Thursday, 6 August 2009

Is Collins Bad for the Health of the U.S.?

Francis Collins is shortly to be confirmed as the new leader of the US National Institutes of Health. Sam Harris has written an excellent analysis of the appointment.

The concern for me is the candidate's *qualifications* for the job on offer. On the whole, Collins (despite reservations about his previous jobs) would seem to be reasonably well qualified. What casts doubt on his *qualifications* is his explicit *scientific* pronouncements; driven, no doubt, by his religious beliefs. But I don't think people would have been as worried by, for example, Kenneth Miller, as a candidate, so it's not the fact of the religious beliefs *per se* that are at issue.

If Collins was a scientologist, with correspondingly odd ideas about *science*, I would be equally concerned (I should add that being concerned and questioning someone's qualifications is *not* the equivalent of wanting to ban someone from public office). If he were a keen astrologer, I would be equally concerned. If he were a keen homeopath, I would be even more concerned. If he were a keen chiropractor, I would be even more concerned.

So I can imagine a range of concerns depending on the candidate. What many have said is effectively this: if it can be shown that the opinions of the candidate that cause concern, when considering their qualifications, are somehow related to the candidate's religious beliefs, then they are *disallowed* as a cause for concern. Now this may be a matter of fact in the US, because of the Constitution. Fair enough, that may have to be accepted, but I don't think that should stop right-thinking people expressing their doubts about the candidate. It also doesn't stop it from being illogical. If Collins had said:
The universe was created 13.7 billion years ago when it was hatched from the egg of an enormous platypus.
instead of:
Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.
He could be disqualified by the first sentiment but not the second, because it attaches to a religious belief. This is, indeed, the strange case of Francis Collins!


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