell him to shut-up.

Jean Kazez said...

Correction: strategically ill-advised.

Faust said...

Well I guess I would want to compare the statements as follows:

M&K: Coyne made a bad choice in reviewing those two books the way he did. (NOT he shouldn't have reviwed those two books)

Harris: The appointment of Collins to head NIH is a bad choice. (NOT he shouldn't have been made NIH)

Of course when I put it that way, I can actually see how one could toggle either one to the meaning one prefers.

Jean Kazez said...

When Harris wrote that NYT editorial (July 26) Collins had not yet been confirmed as director of the NIH. Collins was just now confirmed (today). So I never thought of this editorial as anything but a statement about whether or not he should be confirmed.

Ophelia Benson said...

"That's the thing about this stuff. We are interpreting meaning, and ascribing motivations and intent."

Yeah. Spot-on.

"Yes, they think he shouldn't be so vociferously arguing for the incompatibility of science and religion, no they didn't tell him to shut-up."

See, the rhetoric creeps in again - as we interpret meaning and ascribe motivations and intent. It's odd to describe a review-article in The New Republic as "so vociferously arguing" - and that kind of thing is why some of us perhaps over-interpret what M&K said. No they didn't tell him to shut up, but yes saying he shouldn't have written that review-article seems to some of us like a very strange (and repressive, self-censorship-favoring) claim. It's the strangeness that prompts the over-interpretation - or the misrepresentation, if you like. (I charge other people with that, so maybe I should cop to it here.)

Jean Kazez said...

Let's just put Harris aside, because honestly I think I've got him right, and can't see reading him differently unless I actually see him some place saying he wasn't really objecting to Collins's appointment.

About the "shut up" thing. When I read that M&K had said that, I thought -- wow, how rude, how censorious. So I got a certain negative impression of them. But when I dug into it, I did not find it verified.

I went and read the NR article and discovered it was not just a review. It's 10,000 words long! It includes a very long philosophical argument that religion and science are incompatible. So--"vociferously" is short for "lots of words, lots of arguments, lots of certainty."

What M&K said in response is--if you argue that long and hard for that conclusion, well, what's going to happen? Maybe you'll convince people. And then you're going to have people trying to keep their kids from learning any science, like right now some people try to keep their kids from learning creationism. Is that really wise?

That's a interesting question, and it just gets obscured when M&K are accused of being censorious.

I'm a little worried about Faust talking about toggling as one prefers, because there's a truth about what people mean. It's not just up to us to creatively interpret.

Faust said...

Well I'm out of time to discuss this today so I'll offer one parting shot (interesting stuff).

I suggested one way to read Harris is to see him as saying:

(P) The appointment of Collins to head NIH is a bad choice.

So on this view your response is really "I don't think Harris has given sufficient grounds to view Collins appointment as bad because he hasn't shown that all the silly stuff in his 'personal beliefs' box is going to infect and corrupt the stuff in his 'administration' and 'science' boxes."

Which is to say, he hasn't given sufficient reason for viewing Collins as a bad choice. But if that's the case then I assume you don't think he should even be holding his nose. Maybe this takes us to your reflections on Carter, and the fact that you don't have a problem with him and the stuff in that vicinity.

Ophelia Benson said...

"So--"vociferously" is short for "lots of words, lots of arguments, lots of certainty.""

Well - I'll take your word for it that's how you meant it, but it's not a good shortcut for that, because it is a pejorative. It's like "strident." It coveys the message that Coyne was doing something illegitimate by writing such an article in such a magazine.

"What M&K said in response is--if you argue that long and hard for that conclusion, well, what's going to happen? Maybe you'll convince people. And then you're going to have people trying to keep their kids from learning any science, like right now some people try to keep their kids from learning creationism. Is that really wise?"

Really? They did? Where?

Sure; obviously that's a paraphrase; but from what I remember, it's a much too generous paraphrase - it's more polite and clearer and more argued than anything Mooney said. (It was Mooney rather than both of them who said anything about this, I'm pretty sure.)

"That's a interesting question, and it just gets obscured when M&K are accused of being censorious."

Hmm. It might be a somewhat interesting question - but it's also a somewhat dangerous one, and an impertinent one. If we can't try to explain the world using our best evidence and reasons by writing articles in magazines like TNR - well then we can't do much. Isn't that obvious? Isn't it obvious why a lot of people - including me - don't want to have to decide what they can write according to what might put off religious believers?

Jean Kazez said...

The word "vociferous" was benign. I just thought it mean "lots of voice"--talking a lot. I guess not.

The point is that Coyne's TNR review is much more than a review. It's an energetic attempt to convince a wide readership that religion and science are incompatible. I think Mooney is saying that's unwise.

There are many posts by Mooney from June where he argues it's unwise for two reasons: (1) He thinks Coyne is actually wrong about compatiblity. He bases that mostly on Rob Pennock's book. (2) He thinks even if Coyne were right, arguing this is strategically unwise. He bases that mainly on how the Dover case worked--it was a pivotal part of the judge's ruling that evolution is compatible with religion.

I think there are issues like this all over the place--they're basically about truth vs. consequences. Ideally, everybody should go around telling the truth as they see it. But some truths are dangerous. If it's really true that you cannot consistently buy both religion and science, that's a dangerous truth. Dangerous, in the sense that it would probably scare a lot of people away from science.

Well at least until they came around to wanting to build bridges and cure cancer...at that point they'd come back. But maybe it would slow things down, make people reluctant to send their kids into science careers. Stuff like that.

Jean Kazez said...

By the way, there are lots of truths you might worry about spreading around. I happen to think (regrettably) that there's no free will. I don't think it would be such a good idea to shout that from the roof tops.

Ophelia Benson said...

Some truths are dangerous, that's (er) true. And that I do think is an interesting question. This particular instantiation of it, not so much.

Philip Kitcher argues in (I think) Vaulting Ambition that really dangerous truths should require an extra amount of evidence before they're made public. But he argues it a lot more carefully than Mooney argues what he does, and it's a different claim.

But Mooney's claim is much too uncertain to work as a reason to stop writing articles for magazines. Nobody knows exactly what the effects would be on what number of people - no effect, the effect Mooney predicts, much fainter versions of that, the opposite effect, fainter versions of that - lots of different effects are possible and even likely. It seems to me supremely illiberal to start by assuming that one knows exactly what effect a particular magazine article will have and then urge people to stop writing articles of that kind based on that assumption. Lots of kinds of writing could have various dangerous effects - but liberal thinkers mostly don't chide people for writing things that could have various dangerous effects.

I think the world would be poorer without that article. I don't think people should be discouraged from writing articles like that. I think the whole idea of trying to discourage people from writing articles like that is...obnoxious, interfering, intrusive. I think one needs a much much much better reason than Mooney had to make the attempt.

Writing articles - phooey - I'm supposed to write one by Monday and I'm as blocked as a drainpipe! I wish someone would tell me I mustn't write this article...

Ophelia Benson said...

PS - free will - you don't think it would be such a good idea to shout that from the roof tops - but if TNR invited you to review a book on the subject, would you decline? Or if you accepted would you say you did think there's such a thing as free will? Or if you did say that - would you feel differently about deciding that for yourself (despite determinism of course) and being urged to do so by Chris Mooney?

Jean Kazez said...

I think most academics and especially "public intellectuals" like Coyne really do want to "do good" in the world. Especially when writing for a magazine like TNR, they're hoping for "trickle down." Somehow, somewhere, this is going to make a difference for the better (they hope).

For example, I knew Rob Pennock way back when...he was just doing philosophy of science at UT Austin. And then he went on to write his book, and then lo and behold there he is testifying at Dover. So--a very happy outcome. The hope of doing good materialized in a very big way.

So the question is whether the TNR article passes this "doing good" test. This is a matter of conscience for Jerry Coyne, obviously not an issue of censorship or anything.

So--does it pass the "doing good" test? Or at least the "don't do bad" test? There's an interesting thing he says in there about how what really conflicts is faith and "secular reason." Science is only one part of secular reason. He really never says that evolution (narrowly speaking) is incompatible with faith.

If I were him, I think I would have been more emphatic about that, to help the folks in the frontlines who are trying to get the committedly faithful to accept the teaching of evolution. There's no reason they can't. Their faith is incompatible with "secular reason" (in the larger sense), not with evolution.

So...yes, if I'm writing in a public place,I try to be sensitive to questions of impact. The further upstream you are from the public (like in an academic journal or seminar room), the less it makes sense to worry about that.

OK--that was too long. I'm not really trying to answer the question, just saying Mooney isn't a bad guy just cause he's raising it.

Ophelia Benson said...

"So--does it pass the "doing good" test? Or at least the "don't do bad" test?"

But there are competing goods here. That's the crux of the issue. Mooney thinks it's completely obvious that his version of the good is the only one. His critics strongly disagree. The putative good of not alienating believers competes with the good of, for instance, trying to get at the truth of the matter, trying to explain things clearly, trying not to compromise on matters of truth, and so on. It's just not obvious that there's one and only one self-evident good and that Mooney knows how to get it and Coyne doesn't.

Jean Kazez said...

In the abstract I do see your point about competing goods. But Mooney clearly wants more people to accept evolution, and I have to think Coyne does too, considering that he just published a "for the masses" book about it! On that as a very important good they agree.

I think maybe Coyne just wants to go after the bigger fish--getting people to give up faith, which he think they have to do to accept all of "secular reason." Whereas Mooney just wants specific scientific theories accepted--and doesn't care about all of secular reason. As the author of "The Republican War on Science" I think he has more short-range policy concerns.

But anyhow. To hell with what they think. The two of them should be studying our ideas, not us studying theirs. I actually have a section about truth and how it matters in my first book (and I know you have one in your book). This is one reason why the "truth or consequences" topic always attracts me.

Ophelia Benson said...

"The two of them should be studying our ideas, not us studying theirs."

Yeah!

:- )

Faust said...

"Their faith is incompatible with "secular reason" (in the larger sense), not with evolution."

This is pretty key. And it connects to Sam's comments about Collins as well. There does seem to be a jump from "science" which is really a method to "secular reason" which also has method, but which is much harder to pin down in the same way as science. And there's even more disagreement about what "secular reason" is than "science" is.